Sam Zheng in the Hightstown Taco Rito, pre-pandemic. (Archive photo by Joe Emanski.)

One might expect that the Covid-19 pandemic has not been so bad for restaurants that have traditionally done a brisk take-out business.

But the public health crisis has wreaked havoc with every business, regardless of business model.

Sam Zheng owns Taco Rito, a Tex-Mex restaurant with locations in Hightstown and Robbinsville. He says before the pandemic, Taco Rito had a pretty even split between take-out and dine-in customers.

Taco Rito had already used delivery services, such as Grubhub and DoorDash, but that represented only 10 to 15% of its overall business.

For now of course, Taco Rito has no dine-in business. But delivery has grown to take its place. Zheng estimate that third-party delivery now accounts for between 60 and 70% of his sales.

And that’s not good, he says, because those services take commissions as large as 35% of a bill. “There’s some days, it looks like we’re busy, but [the delivery services] are taking $300, $400 out of us,” he says. “But, we’re still staying afloat.”

Zheng understands that many customers right now will not pick up their food unless it can be provided curbside. Unfortunately, he says, he has been unable to keep staffing levels high enough to provide curbside pickup.

For some restaurants, staff levels are low because dining rooms are closed and revenues are down. Zheng says the problem for Taco Rito has been ensuring that his staff are in total health.

Zheng says if any of his workers has so much as a sniffle — even if it can probably be attributed to allergies — he requires them to take two weeks off. The result has been that his workforce at any given time is reduced to 50% or less.

On Cinco de Mayo he would normally be staffed up to handle higher demand. Last year he had 10 or 11 people working in each restaurant on May 5. This year he had six. He says the restaurants were so overwhelmed that he had no choice but to close.

The good news, he says, is that business has picked up in May after a poor March and weak April. Right now the greatest challenge for Taco Rito, he says, is the high cost of meat.

Steak prices have doubled, and ground beef costs have risen even more than that. Zheng says he has had no choice but to raise his prices to compensate.

Some restaurateurs have indicated that they are eager to reopen their dining rooms once the governor gives the go ahead. But Zheng says he is in no hurry.

“Once a vaccine comes out, I won’t mind having the dining room open again,” he says. “Right now … you get one case come in and everybody could get sick. I won’t lie to you, we still have customers coming in (to the restaurant, for pickup) without masks. They even sit down to eat sometimes. I’d rather keep the dining room closed. And my employees feel safer too.”


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