LIMA — Several Lima restaurants have opened in the past month and, although the challenges might seem great, they are finding that things are not as demanding as they may seem.
For places like Cancun Mexican Restaurant, which moved into the building last occupied by Bandido’s; El Cazador, which has expanded to the space recently occupied by Casa Lu Al’s on North West Street; and The Hollander, which is re-opening after a period of inactivity, it might not be the perfect time to start business, but when will there ever be a perfect time?
“It’s a challenge every time you open up a place, but I know what to do,” said Sergio De La Paz, who owns and operates four locations of Cancun Mexican Restaurant, including the one that just opened up on Elida Road. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years so I know what to do. I have my menu and I have good staff. I pretty much know everyone is coming in on time. These guys have been working for me for a long time and I work with people who I grew up with.”
De La Paz said that his entire family has been in the restaurant business and that, and experience opening restaurants before, makes it easy to know what is required from authorities like the Allen County Health Department.
And what the health department requires is extensive.
“We have a handout called the Plan Review guide,” said Allen County Health Environmental Health Director Brian Nartker. “The first half of it gives like the basic requirements for physical facilities: sinks, dishwashing and different things like that. And then the second half of it is a questionnaire.”
Nartker said that the questionnaire goes into the specifics of how a restaurant prepares food, heating and cooling, as well as reheating, and how it washes dishes.
“So they need to turn in that questionnaire to us,” he said. “And then they have to submit a floor plan showing where all the equipment and sinks are.”
For a Cancun location, which has a huge focus on seafood, this is of dire importance. But De La Paz has navigated it smoothly thanks to his experience and rapport with the health department.
“I’ve been working in the restaurant business for so many years,” he said. “I like to work with the health department to make sure we don’t get customers sick. It’s very easy to talk to them to see if I am doing something wrong that needs to be fixed. And it’s pretty easy to remember what temperature all the food needs to be cooked to.”
The health department said that for new businesses, the process might seem like a lot, but that it is not as hard for those already involved in it.
“It is kind of overwhelming to start from nothing and then have to think about all the different aspects of it,” said Nartker. “For people that are in the restaurant business, it’s more of a smoother process. I think it’s just a lot for someone that’s new.”
But making the process smoother for everyone is by design.
“We try to make it easy as possible,” said Nartker. “And we follow up once they submit everything, with a letter so if there was anything that was missed, or they didn’t address it completely, we just let them know that that’s something that they need to think about as they’re moving forward in the process.”
Nartker said the whole process takes about a few months.
“We always tell people to get their paperwork submitted to us with their plans as soon as they can,” he said. “That way we have time to review everything and follow up with the letter. And then we usually get that out within a week. We just don’t want people to start a process and get too far ahead and then have to go backward and undo things that they’ve already done.”
And the federal government is looking to re-engage in a drive to make things easier for prospective restauranteurs, as well.
U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Patty Murray (D-WA) reintroduced The Restaurant Revitalization Tax Credit Act on Tuesday, Jan. 24.
Although the Small Business Administration Restaurant Revitalization Fund program came about during the pandemic, two-thirds of every eligible applicant did not receive funding because the program ran out of funding.
The special tax credit that the bill, which was first introduced in Dec. 2022 by Brown, establishes, would allow applicants to offset payroll taxes of up to $25,000 per quarter in 2023.
While the local restaurant scene might not be struggling too much, the story is different nationwide.
The pandemic obviously wreaked havoc on profits and even though restaurants might be bouncing back, there are still challenges to overcome.
The National Restaurant Association reported in a survey from December 2022, that food costs and labor costs are among the factors that have restaurant owners expecting to make less profit in 2023.
But De La Paz has not seen those effects on this location so far.
“Making sure that everything is easy and that everyone can come out and be safe is important,” he said. “But it’s been pretty easy. I got the deal done with Bandido’s on Dec. 6 and we opened on Jan. 13. So it was already set up like a Mexican restaurant. We just had to make a few changes to the menu. It was easy to open this place.”
Although things have been somewhat slow since Cancun opened, De La Paz said that everything is going well so far and that there are plenty of reasons for optimism ahead, including new signage that is yet to arrive, a remodeling of the interior of the restaurant and the usual growth in staffing and clientele that should come with time.
Outside of that, De La Paz thinks that the restaurant’s menu and general atmosphere sets Cancun apart from even other Mexican restaurants in the area.
“We have the usual offerings, but our seafood is a different story than other places,” he said. “This is what makes the difference. We have more items on our menu. And when people come here, I make sure to make it feel like home. I love to be friendly and talk to the customers.”
Cancun Mexican Restaurant sits at 2613 Elida Road in Lima and is the restaurant’s third location, joining others in Findlay and Ottawa.
Reach Jacob Espinosa at 567-242-0399.