At the tail end of 2020, alarming statistics tied to pandemic-related restaurant closures started flying around in the news. Numbers vary slightly depending on the source, but according to the National Restaurant Association, one in six of America's eateries have shuttered since the start of COVID-19. Fact is, if you've cracked open any newspaper or clicked on any news site of late, you've probably found coverage about restaurants being about the hardest hit industry during the pandemic. And though there's really no quantifying who has it worse—and with the understanding that not all restaurants are created equal—fine dining has seen better days. In a city like Santa Fe, where the Department of Workforce Solutions says 12% of our workforce is in hospitality and leisure, that's no joke.
"It's a higher-end experience," says The Compound owner/executive chef Mark Kiffin, "and when people have less disposable income, that's the one that takes the hit."
There's probably something to be said about who has access to fine dining, whom such businesses serve and the lopsided nature of literally everything—but before you get too self-satisfied about the whole thing, remember high-end eateries are not only some of the better moneymakers for workers in the dining hierarchy, they're often the culmination of decades of hard work from owner-operators like Kiffin—who won the Best Chef of the Southwest James Beard Award in 2005. Besides, he's a mainstay of local dining, both with his work at the Coyote Café from 1990 to 1998, and for the last 20 years at The Compound (653 Canyon Road, 982-4353).
But it hasn't been easy in the last year or so, which is why Kiffin is so excited about relaxed state health orders which went into effect when Santa Fe County recently phased into the yellow within the state's Red to Green Framework (meaning we have a new COVID-19 case incidence rate of no greater than 8 cases per 100,000 inhabitants during the most recent two-week period, or an average percent of positive COVID-19 test results over the most recent 14-day period less than or equal to 5%).
Most restaurant owners are probably excited by that news, though many are seemingly moving at a slower pace than last summer, when less intense health orders may have led to skyrocketing COVID-19 numbers. Still, over the Valentine's Day weekend, Kiffin says, business shot up dramatically, and The Compound was booked solid. As such, he'll open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday for now, at least until May when The Compound usually starts offering outdoor service, at which time he might add more days.
And it's not a moment too soon. Kiffin enjoys a liquor license that allows for packaged sales, sort of an anomaly within New Mexico's labyrinthian and archaic liquor licensing world, but he didn't get into the takeout game like so many other local businesses did (not counting Thanksgiving, which, he says, required over 500 food items to pull off). Instead, he's spent the last several months strengthening his financial position, performing maintenance on the restaurant and getting certified in state CSPs, or COVID-Safe Practices. He hired a professional sanitation crew to deep clean the restaurant weekly, which they're still doing; he learned how to better balance his life with his work; he rode his bicycle in warmer months—and he didn't lose any staff. Still, a restaurant can only be closed for so long, particularly when its core selling point is a full-service, in-person experience. In other words, fine dining was not meant for takeout.
"The dining is conversation, the dining is wine, the dining is business and fundraising," Kiffin tells SFR. "We have a number of guests for whom the dining experience is so not just about the food—it's about the personal experience."
So what happens now as we head into supposedly calmer waters and people start eating out more? Kiffin says The Compound is blessed, both with a loyal clientele and a large enough space that serving indoors at 25% capacity isn't as much of a hardship as it could be. He's installed HEPA air filters and actively participates with contact tracing on top of the weekly deep cleaning. Employees also wear masks at all times, even during prep periods when the restaurant is empty.
"All the guidelines the state asks for, we are doing those," he says.
Kiffin is also on the lookout for a new chef de cuisine, though he wants to be clear he's not signaling an ending by any means.
"Every chef I know has said [the pandemic] gave them time they didn't have before with their families," he says. "They want their work back—I want my work back. I love my life's work. It's not about me transitioning out, it's about getting the help we need."
Over 1,500 applications poured in from across the world (yeah, world), and Kiffin is still in the process of vetting and trying out his favorites, though he's not in a rush.
"Now that we're coming back, we're looking forward to seeing our guests again," he says. "We're laughing in the kitchen again. We're smiling behind our masks."