BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Before the pandemic started, Leo restaurant took pride in taking customers on a culinary journey through Colombia.
In the renovated colonial home, dinners feast on set menus of at least 12 courses, including a thin slice of Amazonian Pirarucu fish wrapped in its own skin and a bite-sized serving of Caribbean duck stew served on a purple corn tortilla and topped with edible flowers.
Dining at Leo’s has been banned since mid-March when Colombia started to enforce social distance measures. So Chef Leonor Espinosa is now using her restaurant’s kitchen to make takeaway dishes, such as pork belly tacos, which are cheaper to make and easier to carry in cardboard boxes.
“We had to find a way to mitigate the effects of this crisis,” said Espinosa, who has been forced to lay off about half of her staff. “So we created a take-away brand that is more in tune with current market needs.”
The virus has severely punished the industry because sales plummet and restaurant owners are stuck with fixed costs such as rent. This prompted some places to reinvent themselves to stay afloat.
In Argentina, the Don Julio steakhouse was ranked 34th last year in San Pellegrino’s list of the world’s best restaurants. Now it has become a butcher shop that delivers cuts of organic beef to customers in Buenos Aires. Chef Pablo Rivero says he prefers to sell raw cuts of his prized beef rather than tucking his dishes into takeout boxes and compromising their quality. The butcher’s company helped him avoid firing staff. “This helps us to stretch our money,” he said.
In Chile, where food has been banned in restaurants since March, award-winning El Europeo suspended its tasting menu and stopped cooking lamb fillet and octopus imported from the remote Robinsoe Crusoe Island. Now El Europeo has a delivery service with pizza, sushi and beef tartare.
“It’s time to put egos aside and fight for our survival,” said Max Raide, one of the restaurant’s owners.
Some famous restaurants have had to completely discontinue their operations while driving out the storm. In the capital of Colombia, La Puerta Falsa has been serving hot chocolate and tamales since 1816. She survived the war of independence, a guerrilla attack on a nearby Supreme Court building, and a 1948 riot that burned down most of downtown Bogota.
The coronavirus shutdown has forced the historic restaurant to fire its staff of 14 and close the colonial-era building until social distance measures are lifted.
“We don’t know how to pick up,” said Carlos Sabogal, 84, whose family has owned the restaurant for six generations. “I’m also concerned that if we did that, the taste of our products just wouldn’t be the same as what our customers are used to.”
In Cuba, the restaurant business, which was largely dependent on tourism, has stalled. But the state economy ensures the survival of traditional places like La Bodeguita del Medio.
The bar, which helped popularize the mojito cocktail and was once Ernest Hemmingway’s favorite spot, has been state-owned since the early 1960s, when it was nationalized by Fidel Castro. The workers have been sent home and are still paid part of their national wages of $ 30 a month. But they miss tips from tourists who normally triple their salary.
Elsewhere in Latin America, where the market economy is prevalent, many restaurants perish.
Guillermo Gomez, the director of Colombia’s restaurant association, says that by the end of May, 27,000 of the country’s 90,000 restaurants had been closed entirely due to difficulties in paying rent, salaries and low-income public services.
Gomez said the takeout sales did not make up for the revenue lost through personal service. Restaurants are also struggling to obtain loans, as the government provides little clarity about when to receive customers again or under what rules. “Banks now see us as a risky business,” said Gomez.
Those with some savings keep moving forward with smaller staff as elite eateries prepare for a brighter future.
Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa says she may be ‘less rigid’ when her restaurant can resume personal service and possibly offer à la carte options along with its extensive tasting menu.
But she says she continues to make experimental dishes using exotic ingredients from remote corners of Colombia. “We are not going to give up our philosophy,” said Espinosa. “We will continue to connect people to territories.”
Associated Press writers Debora Rey in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile and Andrea Rodríguez in Havana contributed to this report.
Manuel Rueda on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ruedareport
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