By Mary Hennigan
El Taco Loco, a popular restaurant along busy College Avenue in Fayetteville, Arkansas, normally has a staff of 15 serving a mix of hungry college students and locals. Today, the restaurant has half its usual staff because of COVID-19 restrictions, leaving Yolanda Soto and her husband working constantly to keep the business alive.
“My husband and I have to work like seven days a week, open to close, so we can save money on some employees,” Soto, a mother of two, said. “We have to be here working, trying to survive.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many businesses to close or absorb major cutbacks in operations. The problem is compounded in Arkansas’ Hispanic community, one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Many of those business owners have little time for their families as they try to remain open. Soto has had to lay off employees, cut closing time back by two hours and somehow meet payroll when the restaurant limps along at 40% of capacity.
“I know that the impact has been tremendous,” said Rodolfo Quilantan, consulate of Mexico in Little Rock. “Many of them have closed their business, some of them have limited the working hours, they have fired some employees.”
Arkansas Hispanics have suffered 114 deaths and some 22,000 positive COVID-19 cases, according to Dec. 7 data from the Arkansas Department of Health. Compared to the other race and ethnicities, the Hispanic community has the second-highest infection rate, with 951 cases per 10,000 population.
“COVID’s been tough for everybody, but in particular the Hispanic-owned businesses, mainly because a good chunk of them are restaurants,” Miguel Lopez, chief community outreach officer at Encore Bank, Little Rock said. “It’s no secret that at the beginning of the pandemic, restaurants were seated at limited capacity.”
Before the pandemic, El Sol Mexican Restaurant in Fayetteville could seat about 100 customers, many of whom were large families and groups. Now, the business tops off at about 25 to comply with COVID-19 guidelines.
The family business also endured a month-long closing from March to April while owner, Eugenia Soto, and employee, Thania Soto, were infected with COVID-19. Without any source of income, “that month was pretty hard for us,” Thania Soto said.
Originally immigrants from Mexico, Eugenia and Roberto Soto, started the business in 2007 without having a prior education. Eugenia and Roberto Soto are not related to the El Taco Loco owners.
“They feel pretty proud to have a small business without going to school,” their 18-year-old daughter Thania Soto said. “They feel very accomplished.”
Managing the business has not come without sacrifice for the Soto family, however. The number of employees has been cut in half to four and sales are down 30%, Eugenia Soto said. Outside of work, family visits are rare.
“I have four sisters, me and my parents barely spend time with them anymore,” Thania said. “We miss them a lot.”
Nationally, Hispanic-owned businesses are steadily growing and increased 46% from 2007-2012, according to a Stanford Business report. Similarly, the Hispanic population in Arkansas has increased an estimated 26% since 2010, according to the United States Census Bureau. The estimated 2019 population was about 235,000, which made up nearly 8% of the state’s total.