McALLEN — On a normal day, Koko’s Uptown Cafe here on 10th Street would be at capacity with the lunch rush. Now, the dining area is empty, save for a handful of masked and gloved workers.
But all is not quiet.
The stillness of the dining area is interrupted by shouts of orders and clanging of pans from behind the double doors of the kitchen, where workers hustle to prepare to-go meals for hungry customers.
Brothers Albert and Jorge Suarez have owned and operated the restaurant since its establishment in 1990.
While orders to close certain businesses and for residents to stay at home to help prevent further spread of COVID-19 created an unprecedented struggle for eateries across the country to stay open, the Suarez brothers have decided to adapt.
“It’s been tough. Everybody’s scared,” Albert said on Thursday afternoon. “When all this stuff started happening, we had a meeting with all our employees. It was just seeing their faces, some teared up. It was just awful.”
Koko’s has approximately 34 people on staff, some of whom have worked for the restaurant for 10 to 15 years. With the exception of a few employees who chose to stay home due to health concerns, nearly all of Koko’s employees have continued to show up to work.
“My brother and I were thinking, ‘What are we going to do with all these employees?’” Albert recalled. “They can’t afford not to work. They can’t afford to stay home. We just decided to do curbside.”
The Suarez brothers decided to implement a curbside and delivery-only business plan. The restaurant now offers free delivery to anywhere within a 5-mile radius, and the former waiters are the ones doing the delivering.
“I don’t have anybody picking up food and delivering for us. We’re doing everything on our own,” Albert said. “It’s all about the employees and their health. We’ve got to make sure that they’re healthy and they’re not sick. I have them wearing gloves and masks. I’m trying to be really careful about stuff like that.”
While the restaurant has taken a slight hit from Hidalgo County’s shelter-at-home order, which forced businesses to close their doors to dine-in customers, the brothers say that the catering aspect of their restaurant has been a huge loss for them.
Utilizing a food truck, the restaurant would cater anywhere from 250 to 1,500 people at weddings and graduation parties throughout the state of Texas, which contributed nearly 30% of the restaurant’s income. All of the events the restaurant had scheduled have been canceled.
“Like everybody else, business has been affected,” Albert said. “We’ve been blessed that we have great clientele. The community has really stepped it up and helped all the local restaurants. That really makes me feel good about that — the community coming and helping the local restaurants. The response has been unbelievable.”
Albert said that he and his brother plan to apply for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, which was passed by Gov. Greg Abbott on March 20.
The EIDL program would provide long-term, low interest loans to businesses who qualify.
“Loans are going to be available for business with fewer than 500 employees,” explained state Rep. Bobby Guerra, who said that all the information about the program is available at the SBA website. “There’s going to be a lot of documentation, but there is some hope that’s going to be coming their way.”
In the meantime, Albert and Jorge said that they will continue to operate for as long as they can.
“We’re going to keep on going until they shut us down,” Albert said. “We have to think about our employees. If we close, then what are these people going to do? We’re going to try to keep going for as long as we can. Our plans are to keep going. It’s about the health of everybody and our employees. We are very worried about that.”
Small businesses who believe they may be eligible for this loan should visit www.sba.gov/disaster to directly apply for assistance.