Server Jordan Billiot runs food to customers sitting out on the patio at M’tucci’s Bar Roma in Nob Hill. New Mexico added 2,000 food service jobs between 2019 and 2022. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)




Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Has the New Mexico restaurant scene recovered? It depends on who you ask.

Food and hospitality were some of the hardest hit industries during the pandemic.

The New Mexico Restaurant Association asserted in an Aug. 12 news release that the restaurant industry lost over 20,000 jobs and 1,000 restaurants in New Mexico between 2019 and December 2021.

But the figures offered by the state restaurant group are at odds with a report from the National Restaurant Association and state permitting data.

The National Restaurant Association reported with data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that New Mexico actually added 2,000 food service jobs between 2019 and 2022 – an increase of less than 3%, but an increase nonetheless. New Mexico was one of 18 states that had net improvement in restaurant staffing levels.

John Haas, president and founding partner of M’tucci’s restaurants, says he thinks the industry is going in the right direction. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

And, as of June 2022, there are about 350 more food and restaurants permitted in the state than before the pandemic, according to data from the New Mexico Environment Department, the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County compiled by the office of the governor.

Carol Wight, CEO of the NMRA, said in an interview Tuesday that restaurants are still struggling, but conceded that employment may have improved since December 2021, which was the most recent data included in the NMRA release.

“I know we’ve added a bunch of jobs since December,” Wight said. “That’s just obvious because we needed people. I just know we still need a lot of folks.”

A partisan clash was triggered by the NMRA restaurant numbers.

“Numbers don’t lie, and a new report released by the New Mexico Restaurant Association proves Gov. Lujan Grisham has badly damaged the state’s important restaurant industry, the latest vestige of the Governor’s incompetence and ruthless action against New Mexico small businesses,” read the release, published by Republican Party of New Mexico communications director Mike Curtis.

In March 2020, Lujan Grisham issued a public health order that shut non-essential businesses. Indoor dining was still prohibited as of July 2020, and that month, the NMRA filed a lawsuit against Lujan Grisham’s pandemic-era ban on indoor dining. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, and by July 2021, all pandemic restrictions were lifted throughout the state.

The governor said in a recent release that she’s happy with the progress that the small business community has made over the past months.

Jonah Lewis portions out pizza dough at M’tucci’s Bar Roma. M’Tucci’s restaurants has four locations around Albuquerque, one of which opened this year. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

“There’s no doubt the tourism and hospitality industry has shown incredible strength and resiliency in the last few years, which were especially difficult for this sector,” Lujan Grisham was quoted saying. “I am incredibly encouraged by this recent data.”

John Haas, president and founding partner of M’Tucci’s restaurants, which has four locations around Albuquerque, one of which opened this year, said he thinks the industry is headed in the right direction.

“I have a really, really optimistic outlook for the landscape of our industry right now,” Haas said. “I think we’re going to continue to see that trend in our industry.”

The numbers

The August press release from NMRA said that in 2019, 96,000 people were employed in New Mexico restaurants, and by December 2021, that number was slashed to under 75,000 workers.

In an interview this week, Wight said that those two numbers came from different sources: the 2019 number from the New Mexico Department of Tourism, and the 2021 number from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

However, the two figures refer to different groups of workers, according to government officials.

Cody Johnson, a spokesperson for the Department of Tourism, said in a written statement that the 96,064 jobs referred more broadly to all jobs sustained by tourism to the state, not just food service jobs. The statistic was published in their annual Economic Impact of Visitors to New Mexico report. The employment data from Workplace Solutions, however, was limited to just jobs in restaurants and bars.

In Quarter 3 of 2021, Workforce Solutions published that 70,301 people were employed in food and drink in New Mexico, which doesn’t include the other tourism-related jobs that were included in the original figure from the Department of Tourism. A comparable data point from Workforce Solutions shows that at the end of 2019, 74,617 people were employed in restaurants and bars in New Mexico, indicating an employment decrease of about 6%. The Workforce Solutions dataset is less current than the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which includes employment from 2022 as well.

BLS data shows that employment in leisure and hospitality as a whole – which includes arts, entertainment/recreation, accommodation, and food services – in New Mexico has grown steadily since the 2020 lows.

Industry employment in New Mexico plunged to 57,400 employees in April 2020.

Two years later, in June of this year, 98,500 New Mexicans were employed in leisure and hospitality, almost meeting the 99,200 level seen in June 2019.

And restaurants have performed better. Between June 2019 and June 2022, New Mexico had the ninth highest increase in employment in food and drink establishments in the country by percent.

Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in the state since 2008, although the rate is still higher than the national average. Many officials and industry leaders remain concerned about a comparatively low workforce participation rate in the state.

Industry norms

Kimberly Heimerich, owner of The Perfect Gift … Shoppe in Old Town, which opened in June 2020, said she’s seen the area face business closures for the past few years. One of her favorite restaurants, La Crêpe Michel, closed during the pandemic.

“When people congratulate me on surviving two years, I just think: ‘it’s still a struggle’,” Heimerich said.

Haas said that even without the extra stresses of the pandemic, surviving in the food world is difficult.

“The restaurant industry is a really tough industry, the margins are really slim,” Haas said.

Pre-pandemic, approximately 50,000 U.S. eating and drinking establishments closed every year and 60,000 opened, according to a statement from the National Restaurant Association.

“We’re in an industry that does have a lot of openings and closures,” Haas said. “I think for a while we saw a lot of closures and not a lot of openings.”

For the past few months, Haas said, he’s seen more restaurants opening than any other time during the pandemic. His own businesses, including one opened during the pandemic, have also been busy.

“It was really easy to get downtrodden, and feel like a bit of a victim during the pandemic in our industry … you really just have to show up and fight the battles you can win,” Haas said.