Joplin restaurants are finding ways to cope amid the pandemic that has forced many of them to close their dine-in areas, and whether they survive or not, they say the are grateful for the support of loyal customers.
"The support we are getting from the few customers who are coming through is breathtaking," Deanna Marroquin, owner of El Taco Loco, 1221 W. Seventh St., said Wednesday. "I'm speechless, frankly. We have customers come in and pray at the door, in their cars. That is worth more to me ..."
She trailed off as she considered all their encouragement.
Like many restaurants, her operation is still offering delivery and curbside carryout.
David Blum, owner of the Red Onion Cafe, 203 E. Fourth St., and the Red Onion Espressoria on 32nd Street, said the support he is seeing from customers reminds of the community's attitude after Joplin's 2011 disaster.
"Everybody is trying to help, just like the tornado," he said.
He said customers are buying gift cards from the restaurants, giving large tips at curbside or when a meal is delivered, and leaving messages of encouragement on social media.
Steve Williams said the same thing is happening at Club 609, at 609 S. Main St., including businesses downtown that are longtime customers who want to help carry them through this crisis.
Orlando Bevilacqua, owner and manager of Wise Guys, 3702 E. Seventh St., said: "Our customers that are loyal to us are not only buying food, they're throwing an extra $5 or $10 and saying, 'Hey, this is for you guys.'"
Closing dining areas because of COVID-19 is just one of the challenges restaurants are facing. Some said Wednesday they also are seeing price increases as well.
"We've seen about a 20 percent increase" across the board, Bevilacqua said.
"Tomatoes, not so much; as far as cheese, close to 30 percent," he said. "Basically it's a shortage of things."
Marroquin said beef prices are up 40 percent and that pork prices are up 30 percent. Cheese has risen.
She said they used to pay around $20 for a 50-pound bag of pinto beans.
"Now we're paying almost $50," she said.
"I'm not even sure if it is a shortage or price gouging. I'm going to say it has been in the last seven to 10 days."
Williams said he has not seen a price increase at 609. Blum said he has not seen prices increase either, but he added, "I'm going to guess it will."
With the one-two punch of closed dining areas and higher prices, restaurants are banding together to survive. Some are ordering meals from each other to feed their remaining staffs.
Marroquin, at El Taco Loco, said they have been ordering from nearby restaurants, including Sam's Southern Eatery, at 1218 W. Seventh St., which is across the street, as well as from Crabby's, at 815 W. Seventh St.
"Crabby's has come through a few times," she added.
Bevilacqua said some suppliers have mandatory minimums, so they have partnered with another restaurant, Carmine's Wood Fired Pizza, 524 S. Joplin, when placing orders.
Anthony Mangano, manager of Carmine's, said, "We have reached out to Wise Guys and we just got food from them, and vice versa. We are kind of supporting each other."
Bevilacqua, at Wise Guys, said they also are making "take-and-bake" orders, meaning customers order lasagna that is already made and then cook it at home.
Just what the federal stimulus bill will mean for the restaurants is uncertain, and several said they are waiting to learn more.
The economic rescue package on which preliminary agreement has been reached would give direct payments to many Americans, expand unemployment benefits and include a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.
The amount of business each restaurant has lost since the pandemic reached this country varies, from 15 to 75 percent, and many have left much of their staff — especially their wait staff — go until things rebound.
"I'm glad they are reaching some sort of agreement for my staff," Marroquin, of El Taco Loco, said of the assistance for adults and for those who unemployed, but she is concerned about how much she will be able to stay up and running.
Blum, at Red Onion, said that restaurant has gotten help from its bank, from its suppliers and from a Joplin company that was making banners and offered it a "COVID-19 discount."
"This restaurant has been here for 25 years, and we have no intention of dying on the vine," Blum added.