Early into 2020, Tijuana chef Mario Peralta saw studies predicting a great year for restaurants in the city. The homegrown culinary figure expanded his signature restaurant, Los Compas, to more than double his floor plan and opened a street taqueria, El Koshy, hoping to make the most of the favorable forecast.
A couple months into the new year, Los Compas was booming, with at-capacity crowds on weekends. Meanwhile, El Koshy was starting to take off, developing a healthy cash flow. But as the novel coronavirus began to spread across the United States, eventually crossing the Tijuana-San Diego border, business at local restaurants came to a quick halt.
“After the first three months of the year, we were all so excited because sales were rising, and then business dropped 80 percent overnight,” Peralta recalls. “We made the tough decision to close Los Compas for a period due to the virus.”
Peralta is not alone: The entire city’s restaurant business has been affected by the global pandemic. According to numbers from Tijuana’s Chamber of Restaurants and Food Vendors (CANIRAC), there are over 5,000 registered food establishments in Tijuana, with an estimated workforce of 200,000 people.
Baja California recorded its first case of the virus on March 17 in Mexicali. Tijuana’s first case was reported days later. The cases were linked to cross-border travel.
The Baja California State Health Department took preventive action on March 24, with measures similar to the ones announced by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 12, which ordered nonessential business closures. Unlike its neighboring state to the north, dine-in service was still allowed in Baja California as long as all parties observed a two-meter social distance. However, all on-site restaurant operations were temporarily ended shortly after.
With steady costs and falling margins, efficiency has become a must for Tijuana’s restaurateurs.
Chef Nancy Leon heads Chan’s Bistro, a contemporary Chinese restaurant in the Colonia Cacho neighborhood. She temporarily closed her restaurant out of concern for her staff and family members with compromised immune systems. During this pause, she thought about how to make her operations more efficient, from working with reduced personnel and hours to streamlining customer service.
“I had to make things like phone ordering easier, more efficient, so people can order take out more often,” she says. “You still have people driving here and walking up, so I have menus for them to see outside of the restaurant so they can still place an order.”
The search for efficiency also led Leon to offer a customized rice bowl meal via smartphone app. This item, she said, is more affordable than most menu items and can be ordered in seconds. “You need to offer options and flexibility to people to stay in business, and because people also want affordable meals, and that is what I’m creating,” she says.
Now that dining has resumed in Baja California, at 30 percent capacity per state mandate, Leon is still figuring out the formula to keep her business running. “With full expenses and a small capacity,” she says, “you need to figure out how to move everything around to keep the lights on.”
During the period in which takeout service was his only outlet, Peralta felt his culinary style was cramped. He received complaints from regulars and first-time customers whose meals were cold or were shaken up after the car trip to their destination. His meticulously plated dishes, he shares, are meant to be enjoyed seconds after leaving the kitchen, when they’re still hot and intact.
“We began to offer dishes which would not get messed up in a car and could remain warm longer, like a torta de chilaquiles, but those new plates were ultimately not what we wanted to do with Los Compas,” Peralta says.
Restrictions on cross-border travel have severely impacted Tijuana’s restaurateurs, as tourism is the second-largest economic activity in town and heavily reliant on visitors from California. International traffic regulations came into effect on March 21, with Customs and Border Enforcement and Mexican Government officials reaching an agreement to restrict nonessential travel to slow the spread of the virus. While American authorities took a more aggressive approach, California had a much higher rate of infection compared to Baja at the time.
As Peralta shares, cross-border travel to Tijuana’s restaurants can make up to 50 percent of a restaurant’s income. But as dine-in service has resumed, he has spotted some former regulars from the U.S. visiting his eatery, easing his recovery process. “It’s a good indicator,” he says.
Where many restaurants have been forced to navigate the ups and downs of the ongoing pandemic, other restaurateurs have chosen to go back to the drawing board to recenter their vision.
Neto Jimenez is the main partner in Central, a downtown bar and restaurant. Business at his Avenida Revolucion hot spot dropped dramatically before any restrictions went into place. Having kept an eye on the pandemic and its effects north of the border, he chose to shut down completely two weeks before dining was ordered to cease in Baja California.
The halt in service was a chance to return to the mixology-oriented concept he had originally aimed for. In its previous iteration as Estacion Central, the eatery offered lunch, dinner, deli sandwiches, and fresh salads to go. The wide scope meant the bar was sometimes treated as an afterthought. “We wanted to be the go-to place for mixology, not just on Revolucion but all of Tijuana, and after some time off we are returning to that,” Jimenez says.
When Central reopened on July 16, Jimenez capitalized on the reduced capacity by spacing out seating to give the space a more intimate feel. In order to keep things simple, the current menu focuses on charcuterie and shareable plates.
During Central’s break, head bartender Abraham Castro designed new drinks to be paired with incoming chef Janina Garay’s menu. Garay, a Tijuana native who previously cooked at the Michelin-starred Addison, operated Central’s kitchen for her Canella bakery pop-ups during the bar’s inactive period.
Jimenez feels good about reopening his doors and seeing customers enjoy themselves. But, like his peers, he remains wary of any possible challenges the pandemic might bring along.
“We’re going above and beyond all safety regulations, but in the end we can only hope for the best,” he says.