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How Mesilla, New Mexico, businesses survived the pandemic by looking out for one another

The Bean Café owner Mickey Balderas, right, expanded sales by teaming up with Morgan Switzer’s Old Barrel Tea Company.

When the world was plunged into a sea of uncertainty in spring of 2020, it was an especially distressing time for small-business owners. Most buckled down to manage what they envisioned to be a temporary situation and then responded day by day as new realities unfolded. Few knew the toll that safety precautions would take on their shops and restaurants. Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Yelp published a national study that revealed 60 percent of the businesses reviewed on its site had shuttered. In the southwestern New Mexico town of Mesilla, entrepreneurs realized they would survive only one way: by banding together.

Old territorial buildings line the west side of Mesilla’s historic plaza.

Old territorial buildings line the west side of Mesilla’s historic plaza.

Mesilla sits on the edge of Las Cruces along the Rio Grande’s greenbelt. Strict building regulations have protected the area around the town’s historic plaza, which dates to before Mesilla was transferred from Mexico to the U.S. in the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. Many of the territorial adobes lining the narrow streets were built during that period, and newer builds also reflect that era’s architecture. If Billy the Kid were alive today, he might still recognize the streets he once rode down in the town where he was jailed in the 1880s.

Salud! de Mesilla owner Russell Hernandez in front of his restaurant’s penny wall.

Salud! de Mesilla owner Russell Hernandez in front of his restaurant’s penny wall.

When the pandemic set in, 20-year Mesilla resident Morgan Switzer had to temporarily close two of her businesses: NM Vintage Wines, Beers, and Cigars, a New Mexican wine-and-beer tasting room known for its live entertainment, and Old Barrel Tea Company–Mesilla, a loose-leaf tea shop. As she faced the prospect of shutting down her third business, NM Vintage Market, she turned to friend Russell Hernandez, who co-owns the restaurant Salud! de Mesilla. Four years earlier, Switzer and Hernandez had created Experience Mesilla, a nonprofit aimed at promoting the city’s businesses.

Faced with the pandemic challenge, they adopted a Miracle on 34th Street–esque philosophy: When they didn’t have what customers sought, they referred them to other food-and-beverage purveyors. The idea was well received in Mesilla, a town that was already known as a hub for independent businesses.

 “There are so many mom-and-pops here. This is not a corporate community; this is a family,” Switzer says. “It’s always been more of how things used to be, when people needed a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker. It’s stayed true to that mentality and lifestyle.”

Specialty teas at Old Barrel Tea Company.

Specialty teas at Old Barrel Tea Company.

After seeking advice from Hernandez, Switzer turned her specialty New Mexico food store into a neighborhood convenience store that stocked everything from meat to much-sought-after items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Hernandez used his restaurant connections and distributors to locate products and resold them to Switzer at his cost. “It wasn’t a matter of me making any type of profit,” Hernandez remembers. “It was just about helping another business owner. We’re trying to keep each other afloat, rather than seeing a business float away.”

Later, when Salud! de Mesilla ran short on ground beef for its popular take-out burgers, Switzer sold the beef back to Hernandez so its orders could keep flowing. Switzer has used her businesses to help others, too. For example, when patio service outpaced capacity at the neighboring La Posta de Mesilla restaurant, she offered up NM Vintage’s outdoor seating area. The concept spread.

Mickey Balderas with pastries from The Bean Café.

Mickey Balderas with pastries from The Bean Café.

As the pandemic curtain fell, Mickey Balderas, owner of The Bean Café, panicked behind closed doors. Even as he tried to reassure his staff, the first-time business owner and longtime barista saw a bleak future for his coffee shop. He reached out to Hernandez about creating bulk meals—something the fellow entrepreneur had recently implemented at Salud! de Mesilla. Soon, Balderas converted his shop to a drive-up, where the café sold bagel and coffee spreads to customers pulling up outside the back door. He also expanded his retail sales by teaming up with Kind Bread Bakery, No Worries Bakery, and Switzer’s Old Barrel Tea Company.

Adrianna Merrick, owner of Don Felix Café, works in the kitchen.

Adrianna Merrick, owner of Don Felix Café, works in the kitchen.

For Valentine’s Day, several businesses encouraged customers to patronize multiple places as part of their celebration. They pointed the lovebirds to Spotted Dog Brewery for a growler, NM Vintage for a bottle of wine, Salud! de Mesilla for the main meal, and Don Felix Café for dessert. “It was an innovative way for all of us to be included,” says Adrianna Merrick, owner of Don Felix Café. “Each business’s regulars continued to support them, but it also created a way for people to become more familiar with the other places. Throughout the pandemic, we all had each other’s backs, so that none of us were left out.”

Guests enjoy entertainment on the patio at Don Felix Café.

Guests enjoy entertainment on the patio at Don Felix Café.

There have been day-to-day rescues, big and small. One weekend this spring when Don Felix Café was overflowing, nearly all its wine glasses shattered. When Switzer found out, she was at Merrick’s door in 10 minutes with a box of replacement glasses to get the restaurateur through the weekend rush. “There’s no hesitation when you need help,” Merrick says. “Just knowing these people are there to help you in a pinch is amazing.”

Salud! de Mesilla recently hosted performances during a three-day music festival.

Salud! de Mesilla recently hosted performances during a three-day music festival.

As the public health crisis started to subside, Experience Mesilla began organizing more formal events. During a three-day music festival in March, some 40 musicians played at 12 venues around Mesilla, including NM Vintage, Salud! de Mesilla, The Bean Café, and Don Felix Café. All the concerts were held with COVID-19 precautions in mind: Groups were limited to six people or fewer and were seated socially distanced. Masks were required. Throughout the weekend, some restaurants sold out of food, servers made enough in tips to pay their rent for a month, and shoppers strolled the plaza with bags of merchandise in hand, Switzer recalled. “It was a perfect example of what we do best,” she says. “We benefited off the power of many voices instead of one.” Organizers have already set a date for the next music festival: September 17–19.

A customer at the Bean Café.

A customer at the Bean Café.

Several Mesilla businesses say they are, perhaps surprisingly, emerging from the pandemic stronger. As Salud! de Mesilla reopened indoor seating and returned to its full menu this spring, customers still clamored for the family meals the restaurant had relied on to survive the pandemic, so Hernandez continues to offer them. Balderas is maintaining many of his innovations, too. “We really had to put ourselves out there on social media to let people know we’re here and what we provide, and now a lot more people know about us,” he says. “We’ve been way busier now than before the pandemic hit. The pandemic was a blessing in disguise.”

Ashley M. Biggers is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor based in Albuquerque.

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