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AZTEC — Most people don’t think about heading to a restaurant to pick up groceries, but Rubia's, a Mexican restaurant in Aztec, has been providing that service for a couple of weeks.

The popular Aztec restaurant has had to switch to curbside meal pickup as the state has restricted restaurant operations in attempts to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Sales at Rubia’s are down 60% due to the coronavirus restrictions, which include social distancing and no in-restaurant dining, according to the owner, Randy Hodge. Hodge said half of the sales he makes are people wanting groceries.

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This switch to offering groceries is one way Rubia’s is trying to survive. Hodge said he has had to lay off 35 employees and is trying to avoid laying off the remainder of the staff.

“I decided to do it the day they told us to close our doors to indoor dining,” he said.

Initially he planned to sell off the inventory he had in the restaurant, but soon he discovered the demand for groceries in the community. Since then he has kept the grocery side of his business going.

“We are trying to provide a service to the community that helps with meeting or beating the coronavirus,” Hodge said.

He said people can call ahead for curbside pickup of groceries or come in and browse the small selection. The small setting tends not to have the crowds that large grocery stores attract, making it a good fit for people in high risk groups.

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And Rubia’s can offer items that many stores are struggling to keep on the shelf, including meat, disinfectant and yeast.

Hodge’s approach is not unique, and the New Mexico Restaurant Association is working to help businesses that are adding grocery options.

Carol Wight, chief executive officer of the New Mexico Restaurant Association in Albuquerque, said she was unaware of the plans by Rubia's owners to convert to a grocery store model. But she said her organization has been working with state officials to make that option available to those who own eateries. She said it appears so far that there are no regulations that would prohibit a restaurant from operating in that fashion.

"We've been lobbying the governor to make an announcement that this is what we're doing," she said, explaining that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham could help consumers understand that restaurants can meet some of their needs that grocery stores cannot right now.

Restaurants have different supply lines than grocery stores, she said, and they would be able to provide consumers with products like toilet paper that are difficult to find in traditional markets.

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Wight said a pronouncement from the governor would go a long way toward leading consumers to think about restaurants as a source of some of those products. She said most eateries need all the help they can get in these circumstances.

"If nobody's going to them for groceries, they're not going to stay open for very long," she said. "We need the help of the governor's bully pulpit for that."

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That system already is in place in neighboring Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily authorized restaurants to sell bulk groceries on March 24. Wight believes such a model holds a fair amount of promise for New Mexico, especially in rural areas that have a handful of restaurants but don't have a traditional grocery store.

Wight said she has heard from many of her members that the takeout and delivery model they are operating under is not providing enough business to allow them to stay open. She said many restaurant owners are suspending their operations during the shutdown.

"I'm calling it hibernation," she said. "They're closing down temporarily, not permanently."

There is not really any way to put a pretty face on what is happening to New Mexico restaurants during the shutdown, Wight said.

"It's a little bleak right now, and the longer this goes on, the bleaker it gets," she said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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