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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Community Hub To Curbside: An Overnight Adjustment For Morrisville's El Toro

Mexican restaurant window
Amy Kolb Noyes
El Toro Mexican restaurant has been offering curbside pickup of authentic Mexican food and drinks, including its signature margaritas, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bars and restaurantshave been limited to takeout and delivery in Vermont since March 17. While some have closed their doors for the time being, many have adapted, bringing food and drinks out to customers’ cars for pickup. So, after a month of scaled-back business, how’s that working out for restaurant owners? For one perspective, we check in with Jennifer Isabell. She owns and operates El Toro, a Mexican restaurant in Morrisville.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Morrisville restaurant owner Jennifer Isabell. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: How is your business different now compared to early March, before the governor’s shutdown order?

Jennifer Isabell: We're doing about 25 percent of what we normally do in terms of business for sales. And in the beginning, obviously the restaurants were open, so customers were allowed to come inside and sit down and dine. And now they're no longer allowed to even come inside the door at all. They just drive up on the street and they bring the food up to them.

More from VPR: Downtown Burlington Faces Uncertainty Amid COVID-19 Crisis

You originally started El Toro as a takeout business. Did that make it any easier for you to transition from being an in-person restaurant to doing a curbside pickup model?

I think it did. You're right. When we first opened, we were only takeout. So this situation reminds me of what business was like when we first opened. We've always done takeout, even though we moved to a location where we had dine-in service. It hasn't been a hard transition to just do curbside because we've already been set up to do that.

Mexican restaurant door with sign
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Once a community gathering hub, now El Toro can't allow its customers inside under Vermont's Stay Home, Stay Safe order.

Does it feel like a step backward to go back to what you your model was a few years ago?

It's definitely different. I have 13 employees ... I had let all my employees go because there's not enough business to keep us all busy. And my first thought was that I would just do everything by myself. And after a week of that, I realized that I do need some help. I'm fortunate because I have four kids at home, teenagers, ages 15 to 21, who work in the restaurant. So they're able to come in and help me for two-hour shifts, where a regular employee probably wouldn't want to work a two-hour shift. But for my children, it works well because they can come in, work for two hours and make a little extra money.

Staying open has allowed me to at least pay my minimum expenses so I can pay my electric bill, and my propane and insurance and phone bill. So we're sort of in a holding pattern where we're not necessarily making as much money as we were before, but we're able to cover our minimum expenses with minimum staffing.

Does it feel like it would be sustainable if it were to have to continue for weeks or months longer?

For me, it would be sustainable. I could continue to do this for as long as I needed to do it. The one thing that might not be sustainable is the level of rent. I'm paying rent on a 50-feet restaurant that no one is allowed to come into. That part would not be sustainable over, you know, a year. It would be sustainable over a couple of months, probably. It's hard to to say.

Do you have something in mind in terms of when you might be able to open your doors again, have customers sitting in the restaurant?

As soon as the state allows us to have customers come in and sit down and eat then we will reopen. We're ready to do that at any time.

I understand you're not just a restaurant and bar, but you're also a sort of community gathering spot. You hosted musical acts and open mic nights before the shut down. Would you go back to those things when you're allowed to let customers back in the restaurant?

I would, yes.

Do you have any trepidation about allowing people to pack into the space even if you are allowed to reopen?

I feel that I wouldn't personally be at risk. I could be personally at risk with catching a virus, but it's a risk that I'm willing to take personally. And I think customers who want to come in are sort of willingly taking that risk as well. You know, if customers are willing to come in and sit down and eat, I'm willing to open my doors and have that happen.

As you mentioned, a lot of your kids are working at the restaurant right now. What has that been like for for your family? Are they happy to be working a couple hours a day or is there any struggle there?

I mean, they're not happy that they have to stay home. Three of them are in school and now all their classes online. And so this gives them an outlet to get out of the house, do something different for a couple hours a day. And we have fun together.

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Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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