Deliveries revive Vallarta Mexican Restaurant in Exeter

Vallarta revamped their menu and began delivering orders for the first time in their history and customers have responded favorably

EXETER – The ongoing pandemic has forced old businesses to pick up new practices in order to keep their doors open. This includes Vallarta Mexican Restaurant who had to alter their menu and deliver their orders for the first time to service their customers.

Vallarta is a family-owned business that has been serving authentic Mexican cuisine to the Exeter community since 1999. Similar to many businesses around the country, their future was uncertain when the pandemic first started in early spring. Within the first few days, they decided to revamp their menu. The six-page menu book was condensed into one laminated sheet that they mailed around the community.

“We were scared and we had to think outside of the box,” Naomi Espinoza said. “We noticed that it helped. That’s what did it for us or we were probably going to close down for sure.”

Naomi Espinoza and her sister Laura began running the store in April 2019 after their parents, Juana and Antonio, retired. Vallarta received a favorable response after mailing out menus to the community and were also able to gain new clientele.

“We had some customers who had no clue that we were open until they received this new menu. Then we got some new customers who had no idea we were here in town,” Espinoza said.

About a year ago, Vallarta experimented with DoorDash, a popular food delivery service. It was a short-lived experiment since there were minimal drivers in the Exeter area. Most drivers came from Visalia and Porterville, so the food would be cold by time it got to the customer. Fast forward to this year when people have been encouraged to shelter-in-place in their homes, Vallarta decided to try delivery again. This time, they did the deliveries themselves.

“Delivery was scary for us, we had no clue how that worked. It started with one or two deliveries a day then it picked up once we mailed out our new menu,” Espinoza said. “Delivery saved us because we weren’t going to survive on just pick up orders.”

Customers responded so well that Vallarta had to hire a new delivery driver. They only have the option for delivery from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then from 5 p.m. to closing, which is their busy hours.

Despite the positive changes that the restaurant made, the ongoing pandemic has been difficult to navigate.

“My dad would say stuff like ‘well I guess there’s an end to everything’ and we were all in that mood during that first week because nobody knew…it was scary. Yet here we are, several months later.”

Staffing was their biggest challenge. They lost four employees for various reasons, which left Naomi and Laura to run the place, plus their mom who would come out of retirement to provide a helping hand. Their cousin, Luz Ramos, was visiting from Mexico but decided to stay and lend her services. However there were some days where it was just Naomi and her sister Laura running the restaurant themselves.

“It was scary, it’s just two in the kitchen and then four of us out front. If one of them [in the kitchen] had gotten sick or couldn’t be here, then we would have closed for sure. The kitchen is our heart and motor,” Espinoza said. “It helps that we’re a small restaurant but what kills us is the long hours. For us it was just home and work, we weren’t doing anything else.”

To combat burnout and fatigue, Vallarta decided to close on Saturdays. That gave their employees a day of rest so they aren’t working nonstop. They were deciding between Saturday and Monday, and chose the former because every other restaurant in the area is open on Saturday. There are neighboring restaurants that are closed on Monday, so they decided it’d be best to stay open on that day. Although staffing was their biggest challenge, it was also the most positive thing the business has gleaned throughout the pandemic.

“The support from our employees who have stayed and have been here with us has made a big difference for us,” Espinoza said. “I told [one of our cooks] that I don’t know what is going to happen and she told me, ‘Well we’ll be here like the titanic until the end’ and that made me feel really good,” Espinoza said.

Despite the challenges, Vallarta did not have to shut down their restaurant at any point over the last few months. Early on they had to reduce their hours but now they are back open from 11-8. The local community has helped make the extensive work worth it.

“Exeter is great, they’ve been good to us. My parents worked hard for 20 years and the community accepted them, so I feel that they like us,” Espinoza said. “The fact that they’d come in here and thank us for being open, they didn’t have to thank us. This is our job, this is what we’re supposed to be doing.”

For more information about Vallarta Mexican Restaurant, visit their website

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