Si Senor Fresh Mex Restaurant has been in the same location on St. Johns Bluff Road for a decade, offering ambiance, authentic Mexican cuisine, entertainment and a full bar.
Just three months before the pandemic hit, owner Johnny Mendez decided to expand to a second location.
It was a decision that seemed so right. The second “express” location was at Avenues Mall and was intended to offer great fast food – and business was great for three months.
As people’s eating habits changed, Si Senor Express immediately began to suffer. Similar to restaurants nationwide, this business first faced challenges such as reduced opening hours in malls, followed by people staying home. Meanwhile, the high cost of expenses like rent remained. A lot of fresh food still had to be purchased and employees still had to work and be paid.
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Although the company stayed at the mall for as long as it could – for a year and a half – things quickly went downhill. Something as simple as reducing mall hours to 7:00 p.m. from 10:00 p.m. had a significant impact on the business.
“That’s three hours less a day selling food, 21 hours a week, and a lot of missed hours in a month,” Mendez said. “We hung on for as long as we could, but the main location had to help carry the second location, and we couldn’t let both companies bleed.”
If Senor was among the small businesses in the country that could not prepare for the pandemic. For example, while large companies found it easy to tap into outside resources that allowed them to quickly get help from the government, most small companies had no idea how to apply for help. aid. And when Mendez finally applied, it didn’t take long to learn he wasn’t eligible because his second slot was less than a year old.
But last year he was able to get help with a loan for the main site through the Small Business Administration.
Vicki Beaudry, senior vice president of SBA and government-guaranteed lending at Ameris Bank in Fernandina Beach, said Si Senor was among many clients she’s helped secure Paycheck Protection Loans. And while it usually makes a difference to have a relationship with a banker before asking for help, the pandemic was like nothing we had ever seen. Bankers first had to learn to navigate the process themselves, and then they started helping small businesses, whether they were customers or not.
Beaudry said while some businesses simply weren’t able to survive the pandemic, others weren’t affected at all. Yet others in certain industries have flourished.
“The pandemic has forced small business owners to think, how else can I do it, whether it’s growing their online presence or something as simple as looking small, but costs pickle croissants on a menu,” she said. “The bottom line is that small business owners need to know their finances. A CPA is not going to run your business.
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Mendez said he was proud that he didn’t have to lay off any of his 39 employees, including the entertainment staff.
“It never crossed my mind. We didn’t fire a single person because I have team members who have been with us for a long time. Some have been with us for 10 years,” he said. -he declares.
“You have to understand that I see them as a family. How is it possible to fire someone who starts work at 6 a.m. when he is not supposed to arrive until 9 a.m.? he explained. “I told them that with a restaurant open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, I couldn’t afford to pay them overtime. Yet they insist on coming earlier to get things started. They have lunch together after having done so many things before I even arrive at the restaurant.
“If I didn’t have this solid base, I would have closed. They make things happen. I don’t even have to be there for things to go well,” he said. “So it was not an issue for me when I knew I had to withdraw money from my personal funds to run the business.”
Lean on marketing and experience for a return
Mendez moved to Jacksonville from Chicago in 2012 to join four other partners in a catering venture that involved offering classic Mexican cuisine from a small location at 3546 St Johns Bluff Road near downtown St. John’s. Over the years he was able to buy out all the partners and focus on how he wanted to run the business.
The first thing he did was simplify the menu, removing far too many choices and adding photos. In order to make customers happy while making the adventure profitable, he decided to simplify the experience. Customers order at the counter and allow staff members to bring the food to them. Meanwhile, diners can help themselves to a “freshly made daily,” a salsa bar with several choices to accompany yellow corn tortilla chips to eat with main dishes.
“There are four things that are important from the moment you walk into a restaurant. The temperature has to be right. The atmosphere has to be great. The noise level has to be right and the food has to be exceptional,” a- he declared.
“If we didn’t have that structure in place, it would have taken customers longer to make up their minds,” he said. “That’s what helped us during the pandemic, when our business turned into a walk-in business at the start of the pandemic. People were used to ordering with a number system. They say, ‘I want number two, four or eight.”
Despite Mendez’s structure, authentic Mexican cuisine, and experiences that range from a former truck driver instructor to a host of TV and radio shows geared toward Latino audiences, he was unprepared for the pandemic. . His former media career in Chicago involved educating people, primarily about finance, real estate, and insurance.
“When the pandemic hit, we went from 75% seating to 50% to 25%, before finally taking over. Luckily people used to say things like I want a Mexican sub personalized, whether it’s a number eight or number four.”
“I feel very strong for the future,” he said. “It feels good to see guests returning at lunchtime rush.”
Still, there are challenges, including the price of food and supplies.
“The last thing we want to do is raise the price of a taco from $2.75 to $3.25. But we do our best to accommodate changes beyond our control,” he said. he declares.
In the meantime, he is focusing on things he can control, like changing his marketing mix which has typically focused mostly on radio, TV and magazines. Now he finds ways to reach customers who find new restaurants by searching online for very specific types of food.
“We’re constantly trying to adapt to change. Over the past few weeks, we’ve started marketing with Google because they offer more targeted ads, and that helps us tremendously. Once you open a link with our advertising, it’s targeting you,” he said. . “You can get a ping saying you are five kilometers from Si Senor.”
“We have to continually evolve with the times,” he said.