As COVID-19 numbers trend upward once more, the future of restaurants continues to hang in the balance. Which brings us to Piper Kapin, longtime owner/operator of Back Road Pizza (1807 Second St. #1, 955-9055), pillar of the community and certified pizza champ. When other local restaurants eagerly announced they'd reopen at limited capacities, Kapin decided her restaurant would take it slow, only opening when the team felt ready.
SFR: Back Road has been a holdout as other Santa Fe restaurants start reopening. Can you speak to what went into that decision?
Kapin: I'll start out by saying that the decision came from a very fortunate place of being able to pivot our business model and do well with it. Pizza going out the door and no contact service is working really well. I'm super aware a lot of other restaurants and models don't pivot that way, but pizza's like a model citizen for takeout, so I was able to make that decision from the place of being fortunate. We were already financially doing OK, and honestly, that was kind of it. While I understand the tension around the economy versus health versus science, it just didn't feel like it was time to open.
Now that COVID-19 numbers seem to be going back up, are things going to change at all for Back Road day-to day?
We have our new system down. The restaurant physically has transitioned, the staffing model has transitioned, we're going to stay the course right now.
Do you think the restaurant as we once knew it is now dead?
I think the business is permanently changed. I think the world is permanently changed. The short answer is, it's hard for me to imagine density happening. I don't know the answer. I do think business models will have to change. This one is working well for us, so I'm not unhappy doing what we're doing. If it's financially sustainable and continues to provide what the community needs, we can keep doing what we're doing right now as a new model.
Back Road famously started offering grocery items during the pandemic. Do you see that new element sticking?
I'd like for it to stick. Personally, I love spaces like that. I grew up going to Italian markets where there's a deli and you can get sandwiches and pizza and food, but you can also get groceries and milk. I love that, but to me the grocery thing is dependent on what the community needs. I think we all learned a lot about the food chain—which was that all of a sudden the grocery chains didn't have things the restaurant chains could still get. We started it because people couldn't find yeast or flour and everybody was asking us; everybody wanted to bake bread all of sudden, which I found very charming. I'd be happy to continue if it's a needed thing. We had, like, 45 items by the end of it, and a lot of people have said this saved them a trip to the grocery store. That's cool, one less trip to the store, one person at high-risk getting no contact.
Has the city and/or state been as supportive as we’d all like to hope?
Something the state could do for restaurants would be to shift the laws so we can sell packaged alcohol out the door. I've called [the State Alcoholic Beverage Control Division] several times now, and I've talked to people about…even if it's just beer and wine, or even if we make it local beer and wine only…I get calls every day from people looking for a six-pack or growler. We've thrown out gobs of beer and wine, and that's something the state and the city together could do fairly easily. That's a difficult topic in New Mexico, but we're all certified and we can do it safely.
What are you hearing from the restaurant owner community these days?
They're really stressed, really confused, really unsure of how to make these big decisions. What does being able to open at 25 to 50% do? Whatever capacity you were running at before, there wasn't a bunch of [extra] money to give up. You essentially need to have the amount of staffing at 50% capacity as you do at 100%, so it really crushes your profits. I know people who are facing closure and uncertainty and were unable to figure out how to get people interested in choosing them as a takeout model. We're supposed to be leaders, and this is really unprecedented. Everyone's looking at us about the decisions and how to do everything, but none of us have done this or faced something like this before.
If you could give one piece of advice to the general public about dining right now, what would it be?
I would say wear a mask and tip well. Everyone working in a restaurant right now is putting themselves at risk every day. Please help us stay safe. I want to say, it's not just you, it's the 99 other people we need to engage with throughout the day, too.