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Popular Mexican restaurant in Citrus Heights struggling to survive during pandemic

Jose Osuna stands behind a cash register at Panchito Mexican Restaurant, located at 7683 Auburn Blvd. // M. Hazlip

By Mike Hazlip —
Jose Osuna opened Panchito Mexican Restaurant three years ago in Citrus Heights, fulfilling a dream of serving home-cooked food from 50 year old family recipes.

Together with his wife, Rosibel, the Osuna’s managed to grow their business at 7683 Auburn Blvd., just south of Antelope Road. The restaurant now boasts over 150 reviews on Yelp, with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Their first year was off to a slow start, but business picked up the second year, and by January 2020 the couple were optimistic for a good year. Then COVID shutdowns and stay-at-home orders took effect, banning dine-in eating.

Osuna says business dropped 50%. He’s closed indoor seating and has stacked tables and chairs on top of booths. Outdoor dining is also banned under the latest Dec. 10 county health order, although many restaurants continue to serve patrons outdoors anyways.

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A number of federal, state, and local programs for businesses impacted by COVID-related shutdowns, but the Osuna’s feel lost in the bureaucratic maze intended to help businesses like theirs.

Osuna said he stood in line for a patio heater as part of Sacramento’s Patio Heaters for Small Business program, only to find his business didn’t qualify because it was for Sacramento city businesses, rather than all businesses in Sacramento County. The city gave away 400 patio heaters, according to an earlier report by CBS13.

Osuna also applied for a Payroll Protection Program loan, but was denied. He says he found the online application confusing and was unclear if the business owner should list themselves as an employee, a common complaint among other businesses The Sentinel has interviewed.

When asked about the Great Plates Delivered program in Citrus Heights, Osuna said he was not aware of the opportunity. The program used FEMA and state funding to reimburse local restaurants who delivered free meals to seniors and at-risk individuals.

The program assisted six local restaurants, but the City Council voted unanimously to end the program last week, after learning that the outside funding for the program wouldn’t reach the city’s coffers for 12 months. Since launching in May, the program has injected around $2 million into the local economy, which has been fronted by the city.

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To help out, Rosibel started putting in more hours at the restaurant in addition to her regular full-time job. She says keeping up with licensing and utilities has been difficult.

“Today we went to the bank to see what we can do,” she said in an interview on Saturday. “We don’t want to close the restaurant. It’s his dream, and I’m here to support him. But times are so hard. We need to pay for the license, they don’t forgive that. Trash, SMUD, PG&E, don’t give discounts.”

Rosibel said she called SMUD, but was told to turn off unused lights. The SMUD website outlines a discount program aimed at residential customers, but it is unclear if businesses can take advantage of the offer.

PG&E does offer financial assistance for business customers, according to the company’s website, which says service disconnections for non-payment are not currently being conducted — including for small business customers. The company is also waiving security deposits.

In considering the option of temporarily closing the restaurant, Osuna said a significant factor would be food spoilage. He said a temporary closure would mean he would not have the funds to re-order fresh ingredients for his entrees.

“You have a product that you need to move,” he said. “The meat, chicken, tomatoes, beans — everything is homemade.”

Other adjacent businesses are also affected. Rosibel said Tiffer’s Studio hair salon and Scorecard bar have been closed most of the year.

As with many small retail centers, the performance of one business affects the others. Customers from Scorecard and Tiffer’s would come to Panchito, boosting traffic for all three businesses.

Despite the setbacks, Osuna said he’s not lost hope and has implemented a family meal special in DoorDash, providing a boost in revenue.

Although the online delivery service has helped Panchito keep the doors open, Uber Eats takes 30% of the tab, cutting into an already slim profit for the Osuna’s. DoorDash typically takes 20%, but reduced its commission fees to 10%, according to an April report by Fox Business.

Panchito’s regulars have helped keep the business going, but Osuna says business needs to increase if he is to keep the restaurant open.

“We have hopes, we have a lot of hopes,” he said. “We need to work a lot more. We need more customers.”

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