Food Tour New Mexico's Nick Peña talks the future of doing business

Though Nick Peña conceived of Food Tour New Mexico ages ago, he made it a reality in 2011.

The company's core premise is simple: One of Peña's guides takes visiting or local diners to various restaurants in Santa Fe and/or Albuquerque for special menu items. The idea is that food tourists can get a little bit of a lot of types of food while learning city and restaurant history from a local—win/win. SFR even took the tour a couple years back and had a grand time with a knowledgable guide named Carlos.

And because Peña's been working so closely with restaurants for so many years (and also worked for a time as the food editor at Albuquerque The Magazine), he seemed as good a person as any to ask about the future of dining, particularly during a week wherein Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has allowed restaurants to reopen so long as they limit capacity.

For Peña, the fallout of the pandemic came at the tail-end of a particularly prosperous time.

"Y'know, we were completely growing and increasing in ticket sales and revenue and, ironically enough, the winter months, which are typically very slow for Santa Fe, were some of our busiest on record," he says. "I was excited coming into the spring because we were off to an amazing start."

But as COVID-19 barreled across the land, Peña's business came to a screeching halt. He was forced to lay off all four of his guides and take out loans (not PPP) to pay bills and marketing contracts that were still in play despite the pandemic.

"Because of how the business is formulated, there was no work for everyone," he says. "It went from being super busy until the first few days of March—to literally nothing."

Not only did the cancellations and closures affect his own business, it hit his partnering restaurants as well. Unlike plenty of other, similar companies, Peña says, Food Tour New Mexico paid for their meals outright.

"We'd purchase like a patron," he says. "In some other tours, they're asking for free stuff, and it's not as great an experience—but we're coming in, buying food, buying drinks and giving back to the local economy. It's generating an experience, and all the money is staying right here."

Still, as restaurants reopen this week, Peña remains cautious about his own future. Rather than dive back in immediately, he's taking time to assess the situation.

"I'm kind of split down the middle," he explains. "I'm excited the industry is going to have an opportunity to start making money again, because parts of it were kind of forgotten about; there wasn't much aid for servers and people in the kitchen, and I can't imagine how tough that must have been or still—the other side of me is curious to know how well it's going to actually function."

Peña spends (or spent) most of his time in restaurants. He uniquely understands volume and necessity and, perhaps most pressing right now, overhead.

"If I can only have a fraction of the guests on my tour, I don't know if I'll make it, and if some of the places in downtown Santa Fe are having to operate at 25% capacity, are they?" he says. "They're doing the patio thing, they're starting to do the indoor dining, and my hope is we're going to find that it works and things will progress, but I also think a lot of things are going to change. Social distancing is just going to be the norm, and you're going to have to be understanding when you go into a high end restaurant and the server is wearing a mask and gloves. It's going to be a whole new world."

As for whether diners are prepared for said new world order, Peña's apprehensive there as well. While he says it's probable the vast majority of diners will understand the changes, he fears the excitement of finally leaving the house will put people in strange places emotionally.

"But they need to be aware there are going to be new rules," he adds. "I would hope people are self-aware enough to know they're not walking back into business as usual."

Ultimately, though, Peña's concerns land with the community at large. Food Tour New Mexico has been his baby, but his love for the Santa Fe/Albuquerque area runs deep. He is, how we say, born here all his life.

"I guess I'm not too concerned with myself—I'm a pretty healthy guy," he says. "But I'm concerned about my mother, about my grandparents. If they need me, I'm there for them, so I don't want to be concerned about being sick or an asymptomatic carrier. As excited as I am to open soon, I'll probably give it time. But I'll be supporting restaurants when it comes to ordering—I just picked up some food at the Jambo Hapa food truck. It's late in the year, but I am getting inquiries from people who want to book in September and October; we have gift certificates, we have a merch store; we've changed a lot of policies to allow for things like indefinite credits, things like that. I just hope some of the events that carry our state go through this year, like Balloon Fiesta."

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