As the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants to close across the United States, the James Beard Foundation Relief Fund provided much-needed aid at a time of great need.
Pappas Sweet Shop is a small family-run diner serving American and New Mexican food in Raton, NM. The coronavirus crisis has been especially hard on owner Ann Marie Pappas Rigdon, but with some pure grit and a dash of tenacity, the diner remains open, against all odds.
Open since 1923, it seems the years leading up to the restaurant’s centenary may well prove the most challenging. Pappas Sweet Shop is a small mom-and-son run diner that is a constant in the small town of Raton - every bit the community hub and all-American eatery.
When the virus hit New Mexico, the state moved quickly to contain it. However, Ann Marie felt it was important to remain open as long as possible, seeing as many of the town’s retired citizens depend on Pappas Sweet Shop for their meals.
“The state of New Mexico locked us down very quick. One day we were at full capacity, the next, 50% capacity, then the next day takeout only,” says Ann Marie.
“I am also a professor of business at a junior college in Trinidad, Colorado, so I was also getting ready to transition to online classes. Unlike the college classes, where I had time to prepare, there was no time to prepare at the restaurant. The decision to stay open was actually an easy one. We had just had a food delivery so we had enough food for the week, and several employees said they would stay on to help with take out.
“The first few days were scary, as we were down 60%-70% on the bad days. On good days, we were down about 35%.”
Takeout was the only option for Pappas Sweet Shop, and through that business, as well as small grants and loans from the City of Raton and the Small Business Association, they were able to keep their heads above water. The local business community pitched in as well.
“We have a local group that is called the ‘Raton Cash Mob’," says Ann Marie. “They can be compared to a local QVC/Home Shopping group. They did a live show in May, in which we were able to sell our homemade bread, cinnamon rolls, and fudge. They not only help with sales, but also boosted morale.”
From the beginning of June, the Governor of New Mexico allowed restaurants to open for outside dining only, at a reduced capacity of 50%, which provided a ray of hope. Another injection of cash was also welcome, thanks to the James Beard Foundation Relief Fund. Ann Marie applied for the grant, but being a mom-and-son run diner in a small little-known town in rural New Mexico, she didn’t expect to be awarded the money. James Beard is a foundation for the benefit for all restaurants, not just the fine dining or flagship restaurants, but the mom and pop diners too.
“I remembered James Beard from one of the first cookbooks my mom had,” says Ann Marie. “I believe it was called Beard on Bread. I never in a thousand years thought I would receive this grant. We are such a small restaurant, in such a small town in a state that is not well known.”
The James Beard Relief Fund made a huge difference immediately.
"First of all, I started sleeping better at night knowing that the restaurant could stay open. My budget for food had been limited, so one of the biggest reliefs was that I could place a normal food order and get the shelves stocked again. I was also able to buy much-needed supplies for our dishwashing machine and other cleaning items.
“It was an amazing feeling to think that people I’ve never met donated to the fund so that so many people could receive the grant. I have also been able to bring back a few employees and even hire a new part-time person. The other employees are thankful for the help.”
For now, Pappas Sweet Shop has managed to just about weather the storm. Hopefully they can keep going for the next few years to celebrate 100 years in business. With the hard work and resilience they’ve already shown, they’ve got a very good chance.
“I have hopes for not only the restaurant businesses over the world, but also for life in general. I hope everyone learns to be kinder and have more patience,” says Ann Marie. “I also plan on finding ways to pay this grant forward and help others. It may take me years, but for all those that donated I want to thank them by helping others.”
S.Pellegrino, with a donation of $1 million, was the biggest donor to the fund that has to date disbursed $4 million to independently owned restaurants around the country. This month, we'll be profiling some of the restaurants that benefitted from the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund grant as a snapshot of how the coronavirus pandemic affected the US restaurant industry. The series will focus on those who, even before this pandemic, were operating with exciting, new and innovative business concepts, making up the rich and diverse fabric of a hospitality industry that came together in a time of need.