After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in person dining in March, it was over two months before restaurants were allowed to reopen their patio areas.
For many restaurants, they already had an outdoor dining area in place, such as Blended Cafe in Los Lunas.
But for others like La Dos Gringas in Belen, it meant deciding if the work to set one up on the fly was worth it, while trying to learn the ins and outs of outdoor dining as the only form of in-person dining.
La Dos Gringas, which is owned by mother and daughter team Janet and Desiree Montaño, was able to convert some of its parking lot space into a small patio area.
Initially, Desiree said she wasn’t sure if the effort to set up the patio everyday was worth it, as initially very few people were utilizing the space.
It also made the opening and closing shifts less appealing to the employees because they were having to set up and tear down the patio every day in addition to their regular tasks around those times.
Following the reopening of indoor dining and its subsequent closing, however, the interest in the patio has made it worth the investment into air conditioners and tents that Janet spearheaded in an effort to make the space as pleasant as possible.
“Outdoor dining has been a learning experience,” Desiree said.
While patio dining is something Desiree has always had an interest in doing, she isn’t sure yet whether it will be around for the long haul.
“We’ll see what happens with the governor and everything,” she said. “I’ve always thought we should do a patio, because before this was all going on we started doing paint nights and live music and the Black’s Smuggler Winery would come and do the paint nights.
“I think of things like that because there aren’t really places to do that in Belen, and I think doing something like that on the patio would be better. The thing is, when is it going to end? Is it going to be winter and no one is going to want to sit outside because its cold? We just have to take it one day at a time because we never know.”
At Blended Cafe in Los Lunas, which already had a patio, the work in order to get it into compliance with COVID regulations was all that needed to be done.
The other changes COVID has brought with it have been the ones with the biggger impact on the cafe.
According to owner Michelle Garcia, the cafe isn’t planning to reopen its lobby, instead expanding the kitchen out into that space and funneling all ordering through the outside window, with pickup occurring next to the patio.
“We closed the first week and gathered ourselves and tried to plan, and from what I was hearing from other restaurants in places I follow, I told my husband that I don’t foresee us reopening the lobby,” Garcia said. “We have a super small lobby, two people could be in our lobby right now. I told him we need to consider the fact we aren’t reopening the lobby at all and focus on our website, walkup and drive up and curbside.”
With patio seating being the only seating Blended will have moving forward, Garcia said she hopes it will be a place where children will come to work on homework and hang out, much like her children did at Starbucks when they were in high school.
In order to improve the outdoor area, they’ve put in a bar that will seat a family and are discussing additional additions, such as heaters, in order to make the area more suitable for year-round use, something that has been on Garcia’s mind as she has noticed the cool morning air driving to work recently.
Even though initially Garcia wasn’t sure that Blended would be able to survive the pandemic, those fears have been erased thanks to the response from the community, which she said she is incredibly thankful for.
“I just really want to say we love Valencia County and we’re very blessed by our community that supports us,” Garcia said. “I can’t emphasize it enough, there are people that we’ve been serving since the day we opened our doors and they’re still coming.
“They love us and we love them. If I could just say thank you, we love our community so much for their support.”
In late August, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham revised the emergency public health order to allow restaurants, breweries, wineries, distillers, cafes, coffee shops and other similar establishments to offer indoor dining service at 25 percent of maximum occupancy, in accordance with COVID-Safe Practices.
Food and drink establishments were also able to continue providing physically-distant outdoor dining options, carryout and delivery services.
Tables – inside or outside – have to be at least six feet apart, and no more than six patrons are permitted at a single table, according to the revised order.