Magaly’s Tamales and Mexican Grill

Joeleen and Miguel Medina were at home with their kids with they heard Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of the closing of  restaurants, bars and gyms statewide because of the pandemic outbreak of coronavirus. LA county health officials followed with a similar action, and the San Fernando council declared a city state of emergency at its March 16 meeting.

As owners and operators of the Truman House Tavern in San Fernando, the Medinas — at least subconsciously — knew a decision like this was possible as medical and governmental authorities grapple with the best way to respond to the current pandemic crisis. But it is still hard to hear when it’s your business, a business that has been only operating at it’s location in the San Fernando Mall since 2018.

“We’re about to start the next two weeks of [their kids] being out of school. That’s already a lot to wrap our heads around, trying to keep them stable,” Joeleen Medina said. “[Now] we had to start thinking about what could happen, go into protection mode for our employees and staff — we have parents who work with us, so we already knew so much change was coming.”

“When that decree came in, it was a whole lot at once. I felt there were a lot of decisions that had to be made instantly. There was no more wiggle room. It made it feel like everyone was expecting answers ASAP. And it’s not like anyone was giving me answers. I didn’t know who to call and ask, and get information from to answer questions to staff.”

Magaly Colelli, who owns and operates Magaly’s Tamales and Mexican Grill with her husband Chris, has been operating at her location in San Fernando since 2016, but has been making tamales “for almost 20 years” so she has endured good times and bad times.

But she has not been in a situation quite like this.

“Nobody could have [foreseen the pandemic], and more than anything it’s gonna be hard on our small businesses,” Magaly Colelli said. “A lot of our stores here in San Fernando are family owned. We’re not big retail chains, or corporations that can afford to take losses like this. But it’s something we’re gonna have to take day-by-day and see whatever happens.”

There are more than 800 licensed businesses in the City of San Fernando. And according to City Manager Nick Kimball, approximately 80 of them are directly impacted by the LA county Health Department order. The only way they can stay open right now is to provide a takeout service; no in-dining can be offered at this time.

Colelli said half of her business revolved around in-dining and much of her tamale service was takeout.

“I guess we’re a little different because we have a particular product, like a specialty, with our tamales,” she said. “[The shutdown] is gonna have an impact, but because we have the tamales I don’t think it will be a huge impact as it will be with our other food selection. We have the wholesale, which is the tamales, and we have the retail, which is all our other food.

“What we’d noticed this weekend was our food [sales] had dropped but our sales with the tamales had increased. That may be because people are [buying] the tamales and storing them, just in case they need a meal.”

The Truman House, on the other hand, is mainly an in-dining facility,  Medina said.

“We’ve never been a restaurant that offered ‘to go’ meals. We were a ‘dine-in’ only experience. The type of establishment we wanted to create in this community was focusing on customers dining with us. We’ve always practiced keeping packaging at a minimum because we didn’t want to have all that [throwaway trash],” she said.

“You do prepare for certain contingencies — but not something to this degree. This is something all on its own. It feels different because of all the restaurants that have to close together. It doesn’t feel so alone.”

Medina said she will attempt to temporarily convert to providing a take-out service. “We’re going to have to evolve with the times. It’s gonna take extra focus as opposed to something already in place. The containers, the plasticware, all that stuff…”

But the bigger issue for both facilities and other small businesses is the uncertainty of how long the shutdown will last. Magaly’s Tamales employs 22 people, while Truman House has 24 employees. No one has been laid off or let go yet, but neither business could withstand a very long period of being closed.

“I think for a month we’ll figure it out,” Colelli said. “Any smart business owner knows you have to have a reserve, always have that backup plan for your slow months. But if this prolongs for 2-3 months, we’re gonna be in trouble.

“My busiest season is Christmas. I have slow months in June, July and August, so I save for those months. But what if I have to use that money for this, and on top of that have my slow months. That’s where it would be hard.”

The timeline could be even tighter for Medina.

“Rent’s not gonna stop,” she said. “We just [recently] paid a huge City bill — that depleted us. Our cash flow is day-today. We make our decisions based on what works for everyone; always what works for our employees, what works for us. It’s a lot to juggle right now. Even to call someone in to work today who we know might not have day-care coverage for their kid, that weighs on our shoulders.”

Financial assistance is being discussed at the state and federal government levels. But there are no guarantees. And there is no sense of when the pandemic — at least in the US — will crest.

“I’m hoping [the government] will do something like that for business in general, provide some relief,” Colelli said. “There are some businesses that are going to depend on that to stay in business. Because there are businesses where one [bad] month can really affect them — even two weeks of not doing business, especially when the rent comes up. That’s the hardest part.”