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COPING WITH COVID: Cantina 76

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Coping with COVID:

SC Biz News is speaking with small businesses and community leaders about the impact of the new coronavirus on business and industry, and how this is changing how they operate.
Contact Melinda Waldrop, mwaldrop@scbiznews.com, with any questions or ideas.


If you are stuck inside your house for weeks, why not fix yourself a restaurant-quality margarita?

That’s one of the marketing ideas being bandied about by the owners of Cantina 76 and Za’s on Devine. With a Tuesday order from S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s closing restaurant dining rooms statewide in response to the new coronavirus outbreak, restaurant owners are brainstorming new business strategies.

“Hopefully by the weekend, we’re going to be looking at some creative marketing opportunities, whether it’s taco survival packs or some at-home margarita recipe packs,” said Chad Elsey, part of the four-person ownership group of Za’s and S.C.’s five Cantina 76 locations, including two in Columbia. “If this continues to go on, we want to be prepared and take advantage of it and maximize it. If to-go only dining is the new normal for however long, then we want to facilitate that and be as good as we can at offering that to our customers.”

Cantina 76, which has five S.C. locations including one on Main Street in downtown Columbia, is trying to ramp up its curbside pickup and to-go business after restaurant dining rooms throughout the state were ordered closed Tuesday. (Photo/Melinda Waldrop)Like all other restaurants in the state, Cantina 76’s Main Street and Devine Street locations, as well as Za’s at 2930 Devine St., had to transition to curbside pickup and to-go orders on Wednesday. Cantina 76 also has locations in Greenville and Mount Pleasant and on Kiawah Island.  

“It was a pretty good day at most locations,” Elsey said. “We’re still kind of getting the word out. I think there is some initial shock in the community, and some safety concerns with just leaving your house in general. A lot of people are not at their jobs and going out lunch maybe like they normally would. We’re hoping it can keep us afloat in the near future.”

Elsey said that to-go orders typically make up 10% to 20% of the restaurants’ business. The goal, he said, is to ramp that up to 25% to 50%.

“We’re fortunate with these two concepts that they actually do translate to to-go concepts pretty well,” he said. “Mexican food is obviously very easy to pack up, and people can eat it at any time of day. They like it for lunch, they like it for dinner, they like it on the weekends. It’s affordable. The same with Za’s. Za’s menu, some of the items are a little more challenging, so they might have to have a little more of a limited menu there, but everyone loves pizza to go.”

As for the option of purchasing gift cards, Elsey said those are normally sold inside the restaurants, but management is looking at adding an online option that he thinks can be up and running quickly.

“We feel like people will want to get out of the house, and they don’t have a lot of places to go,” he said. “They certainly can’t go dine in a restaurant, but they’ll get tired of making sandwiches at home and want to come out and get some tacos.”

Elsey said the restaurants are trying to get staff as many hours as possible.

“We’re trying to keep everyone that we can,” he said, adding that management is also keeping track of what local, state and federal assistance is available to restaurant owners and employees. “Labor costs and food costs kind of shift with the amount of business that you’re doing, so it does make it possible to keep the business running even on lower revenue. We’re just hopeful the community can coalesce around the local restaurants and help keep them in business during this process.”

Elsey said a positive mindset is important in the hospitality business, pointing out that employees managed to keep one during Columbia’s historic flood of 2015.

“We went through the flood a few years back when we didn’t have any water, and we made it through that. That lasted for a few weeks, and we came out OK on the other end of that,” he said. “This is kind of the same thing, although a little more challenging. We just have to do our best to protect the long-term interest of the company so when things do come back to normal, we’re ready to hit the ground running.”

Cantina 76’s downtown location is completing a 1,600-square-foot expansion that will double the size of its bar and increase indoor seating capacity by up to 30 seats to 110 people.

“We’re basically at the finish line, so it’s a little bit of a blessing and a curse in that we’re trying to integrate the two spaces right now,” Elsey said. “Having the restaurant open and being able to complete the work is a little bit of a blessing right now, but obviously it’s an expensive process and we need the revenue to facilitate that expansion. ... Whether it’s our business or any business, we’ve got to get back up and running somewhat relatively soon. Not only restaurants, but not many businesses, can survive for weeks on end without any revenue.”

Reach Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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