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Gainesville restaurants finding it hard to recover from COVID-19

The sole motivation that sustains Jennifer Alvarez through the workday is the promise of a margarita flight and chips with salsa at La Fiesta.

Each morning, when the alarm rings at 7:30 a.m. sharp, the 34-year-old’s mind instantly fixates on the mouthwatering tacos.

“Every visit feels like a Cinco de Mayo celebration at La Fiesta,” Alvarez said. “I come here three to four times a week if I’m being honest. The food and atmosphere are perfect for family and friends.”

Despite recently passing on the restaurant ownership to their children, former La Fiesta owners Jesse and Guadalupe Castro have always dreamt of filling their tables with loyal patrons like Alvarez.

Unfortunately, this Mexican eatery is just one of many restaurants in Gainesville, as well as nationwide, that has grappled with the devastating economic effects of COVID-19.

In 2020, more than 110,000 restaurants across the United States closed their doors, either temporarily or permanently, according to the National Restaurant Association. In comparison, 5,695 restaurants closed nationally in 2011.

After more than 30 years of operation, La Fiesta announced its official closure on Dec. 23, 2023.

The owners blamed financial issues, as the restaurant was not generating enough revenue to cover the costs of supplies and pay employees, especially with inflation on the rise.

Nonetheless, in the days following this announcement, the restaurant received an outpouring of support from patrons via social media platforms, phone calls and emails.

So much so, that on its final night before closing, Jesse and Guadalupe Castro announced that La Fiesta would be staying in business.

The Castros continued to harbor a glimmer of hope that their business would eventually return.

“It truly was a Christmas miracle,” self-proclaimed Mexican restaurant connoisseur, Felipe Suarez, 36, said. “People cried and people laughed. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.”

Under the new ownership of Jesse and Guadalupe Castro’s children, Amanda and David Castro, the restaurant reopened on Jan. 29.

Jesse Castro highlights the establishment's latest developments, which include renovations to both the interior and exterior, adjustments to the menu and revised operating hours, all features that he believes will contribute to its future success.

“Expect a fresh and invigorating atmosphere that reflects the vibrant spirit of Gainesville, creating a space where patrons can savor not just delicious cuisine but an immersive dining experience,” the Castro family said in a joint news release.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the restaurant in February marking its official reopening.

“Hell yeah!” Joan Sanders, 65, exclaimed, as she drowned her tortilla chip in salsa. “What a turnout today.”

Hosting weekly events to draw in the public, Jesse Castro said he is pleased so far with the daily turnouts.

“Our events have been able to captivate everyone and that fills us and inspires us to continue growing more and more,” said Castro.

The ongoing effects of COVID-19 on restaurants, however, are not limited to Gainesville.

Eateries nationwide continue to face similar challenges stemming from inflationary increases and supply chain shortages.

Statista reported that 62% of restaurant decision-makers consider inflation and difficulty acquiring food and supplies as their top issues.

Of that number, 28% said they were forced to increase prices, 23% said they had to change their menu items and 22% said they changed portion sizes.

These percentages show that a total of 62% of restaurants cite inflation and difficulty obtaining food as challenges post-COVID-19. Many restaurants are making changes to deal with these challenges.
(Statista ⋅ Rebecca Marks/WUFT)
These percentages show that a total of 62% of restaurants cite inflation and difficulty obtaining food as challenges post-COVID-19. This number is further broken down into three sectors.

A report from Revenue Management Solutions, a consultancy, also conveyed that restaurants are seeing 47% fewer people dining on-premises compared to before the pandemic.

Despite this, off-premises dining has picked up, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Richard Delvallée, the senior vice president of consulting services at Revenue Management Solutions, reports that incorporating drive-thru lanes has emerged as the top-performing revenue channel for restaurants.

“What we've seen is that other people are kind of dropping the dining in,” Delvallée said. “In the beginning, we thought, maybe that's a COVID thing. But this kind of has stuck and you see drive-through really taking over in terms of share quite significantly.”

The dominance of drive-throughs – which account for two-thirds of all fast-food purchases – on consumer behavior remains strong in the post-COVID-19 era.

Hudson Riehle, an economist for the National Restaurant Association agrees that the food service landscape has changed significantly.

“Operationally, many restaurants function differently than they did three years ago, with a greater reliance on technology integration and on the off-premises market,” Riehle said.

Amid these shifts, some restaurants in the surrounding Gainesville areas have not been as lucky as La Fiesta.

Son Vo, the owner of Gainesville’s first Viet-Cajun seafood boil and authentic Vietnamese cuisine restaurant, decided to close his restaurant in December, after three years of business.

“COVID definitely affected the early days of getting business, and we had to pivot our original model because our dining style focuses on the traditional dine-in experience,” Vo said.

Ultimately, management was forced to adjust pricing and staffing levels in the restaurant’s third year of business, he said.

“We cut labor, ran a really tight ship and still were not able to hit our numbers,” he said.

Although just 0.2 miles apart, a Taco Bell drive-through remains packed while Swamp Boil, a dine-in restaurant, is permanently shut down. This shows the consequences of COVID-19 on dine-in establishments in the Gainesville area.
(Rebecca Marks/WUFT)
Although just 0.2 miles apart, a Taco Bell drive-through remains packed while Swamp Boil, a dine-in restaurant, is permanently shut down. This shows the consequences of COVID-19 on dine-in establishments in the Gainesville area.

Announcing their closure was not taken lightly by locals.

During its final week, Swamp Boil experienced the highest influx of sales since its three years of being open.

“I was so heartbroken,” Adam Biedermann, a 20-year-old finance student at the University of Florida, said when recalling his final meal at Swamp Boil. “This was a staple in my diet. I wish I could have done more to keep this place alive.”

Others also showed support by driving distances for one last taste of the Viet-Cajun cuisine.

Another business citing similar financial challenges is Sweet Dreams, an ice cream parlor boasting 19 years of service in Gainesville..

In a Facebook post, owner Mike Manfredi announced the parlor’s official closure at the end of 2023.

“My costs have soared since COVID and have not returned to anything approaching reasonable,” Manfredi said in a Facebook post. “Along with the higher wages for employees and the multitude of random fees and aggravations, it is just not worth it anymore.”

Despite the tumultuous landscape of COVID-19, one restaurant in Gainesville stood resilient amid the unprecedented challenges.

Ash Free, the owner of Birdie Box, credits his cleverness to keeping the restaurant afloat. After opening as a popup, he said he quickly recognized that running an outdoor facility allowed him to dodge barriers that dine-in kitchens faced.

“We had to pivot into different items and be very nimble,” Ash said.

The closure of some of Gainesville’s beloved restaurants represent the fate of thousands of eateries nationwide that have wrestled with the crippling economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What the heck am I supposed to do for fun now?” asked Ava Hooper, 60, a retired teacher. “It sucks, but the long-term COVID effects seem to be squeezing the life out of more and more local establishments.”

Rebecca is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing