The Wash
People enjoying Mexican food outside Tequila and Mezcal

Columbia Heights Latino restaurants struggle to benefit from Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic restaurants in Columbia Heights are still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and owners are hoping to capitalize on Hispanic Heritage Month as one way to attract customers.

These owners know that one themed month is not enough to compensate for the losses caused by COVID-19. But, the month is just one of many ways they hope to bring in new business.

Hispanic Heritage Month started on Sept. 15 and will last until Oct. 15. This is a month to celebrate and recognize Hispanic culture and history. And it comes at a great time, as Hispanic-owned businesses are still trying to recover from the impact of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 slowed everything down. We didn’t close, but we changed our hours. We used to open the whole day, now we just open in the evening,” said operations manager William Martinez of Tequila and Mezcal, a Mexican and Salvadoran family-owned bar and restaurant in Columbia Heights, in D.C.’s Ward 1.

Mural painting inside Tequila and Mezcal

It’s hard to say if it will go back to normal, but Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to bring in new customers after the COVID-19 loss, Martinez said. “There is a new wave of customers to show support during the Hispanic Heritage Month.”

The U.S. government started the Paycheck Protection Program in April 2020 to help small businesses pay their employees, said Walda Yon, a chief executive at the Latino Economic Development Center. LEDC also started loan programs to help Latino businesses pay their rent, she said. However, only 3% of Latino business owners had access to total funding through PPP, compared to 7% for white owners, according to a study by Marlene Orozco and Inara Suman Taraque.

“Clients were not here. They simply went back home,” said Yon.

Mexico flag at the entrance of Tequila and Mezcal

And Columbia Heights was not spared. The neighborhood is the heart of the Spanish-speaking Latin American population in D.C., with 22% of residents identifying as Hispanics, which is the highest number in the city, according to US Census Bureau figures. District Bridges, a nonprofit organization that aims to help businesses in a large portion of Northwest D.C. to thrive, said that Columbia Heights had the largest number of Hispanic restaurants in Ward 1, with 13 different options.

“I wish I could do more,” said Amanda Monaco, Main Street manager of Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant for District Bridges, about Hispanic Heritage Month.

She helps Latino business owners to develop their businesses.

This ranges from helping fill out government documents to advising them on how to promote their businesses. This summer, the group launched workshops on how to create promotional websites. In the next few months, District Bridges will keep on reaching out to Latino business owners to ask them what they need, she said.

So far, Hispanic Heritage Month hasn’t changed the number of customers visiting Mi Casita Bakery and Deli, explained Brigitte Galicia, the restaurant’s cashier. Customers have passionate conversations in Spanish on the restaurant’s terrace at the corner of a street.

“We welcome everyone, Black, white, Hispanics,” said Deisi Aleman, a Honduran employee of La Cabaña Restaurante at Columbia Heights.

The Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant skipped over Hispanic Heritage Month, as it already painted its windows with Halloween themes. Aleman said there will be “a big happy hour” during the weekend of Halloween. Tex-Mex fajitas, pollo con tajadas and margaritas are very popular and are expected to be widely served during Halloween, she said.

After Halloween, the neighborhood will have another event to attract visitors. Small business owners are encouraged to decorate their stores as Columbia Heights’ Main Street will be part of D.C. Holiday Lights from Nov. 18 to Jan. 8. District Bridges’ Monaco hopes that it will promote the businesses of Columbia Heights outside Ward 1.

Solène Guarinos

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