For over 25 years, Guelaguetza has been inviting people to have a seat at their table.
The family-owned and operated restaurant in the heart of Los Angeles is best known for two things: its authentic Oaxacan recipes and its family-sized portions. Visit Guelaguetza on a normal night and you’re bound to see table after table of families enjoying good food and good company.
Of course, things aren’t normal right now. The usual buzz in the restaurant’s dining room has gone silent due to the COVID-19 crisis. Guelaguetza’s once robust staff has been all but completely downsized.
But still, Guelaguetza carries on.
“When all this started, the first thing we did, and what I do daily now, is reach out to people and ask, ‘How can I help you?’ We never ask for anything in return. We just feel like the world and the universe will return it at some point,” Fernando Lopez, Jr., who runs the restaurant with sisters Bricia, Elizabeth, and Paulina. “So, right now, all we can do is help and push the love out as much as possible.”
To help staff members affected by the crisis, Guelaguetza worked its connections with local vendors to get food essentials like milk, eggs, and vegetables. Every Sunday, they package those staples together to distribute to staff in need. Lopez admits it doesn’t replace a lost paycheck but hopefully, it reminds that staff that the restaurant is still there for them. They’re still family.
Guelaguetza wants its customers to know they’re still there for them, too. Offering curbside and takeout orders, the restaurant has tweaked some of its menu favorites to give people that same feeling of being in the restaurant for a family meal.
I spoke with Lopez about running a restaurant during a pandemic and Guelaguetza’s partnership with LAFC to help a couple of families in need with free meals. Below is our Q&A:
How is the restaurant and staff doing? How are you getting by during this difficult time?
Fernando: That’s kind of what it comes down to. We’re getting by. We’re kind of starting to just not drown. We’re treading water. And we’re just trying everything we can, first and foremost, to keep everybody safe. And secondly, make sure that there is a company everybody can come back to once it all blows over. It’s a fine balance between the two, but right now, we’ve decided to take the financial hit and be able to provide the safety, first and foremost.
How did the restaurant adjust to the 'Safer At Home' orders in Los Angeles?
Fernando: When everything first happened, when we got the word from the mayor, I was at the restaurant. We were running Sunday service and we got together with the staff. I think we were all just a little naïve about the situation. For us, we were going to continue to work for as long as possible, being as safe as possible, and just kind of having to scale back. Manage our inventory better, manage our hours better, but we’re all in this together. Everybody was almost excited to take on the challenge. And then that night, we got the word from the mayor that we were just restricted to takeout only.
So, the first couple of days, we closed while we reconfigured everything and thought everything through. At first, we weren’t even sure if it was going to be worth the time. But then we decided to open for takeout and bring in as much staff as safely as possible, just to at least provide those people with some sort of income. And part of that was that we started a GoFundMe to benefit the employees. We also started putting together produce baskets and goods baskets for all the employees. We do that every other Sunday now, where we use the leverage with our providers to get wholesale prices and we put together produce, milk, and eggs. Things that they might need, which is definitely not enough to replace an income. But it’s just something to let them know we’re still here as a family. It’s just trying to do anything we can because we have a lot of employees. It was either do something like this or bleed out and not have a company to go back to. I think that’s been the hardest part for us, just seeing the effect it’s having on our employees and our group.
The GoFundMe is still going. All of that is going directly to the employees. We’re also matching it. Anything people donate is matched by us and donated to our staff.
(Author’s Note: Donate to the Guelaguetza Staff Relief GoFundMe)
You’re a family-owned restaurant with a large staff, how important is the concept of family to Guelaguetza?
Fernando: We’re a collection of families. We’re family-owned. And then above that, we have the unity of being a part of the Guelaguetza family. That’s the part that’s very important. We have dads who will bring in their kids and their cousins. We have a couple of families that will do that. We’re just very proud of being able to employees upwards of 90 people before this. But now, we’re just trying to stay solvent, so that we come out of this on the other side and we’re able to hire back as many people as possible.
Guelaguetza is a unique restaurant – from its regional menu to family-like atmosphere – where does that vibe and culture come from?
Fernando: Guelaguetza means mutual help. It means reciprocity. To us, Guelaguetza means having a seat at our kitchen table. You’re being a guest at our personal kitchen table. Because our food is not tacos and burritos, it’s not your stereotypical food that people unfamiliar with regional Mexican food might think of. It’s more if you went to someone’s house and their grandma cooked for you. It’s large portions and it’s family meals. That kind of transcends our family values, it’s meant to be shared. It’s meant to be eaten around a table of loved ones. To have that same feeling, and because of the outreach we’ve received from the community – they’d like to have bigger plates, more family meals and feel like when they are home, they’re at Guelaguetza – we’ve started to offer family meals to takeout or even cook at home.
Because of the situation, people really gravitated to dishes where they can take it and repurpose. The barbacoa chicken meals, it’s a large plate. So, if you don’t eat it at one sitting, you can reheat it the next day or the next morning and repurpose it and do various things with it. You’re stretching out the value of it but still maintaining the core flavor.
What’s been the response of your customers to the takeout items on the menu?
Fernando: We’ve been very fortunate that we have a strong base of customers who love us, and they’re part of the family now. They’d like to keep a sense of normalcy. And keep a sense of tradition in their lives. Going to Guelaguetza is a tradition. Them being able to pick up and have it at home maintains a sense of normalcy throughout this.
What excites you about being partners with LAFC?
Fernando: What we love about LAFC is that it feels very much that they are in line with our family values. LAFC’s supporters groups are all like families to each other. And it’s the same thing, it’s a collection of families. You have all your different supporters groups, they are family within them, and they come together during the events to create one larger family, which is the LAFC family in LA. That’s something that we gravitate towards. Having LAFC supporters come by and watch games at the restaurant or stop by before the game, that’s something that’s just so unique to LAFC, and that’s why we love it so much.
When LAFC asked about donating meals to families in need, what was your response?
Fernando: Again, Guelaguetza is about family and reciprocity. Reciprocity is I help you, you help us. When all this started, the first thing we did, and what I do daily now, is reach out to people and ask, “How can I help you?” We never ask for anything in return. We just feel like the world and the universe will return it at some point. So, right now, all we can do is help and push the love out as much as possible.