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Restaurants

Q&A: Peño Mediterranean Grill And Tama Cafe

By Jessica Maurer, posted Apr 1, 2020
Rocco Quaranto
The following interview is the first of a new weekly Q&A segment of the Restaurant Roundup that will focus on discussions with local restaurant owners and how they are weathering the COVID-19 crisis. Rocco Quaranto is co-founder of Peño Mediterranean Grill and Tama Cafe.

GWBJ:  As a part-owner in both Peño Mediterranean Grill and Tama Cafe, you have two restaurants impacted by the current situation. We understand that Tama Café is closed. What is the current state of operations at the local Peño locations?
Quaranto: "Peño locations are taking it day by day. This is a crazy time, and nobody truly knows what will happen next. As of now we are doing curbside pickup and delivery. You can call the store or place your order online at www.penogrill.com."

GWBJ: How did you arrive at the decision to close the Tama locations? 
Quaranto: "It was a really tough decision, but the cafe simply isn’t set up for takeout/delivery model. We are a spot to savor your coffee, tea or meal with a friend or on your laptop and enjoy your time in the cafe. Unfortunately our business model wasn’t suited for a delivery-only model."

GWBJ: Has the production of sparkling tea been put on hold as well?
Quaranto: "Luckily, we brewed enough product before this pandemic that we are good on supply and have continued selling our sparkling tea. We sell our sparkling tea on our website ... and are carried in about 100 retailers on the East Coast. Our team has continued to call on new retailers to place product, but it’s a difficult time in every aspect of business right now."

GWBJ: Are all of your Peño employees still working? Have Tama employees been laid off in order for them to file for unemployment?
Quaranto: "At Peño we are doing our best to keep employees and give them as many hours as possible but it’s a very difficult task. Unfortunately, we did need to close both of our Tama Cafe locations -- Wilmington and Raleigh -- and we helped direct employees to their unemployment options.

"Letting go of a single employee is the worst part of my job as an employer, but letting go of the entire staff was absolutely miserable. Our only solace in this decision was that the government removed the hurdles for unemployment allowing people to get the support they need quickly and knowing that we will hire ALL of our employees back as soon as we are able."

GWBJ: What modifications have you made, if any, to the Peño menu to allow for take-out only service? 
Quaranto: "We definitely had to be nimble during this period. We launched a delivery service basically overnight and announced our Family Deal which is two Gyros or wraps of your choice, two kids grilled cheese and two sides all for $25.

"We usually have a very tight process of launching a new menu item or marketing campaign, but with the current times we told our franchisees they have more freedom and to get creative as long as they stick to our core values: world-class customer service, best possible product, fun and inviting atmosphere.

GWBJ: Financially speaking, how much of an impact has the virus had on Peño and Tama Tea so far? 
Quaranto: "Our local, state and federal leaders are making the right decisions, and we support the efforts to beat this virus but it is having devastating effects on our industry. The closure of stores is one thing, but the tail of this event will be monstrous.

"We aren’t sure when we will be back to business as usual, and when that day does come we aren’t sure how long it will take to get back to the sales numbers we were at before this event. This event has also anchored us down from opening up new stores as we were looking to open one to two locations this year, but now we are simply doing what we can to hold on to the stores we have."

GWBJ: What, if any, types of financial assistance will the company be seeking? Will this fall to the individual franchisees? 
Quaranto: "We keep our franchisees at the forefront of everything we do. We have been on the phone with franchisees on a daily basis helping them navigate this unprecedented event.

"We send out regular updates with info that we have. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a lot of up-to-date info on their website listing out the rules for the CARES Act and how our franchisees can take advantage of this aid. We are giving them the info they need to work with their bank to apply for the relief that they desperately need."

GWBJ: As a leader in the business community, do you have any advice for other business owners?
Quaranto: "This is an amazingly difficult time for all of us. We are all in this together, and the best thing to do is to reach out to your fellow business owners and ask if they need help with anything. We have donated food-grade bottles to End of Days Distillery when they ran out of bottles for their hand sanitizer among other small ways we could help our fellow local businesses. We have also appreciated help from other businesses supporting us as well. We need to unite as a community of business owners and together we can weather this storm."

GWBJ: What can locals do to help support small businesses during and after the crisis?
Quaranto: "Be there for your favorite businesses. Ordering online from local businesses and buying gift cards is an amazing way to help. You can also support them without spending a dollar. Engaging with your favorite hair salon, restaurant, etc. on social media is a great way to show your support. Share, like or comment on their post or simply send them a note of encouragement as we all need it during these tough times.

"We will get through this, and all of us at Tama Tea and Peño Grill are looking forward to the light at the end of the tunnel where we can give our regulars a hug or high five and share some laughs."

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