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Small Town Restaurant Experiences Big Time Community Support During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Luis Salinas, co-owner of the Burrito House in Schuyler, Nebraska is quick to mention how important the community is to a small business’ success, especially during tough times like the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020/2021. But to get the full story, we have to go back to the beginning – back to 1999 when the family immigrated to the US from Mexico and joined relatives who had been operating restaurants in Chicago for decades. After a year of working with family, Luis’ father and uncle opened up Burrito House in Schuyler, NE in 2001. Luis said it was difficult for his father and uncle at first, so he came from Chicago to train Burrito House staff and help out with the business. When Luis’ uncle left the business, Luis decided to stay and run the family business. And it truly is a family business – in addition to Luis and his father, Luis’ brother Jose Salinas also works in and co-owns Burrito House.

Burrito House experienced a lot of challenges early on.  Luis had to learn new business rules and a new culture in rural Nebraska.  Remembering those times, Luis said, “you see everything, but basically you are blind. Sometimes you’re like, ‘what are they talking’ about?” Things rapidly became even more challenging because two weeks after Burrito House opened, the World Trade Center was destroyed in the terrorist attacks on Sep 11th, 2001. Luis likened the current COVID-19 pandemic to those times. “We were scared, and now we feel that way during the pandemic. We [didn’t] know what was happening, everything was closed, everyone was telling their stories – it’s the same as with the pandemic. You know it’s happening but you don’t know how to solve it, or what the next steps will be.”

Despite the challenges early on, Burrito House has stayed in business for just over 20 years. Luis and his father put deep roots down in the Schuyler community and grew the business by word of mouth. Luis’ younger brother talked up the business to his teachers and schoolmates, and many of the employees of the local packing plant became regular customers. Luis said that he “always knew the food and the place talked by themselves. We didn’t need to use marketing. Word of mouth worked better than a lot of marketing. At that time we didn’t have Facebook or anything like that.”

It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of patience to grow such a large customer base, but it has definitely paid off during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. “We are still very busy because we are in a small town. The whole area hasn’t been as affected [as the rest of the state] because it’s a small town. Everyone here has to get up to go to work. All of the people are the first line workers who need to feed the whole country – employees at the packing plant, the truck drivers for local produce, etc.” Despite staying busy, Luis did have to close fully for two weeks when the pandemic first hit. “That gave us time to clean the whole restaurant and make people feel protected; then we opened up at 25%, then 50% capacity. Then we put everything to go. We thought we would be slow but people were really supportive and gave us lots of business. They were in long lines just to pick up orders.”

Navigating the pandemic was difficult, and Luis is thankful to have had assistance from one of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s micro-lending partners, the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP). “They helped us cope with the pandemic. We could then help all the businesses in town, and it’s been the first time that we have had most of the Hispanic businesses together. [REAP] helped us get information from the city administrators, get information on how to protect ourselves and our employees – basically [REAP} helped the whole community.”

Getting the Paycheck Protection Program loan also helped Luis keep his employees paid during the second two weeks that he had to close the restaurant. Luis frequently hires local high school students to work in his restaurant, and when the high school was quarantined from a COVID-19 exposure, Luis’ employees were unable to go to work.

When asked about his long term plans, Luis replied, “We are fine. We’re doing what we’re doing and following all the guidelines. We need to protect people that are sick. Life is more important than the money – we are lucky to be in America. We are thankful for all the community and everyone helping local businesses in this area. We are especially thankful to Nina Lanuza and Raul Arcos-Hawkins from REAP for being fully supportive to us and the whole community.”

Company Name: 
Burrito House
Schuyler, NE