On Thursday, May 14, Paris Retana wasn’t sure how much longer Lake Burrito, the casual Mexican restaurant he co-owns with his twin sisters, Alicia and Mildred, would survive. The coronavirus pandemic had brought business to a crawl and caused wild increases in the cost of ingredients. Staff was furloughed. The dining area was closed. Lake Burrito’s outlook was grim.
When the restaurant opened the next day, over 50 people were waiting in the parking lot. Steven Hartsock, owner of Socks’ Love Barbecue in Cumming, had heard about Lake Burrito’s struggles and posted a video on social media calling on the community to support his fellow restaurant owners. Hartsock promised to donate all of Socks’ Love’s sales that day to Lake Burrito.
Both restaurants sold out of food, and television crews came out the following week to tell the story of how a community saved a local business from the brink.
“It was just unbelievable,” Paris said. “The support we received from people, it was overwhelming.”
Nearly three months later, Lake Burrito’s outlook is better, Paris said. Business was especially strong for a month after Hartsock’s video, and the restaurant was able to bring its staff back from furlough, add back menu items and cover expenses like rent and utilities.
“Hopefully that was a one-time thing,” Paris said, “and we’ll never experience that again.”
Paris and his sisters came into 2020 ready to take Lake Burrito to the next level. It had been four years since Paris returned from studying cooking and working in fine dining in New York to help revive the family restaurant with his sisters. With a new name and a dedication to healthy, locally-sourced ingredients, Lake Burrito had built up a strong team of experienced employees and a devoted following in the North Forsyth community. It felt like the right time to take a risk.
The siblings went far and wide to find the perfect spot to open a second location and landed on the Marietta Square Market food hall.
“We were just ready,” Paris said. “Everyone was excited. We thought this was our year.”
They were about to sign the lease when the pandemic began to take hold in Georgia.
“Way too risky,” Paris said.
Instead, Lake Burrito was almost crushed by the pandemic.
The siblings closed the restaurant for three weeks, and when it reopened it was limited to curbside service because of its tiny dining area.
Meat prices soared as COVID-19 cases at production plants across the U.S. threatened the country’s supply chain.
To survive, Lake Burrito cut hours, cut staff, and cut menu items.
“It sounds sad, right?” Paris said at the time.
When Hartsock published his video, it kicked off nearly a month of nonstop customers.
“We were running out of food basically every single day for three weeks,” Paris said, “which was a great problem. We were extremely happy.”
Though times are better, there are still reminders of the pandemic’s power on their business. The latest issue? Eggs. The restaurant’s supplier of local organic eggs is selling out to vendors willing to pay rising prices, so Lake Burrito won’t serve breakfast for the rest of the year.
Meanwhile, business has gradually slowed since those first weeks after the flood of support from Hartsock’s video.
“People are suffering right now financially,” Paris said. “We’ve heard it from our friends, our guests. The situation at home is tough. This is a bit of splurge right now.”
And being a family-run business makes the restaurant feel more vulnerable to the virus. If Lake Burrito had a positive COVID-19 case, Paris said they would close for two weeks to ensure the safety of their family and the community, even though Georgia guidelines allow businesses to remain open.
“We think it’s the right thing to do,” Paris said.
Still, Paris said he and his siblings are grateful for the community’s support. They hope it was a reaction to the years they have spent serving quality, healthy food and cultivating a welcoming spirit with customers.
The siblings summed it up on Lake Burrito’s marquee sign last week: “The grass is greener where you water it.”
“Yeah, things, they’re tough,” Paris said, “and there are all these obstacles, but if you put in the work, it pays off.”