Small Business Survivors: Manhattan’s Cantina Rooftop welcomes diners after weathering two shutdowns

saul and pedro
Chef Saul Montiel (l) and Pedro Zamora (r)
Photos courtesy of Cantina Rooftop

A Manhattan restaurant is working to make sure their employees are taken care of during the pandemic.

Cantina Rooftop opened four years ago with visions of providing delicious and quality Mexican food. With floors of indoor dining and a rooftop with a retractable glass enclosure, the restaurant was the go-to place for Manhattanites to enjoy a night out any time of the year.

“When we opened, I thought it was going to be worth the wait. I had great expectations,” said Pedro Zamora, owner of Cantina Rooftop. “A few years back, we made some changes that were working wonderfully up to the pandemic. We made great progress in four years, I can’t complain.”

However, the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in March 2020 stopped all of that in an instant. Cantina Rooftop opted to shut down completely so everyone involved could stay safe.

“We responded kind of quickly, took action and closed, we didn’t wait any longer,” said Cantina Rooftop Chef Saul Montiel. “We were worried about safety, not just for the customers but also the staff, so we decided to close as soon as possible.”

“It was hard for us, I don’t remember the amount of employees we had that depended on the restaurant — my staff going up, it goes down again in the winter, but in March it goes up,” said Zamora. “Right as we were expecting a good season, everything happened. It was shocking.”

Cantina Rooftop shut down for around four months, and Montiel says that the restaurant was luckily able to work something out with their landlord to stay afloat on rent payments. Montiel credits the communication that they had with each other and their partners helped get them through the first leg of shutdowns.

However, outside of the staff at Cantina Rooftop Montiel and Zamora were seeing that those they worked within the industry were also suffering.

“It was kind of sad because a lot of people lost their jobs, it was everybody, even the company that works with our purveyors,” said Monteil. “I have a relationship with a guy who sells us bread. I’ve been working with the guy for the past 10 years, I feel so sorry for him. I’m sad for everybody.”

Unlike many restaurants in the city, Cantina Rooftop did not shift to take-out or delivery service to stay afloat. According to Zamora, it would not have put a bigger hit on their finances more than just shutting down completely.

“Our restaurant has never been known for takeout. Our operations are kind of big because of the size of our building, so would not be cost-effective to have carryout,” said Zamora. “We tried to help our employees how we could. The first time we reopen was in late June, we were completely closed all those months.”

After months of being completely shut down, Cantina Rooftop was able to join the city in opening up for outdoor dining, opening up their titular rooftop for the public once again. With temperature checks at the door, stronger cleaning protocols and COVID-19 social distancing measures in place, Cantina Rooftop was able to serve the community once again.

The eatery streamlined its menu in an effort to save some funds after the months of closure, but Monteil says that they would not compromise the menu in terms of taste and quality.

“We had to cut costs and ended up with a smaller menu to open again. We ended up cutting left to right without compromising the quality of the food. We didn’t compromise that,” said Montiel. “We’d go to the Bronx to buy produce, to Restaurant Depot when we needed to. We had to modify to stay alive. It was like a challenge for us, and we did pretty well. It was good, it was a learning experience and we become better chefs, cooks, and servers. We appreciate people more than before.”

“It was new to us, we tried to do the best we could to work with what we had and tried to follow the guidelines of the state and city,” said Zamora. “Unfortunately, it was something new for everybody. It took us time to adapt.”

The rooftop at Cantina RooftopPhoto courtesy of Cantina Rooftop
Photo courtesy of Cantina Rooftop

Once indoor dining opened at 25% in the city, Cantina Rooftop was able to open up one of its indoor dining rooms as well as some additional sidewalk seating. While it seemed promising to have some indoor dining capacity, it still wasn’t enough.

“During the summer, we could do outside with the rooftop, plus be able to get the sidewalk on the street,” said Zamora. “We increased a little bit, but it’s never enough for 25%, especially when you have to support the 30,000 square foot building in Manhattan — it’s tough.”

Unfortunately, when winter rolled around and cases began to spike, one of the first things to go was indoor dining. Cantina Rooftop found itself in the same position as they were in March, and closed down a second time in December 2020.

“Just to think about that moment, I have chills. It was devastating. But we did something good to help coworkers, we told them on weekly basis, save money, this might happen again,” said Montiel. “When [the shutdown] happened, we already expected another closing. We knew it was going to happen again. We knew what to do. Some of us took second jobs. It was smoother and wasn’t as hard as the first one. We are stronger now more than ever. if we had all contributed to stop the spread, we could have stopped it before. When we don’t get together, this happens. We all have to do our part — we are New Yorkers, if we all come together, we make great things.”

Zamora understands why shutting down was the safest option at that time, but he believes that the whole situation surrounding COVID could have been handled better by the city and state.

“I don’t agree with how they handled things. [The government] made us close while everyone and parents having private events at home. I don’t understand – the oppo of restaurants was at a very low percentage. There were a bunch of situations where we could get dividers. By closing up, it forced the community and young people to plan these events everywhere, and they weren’t following regulations,” said Zamora. “It’s a bunch of money being lost on rent, insurance, taxes — I think that the city has to do some with real estate taxes because we shut down for most of the year. If you are shut down completely, it’s not fair that we have to pay full taxes.”

On Feb. 12, 2021, Cantina Rooftop was able to reopen indoor dining again alongside many restaurants in the city at 35%. Montiel says that since the reopening, the eatery has maintained the COVID-19 protocols they adapted during the summer,

The state will allow restaurants outside of New York City to open indoor dining at 75% on March 19, — New York City will open at 50% that same day. Cantina Rooftop is continuing to put the safety of their staff and customers first.

“So hopefully we need to do the things we do the right way to reopen to 100%,” said Zamora.

“It’s not over, we have to take it seriously. We’re taking it on a weekly basis, we don’t think too far because look at what happens,” said Montiel. “We are playing it as we go. As the government allows us to open more, we take one step at a time. Now we think about the moment, we enjoy it and do our best to have a better future.”

Cantina Rooftop is located at 605 W 48th Street in Manhattan. For more information, visit cantinarooftop.com.

Photo courtesy of Cantina Rooftop

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