It’s lunchtime and Acaxutla, a restaurant in the Mission District that seats 40 has filled only one of its tables. Hoping to entice pedestrians off Mission Street, the waitress fixes a sign — $4.99 lunch SPECIAL– on the sandwich board outside.
The restaurant specializing in Salvadoran and Guatemalan foods has been on Mission Street for nine years, but since last year, along with the other taquerias and working class cafes on the corridor from 16th to Cesear Chavez streets, it’s watched business plummet.
On a street where the recession has also brought new openings, there are still losers and the taquerias dependent on immigrant diners have fared the worst, according to their owners. The ones that are still doing well rely more on an anglo clientele, they said.
In many respects, they said, this turn of fortune is not surprising. The majority of the taquerias and inexpensive cafes were designed to feed the large immigrant population that grew through the Central American wars and repeated peso crises of the 1980s and 1990s.
As San Francisco’s construction business thrived, immigrants opened restaurants to feed fellow immigrants. When the housing boom imploded last September, the laborers who filled the Mission District restaurants started eating at home during the week and can no longer afford to bring their families in on the weekends.
“They’ve lost their jobs and I understand—they don’t have money to spend,” said Eduardo Reyes, the owner of Acaxutla referring to the customers who used to fill his dining room. “I don’t fault them.”
“Us Latinos, we don’t consume any longer,” said Reyes. Convinced he needs to cater to anglos to survive, he’s anxious to hear any advice on how to attract them.
Already, Reyes lowered prices and to keep costs down, he’s cut employee hours.
On a recent Thursday his aim was to sell 25 specials—that equals $125 for a lunch hour. As an Anglo couple reviewed his menu outside, it seemed the restaurant was making progress––SLOWLY.
At nearby Taqueria Cancun, one of the most popular places in the Mission—business was bustling. Its clientele, mostly young hipsters and some Latinos, provide it with a continuous flow of customers.
“Our customer base has not decreased,” said Juan Cejas, who has worked at Cancun for the last 15 years. Their most popular dish Burrito Mojado starts at $5.99.
The newly opened La Oaxaqueña at 2128 Mission St, has also found life through a more diverse dining crowd. Positive reviews in Yelp have brought it a steady stream of white Americans, the owner said.
But Palacio Latino at 2240 Mission between 18th and 19th streets, like many of its counterparts, is also close to empty.
“We’ve lost 70 percent of our business,” said Sylvia Ramirez, the secretary of Palacio Latino for 12 years.
In addition to doing publicity in magazines, radio, and newspapers, Palacio, which specializes in Guatemalan food, has lowered its breakfast prices by nearly 50 percent and offers $6.99 lunch specials.
“Four or five employees have been laid off while others work as little as three days where before it was five days,” Ramirez said.
With two sons to care for, she’s afraid she will be next in line to be laid off.
“Years don’t guarantee that you will remain in a job—not because they don’t like you but because of this situation,” she said.
Ramirez also works at the owner’s mail service that sends packages to El Salvador and Guatemala. The packaging business has been less affected by the recession but it too has lowered prices. Sending a 30 by 40 box used to cost $300, she said. Nowadays, it’s $190.
Even though both businesses are suffering Ramirez said the owners and workers still talk about “working more to continue going forward.”
“We don’t talk about closing,” she added.
The same is true at Las Tinajas, a Nicaraguan, cafeteria-style restaurant, at 2338 Mission St. This has been the worst downturn in more than 20 years, but the restaurant is managing.
“Now we just survive,” said Roger Chow who works the register at lunchtime as his mother Teresa Chow, who used to cook there, sits nearby having lunch with a friend. “We can last as long as we have a balance” in the account, he said.
Many like Chow and Reyes said they had good relationships with their landlords and while the rent was still the same, they helped in other ways—sometimes giving them a few more days to pay the rent, for example.
Later in the day, it was clear that Reyes had taken seriously a reporter’s observation that some anglos judged a place by the cleanliness of its windows. With rag to window, a waitress wiped the windows clear.
Expanding to a new range of clients does not come without making other changes as well. Just this week Reyes changed the menus to English, “for the Americans.”
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