When Bricia Lopez reflects on the beginnings of COVID, you can hear the mix of awe and gratitude in her voice as she reflects on how her family’s restaurant survived the pandemic.
But if you've ever had the chance to go to Guelaguetza, the uber-popular, James Beard award-winning restaurant that helped to familiarize LA restaurant-goers with the vibrant colors and flavors of the Oaxacan region, you wouldn’t be surprised. From the restaurant’s beginnings in 1994 with Lopez’s parents, Fernando Lopez and Maria Monterrubio, Guelaguetza has been a business centered on treating everyone like family – even during unimaginable highs (getting recognized by Jonathan Gold, the venerable LA Times critic) and crushing lows (like 2008’s Great Recession) that threatened Guelaguetza’s legacy and almost closed the restaurant.
When Lopez and her siblings Paulina, Elizabeth, and Fernando bought the restaurant from their parents in 2012, they knew that the spirit of unwavering hospitality even – and especially – in times of crisis was fundamental to the restaurant’s continued success.
When COVID hit and the restaurant was faced with another unforeseen challenge with unimaginable consequences, Lopez wasn’t sure how things would fare. “We're walking into the restaurant, and it was empty and we were trying to figure out what to do. We were doing takeout and not knowing who would come to pick up the food,” she remembers. “Figuring out how we were going to even work through that was very hard.”
Takeout wasn’t the only challenge Guelaguetza faced. In addition to the logistical challenges of changing her mostly dine-in offerings and pivoting to takeout, Lopez and her team had to figure out how to redesign the restaurant’s interior to comply with California’s COVID requirements, which were ever-changing and at times a little difficult to navigate. “Whether it's the governor, it's the local health department or the CDC, there are so many layers,” Lopez says.
I feel like we opened an entire new restaurant and we're still trying to get [on] our feet, even though we've been around for so long.
It was more than just spacing out tables, transitioning to touchless menus and sanitation stations, or enforcing mask-wearing. Lopez and her team had to figure out how to expand their square footage and translate the feeling of joy and levity seen in Guelaguetza’s interiors – filled with large murals, bright turquoise chairs, and tabletops imprinted with tropical flowers in saturated, bright hues – without compromising safety.
Using a part of their parking lot, Guelaguetza created another patio, with colorful umbrellas, outdoor tables, and lush, verdant plants. It was no small feat. “I feel like we opened an entire new restaurant and we're still trying to get [on] our feet, even though we've been around for so long,” Lopez says.
Amid all the changes, Guelaguetza’s staff consistently showed up to work every day, despite the health risks. “Just coming to work every day – I think that should be applauded and recognized,” Lopez says. “A lot of the frontline workers are people who look like us; they are immigrants.”
At a time where restaurant workers are refusing to return to the industry due to low wages and unfair treatment, Guelaguetza was one of the few places that hasn't had to shutter due to staff shortages. Lopez attributes this to the familial vibe that extends beyond the customers – it reverberates in every part of the restaurant, from the front of the house to the back. “We’ve always been a family, and here in Guelaguetza, we’ve always treated people as such. That’s sort of like the vibe that we've always had here,” she says. “I remember the first few weeks when nobody knew what was going on. We gave groceries to every single person that worked with us and their families. We'd have people lined up here and we’d take care of them. And I think that goes a long way.”
Just coming to work every day – I think that should be applauded and recognized. A lot of the frontline workers are people who look like us; they are immigrants.
In addition to providing a supportive atmosphere and a safe place, Guelaguezta also offers full health benefits for staff and vacation time.
And another benefit that often takes new staff by surprise is no family meal. This means that staff can eat and drink from anything on the menu – sweet and spicy moles that range from fiery brick orange to inky black; tlayudas, handmade from organic corn and imported from Oaxaca; horchata topped with neon-pink cactus syrup, walnuts, and cantaloupe – for free.
It’s something Lopez previously didn’t realize was a benefit. “Now that we're hiring people, they, everyone seems very surprised about that. I was like ‘Wait — you pay for your food where you work?’ That's really strange,” she says. “Because I work at a restaurant and because everybody here eats for free, that's not something that we think of as a benefit. But now I realize it is – you don’t have to pack lunch, worry about what you’re going to eat, or spend money every day just for lunch.”
Guelaguetza also offers substantial discounts for staff members who dine during their days off. “It means a lot to us when people come on their off day to eat here because it says a lot about not just our food and our environment. When you work here every single day and then you want to come and be a customer, it makes me really happy.”
It means a lot to us when people come on their off day to eat here because it says a lot about not just our food and our environment. When you work here every single day and then you want to come and be a customer, it makes me really happy.
Lopez acknowledges that there’s no secret formula for keeping Guelaguetza’s staff and customers happy – it’s just part of her family’s value system. “Yes, it’s the food, but it’s the soul of the place,” she explains. “It's what the family stands for. I think it's just the spirit of Oaxaca and hospitality. It's very much alive here and you can feel it. That is really what still keeps us alive and why we're still here.”
That deeply imbued sense of Oaxacan hospitality lingers throughout the restaurant, which lies at the heart of a simple philosophy.
“It’s about offering people what you have,” Lopez says. It's giving your heart and your soul to people and being proud of what you serve, even if it's just a pot of beans.”
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