On a sunny morning in late March, Ryne Kekahuna sat in his car, worrying. Though the coronavirus pandemic had recently shuttered businesses, Kekahuna, 28, was able to continue his normal duties as a salesman in the home-building industry. His wife, Laura, 30, wasn’t so lucky. She owns Los Molcajetes, a Mexican restaurant in South Dallas’s Pleasant Grove neighborhood. Together with her cousin and co-owner, Ivan Saenz, Laura was forced to close year-old Los Molcajetes’ doors entirely. Though they’d been able to reopen for takeout only, their earnings plummeted by two thirds. They didn’t lay off any employees, but half of the staff couldn’t come in, mostly because of child-care obligations.
All of this required Laura and her cousin to rethink payroll, product, and bills, essentially creating a new business model. Ryne knew these hard decisions were devastating to Laura, who set out to retrain staff, transform the menu to focus on to-go dishes, and come up with the money to keep paying her staff. So with a few minutes to spare between meetings, Ryne fired off a tweet. “Hey everyone, my wife’s restaurant in Dallas is from scratch authentic Mexican food. She’s from Mexico City,” he wrote. “If you’re in Dallas and can afford to try pick up or delivery we would appreciate it. We are just trying to keep employees paid the best we can.” He added a few tantalizing photos of Los Molcajete’s dishes: a cheese-blanketed enchiladas verdes plate, flautas covered neatly with chopped lettuce and a quick lattice of cream, and molcajetes—the restaurant’s namesake lava-stone bowls brimming with liberal servings of sliced meat and grilled vegetables.
Hey everyone, my wife’s restaurant in Dallas is from scratch authentic Mexican food. She’s from Mexico City. If you’re in Dallas and can afford to try pick up or delivery we would appreciate it. We are just trying to keep employees paid the best we can. Even a RT would help. pic.twitter.com/iiHZcMEhqb
— Ryne Gannoe (@rynegannoe) March 28, 2020
The message resonated, earning 12,000 likes and 8,400 retweets. “It kind of took off, I guess,” Ryne says. “Probably the first 24 hours, I did my best to respond to everybody. And it got a little bit hard to do that with my own real-life job and responsibilities.” Donations and orders increased by about 5 percent—not a huge spike, but enough to help Los Molcajetes hire three new employees to prepare and deliver orders. The restaurant’s Facebook and Instagram pages also saw an influx of new followers.
Social media stardom is fleeting, however. Nearly a month later, the business continues to struggle. “There have been days where it hasn’t even been profitable to keep the restaurant open,” Ryne says. Laura and Ivan are still scrutinizing every cost and cutting as much as they can. They’ll go as lean as they need, with or without donations, to keep selling fragrant quesadillas de huitlacoche, street-style tacos in large family packs, and refreshing micheladas. “It definitely would make sense to just shut down until all this blows over,” Laura says. “But you know, it’s not about what might be best for us. It’s about what’s best for us as a community.”
Roughly 60 percent of Pleasant Grove residents are Latino, and about 30 percent live below the poverty line. Most work in blue-collar jobs and in the service industry, so they’ve been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Single parents, people caring for elderly relatives, and those juggling multiple jobs are all struggling. Meanwhile, Saenz and the Kekahunas know the best way they can help. “The one thing we do have is food,” Laura says. “With that, we can help people who might be the most vulnerable.”
She and Saenz say they haven’t forgotten about their workers who are forced to stay home, urging them to get in touch if they need groceries or are struggling to pay a bill. “We hope that if one of the employees actually is in a place where they’re really seriously in trouble, they would reach out to us, so we could help,” Laura says. “We haven’t had that happen yet, but we would definitely do everything we could to first take care of them.”
Bilingual signs in the restaurant’s windows announce that walk-up service is to-go only. They are still hiring drivers and have placed large rectangular Los Molcajetes-branded magnets on the front doors of the delivery vehicles. The extra efforts are helping them hold steady. In mid-April, the restaurant’s Facebook page announced Los Molcajetes had extended its hours. Kekahuna and Saenz are waiting to hear if they’ve been approved for a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration. They were prevented from applying for another loan because Laura’s legal resident papers haven’t arrived in the mail yet. “Really, it feels like we’re starting over,” she says. “But here we are, still trying.”