Problems ranging from a failing freezer to the COVID-19 pandemic have delayed the reopening of a popular local Mexican restaurant, but it shouldn’t be much longer for the public to be able to satisfy their cravings.

Ernesto’s, 200 N. Central Ave., closed in mid-December so that owners Mike and Carla Mercado could renovate the restaurant to transition to buffet service. They decided to make the change after Phil and Cathy Mercado left the business to move out of town. Changing to a buffet would allow Mike Mercado and his crew to handle large crowds easier in the absence of his brother and sister-in-law, both of whom also worked at Ernesto’s as co-owners.

It wasn’t long into the switchover when the Mercados ran into trouble.

First, they discovered their point-of-sale system was obsolete and none of the credit card companies could process payments on it. The Mercados replaced the system, but the new one is constantly crashing.

Next, the Mercados suffered a setback in reopening when the buffet equipment they thought a company representative already had ordered was actually not ordered. That caused another delay.

The next hurdle was the big one. Just as they were ready to reopen Ernesto’s, all restaurants had to be shut down because of the pandemic.

The Mercados were ready to open once again and had been stocking up on sealed food in a deep freezer that could be used when freshly cooked food ran low, anticipating the large crowds that would come eat at the new buffet. Then, the freezer shut down. Mercado and employees had been cooking and preparing food for a month.

“We lost everything,” Mike Mercado said. “That’s just one of the many things that has happened.”

Finally, when the Mercados again were prepared to reopen Ernesto’s, the pandemic caused meatpacking plants to close, tripling the price of the beef they needed and even making some of the cuts unavailable. Mercado said if the buffet opened now, Ernesto’s would have to charge more than people are willing to pay to make it profitable.

Instead, the Mercados have gone back to waiting for the right time to reopen. Meat prices have gone down, but the cuts of meat Ernesto’s needs are still high.

Ernesto’s did offer a website-based curbside pickup service, but the system didn’t work well because the restaurant couldn’t control the times when people were scheduled to pick up their orders. Customers showed up at the wrong times and parked in the marked parking stalls where those who showed up at the right time were supposed to park. Mercado said some customers had to park a block away to pick up their food. The service only lasted two days — Friday and Saturday — before the Mercados decided to ditch it.

Now, the Mercados plan to offer a “tried and true” carryout service by taking orders on the phone using a limited menu that will be available on Ernesto’s Facebook page. The menu will expand as the carryout service continues. They plan to open for carryout Tuesday through Friday sometime next week, “if I’m able to get everything taken care of,” Mercado said.

Ernesto’s also is selling its chips, salsa and cheese dip at Timber Creek Meats, 2411 N. 16th St., and Big Chief Drive In, Oswego.

“It’s been crazy. It was unbelievable how much chips and cheese dip and salsa we sold,” Mercado said.

The arrangement has worked out so well that Mercado plans to keep selling at those two locations even after the carryout service begins.

The buffet will still have to wait, although they already have plans for which dish will go where and labeled the buffet with sticky notes.

“Every restaurant is unique in what they can do, and it all depends on the products they use and the quality,” Mercado said.

He has heard from customers on both sides of the issue on whether the buffet should open during a pandemic or not. When Ernesto’s does reopen, the Mercados plan to do everything they can to make it safe, and they’ve already been working on how they can do that.

“We’re going to do this for a while and just buy a little more time, and we’re coming up with ideas to make the buffet safer,” Mercado said.

In the meantime, the phone calls keep coming. People want to know if Ernesto’s is open or when it will open.

“We average 100 calls a day, and it’s been like that four, 5 1/2 months,” Mercado said.

People from Oklahoma and Missouri have called, and even some from COVID-19 hotspots, Mercado said, making him nervous about reopening.

“I never dreamed this would happen,” Mercado said. “That’s my luck. We decided to change over to a buffet, and then a worldwide pandemic hits.”

Mercado said despite all of the challenges, he remains confident that he will be able to successfully open the buffet at some point. He’s just not sure when that will be yet.

“Ernesto’s family would like to let their customers know that they value your family and never intended to be closed this long. Sometimes circumstances make that decision for us,” the Mercados said in a prepared statement.

Recommended for you