A Beloved Café’s Key Ingredients for Surviving Covid-19

Creative Startups
Feb 10 · 7 min read

The founders of Santa Fe’s treasured Opuntia Café pull back the curtain on how design and delight keep them in the black

A few masked people surround a counter to order food. A big koi pond is in the forefront surrounded by tropical and desert plants

Remember this? A cozy booth. Your laptop sits in front of you. Around you, quiet conversations buzz about as people join their friends at community tables or peruse a diverse menu of colorful dishes. Your favorite tea steams as you gather inspiration to tackle your new creative project. No matter where you are in the world, cafés have always been a hub for the creative community. To open a café is to create a new kernel of togetherness, something no one takes lightly during a global pandemic.

A few people are gathered at tables (pre-covid)

In Santa Fe, like other leading cultural destinations around the world, the pandemic has dampened new opportunities for aspiring café-owners and restaurateurs. One bright spot in this challenging landscape has been the survival of cherished cafés, such as Opuntia Café, and the opening and growth of newer concepts like Arable Prep and Provisions, a new market and lunch counter adjoining the original restaurant where customers can shop for retail food supplies while they safely wait for their to-go orders.

Through our Food LAB accelerator programs, Creative Startups alone has helped local entrepreneurs create $308,000 in increased revenue for the city’s food economy, and that trend is set to continue. In the face of “unprecedented times,” our hardworking food creatives offer unprecedented ideas, revitalizing the city’s historic gathering places as Santa Fe pivots to focus on the importance of small farms and businesses.

Despite the difficulties COVID-19 has caused for the service industry globally, Opuntia Café owners Todd Spitzer and Jeanna Gienke saw this potential in their city as they expanded their business into the Santa Fe Railyard, a local landmark recently restored into a vibrant new urban space.

Their new Opuntia location is full of light. From its large, roll-up windows, you get a panoramic view of downtown Santa Fe, the mountains, the iconic Railyard Water Tower. But you don’t need to look out to feel like you’re in nature. Cacti and succulents line the walls and windows. There’s even a koi pond in the center of the café adorned with tropical plants. Bringing the outdoors inside was central to Gienke and Spitzer’s hopes for their business.

“The vision was a hybrid of giving people quality food and tea while also immersing them in a healing space that’s living. It’s not just about plants. It’s about color, openness, and the way air flows through a room,” said Gienke, who studied biophilic design and botany before becoming a food entrepreneur. Their customers certainly appreciate this unique experience, prompting the owners’ move to their larger location in order to accommodate their growing customer base. Even with pandemic restrictions, their business continues to flourish.

So, what was the key to Opuntia’s success? How do you turn your unique creative mission into a thriving café or restaurant? Spitzer and Gienke provided us with vital advice to becoming a prosperous food entrepreneur.

THINK BACKWARDS

For Spitzer, creating a successful food business starts a little counterintuitively:

“You have to think backwards. Instead of thinking ‘I have this idea that I’ll find a place to do it in,’ you start with the question ‘what does this community want at this location? What are they going to resonate with?’ And then, design-wise, you think ‘what needs to be in this building’ because the space is already telling you what it needs to be.

“You have to create all of those little vignettes.”

From there, you move on to design. You have to think ‘how would this appeal to multiple groups of people, not just a specific subculture. Some people like to sit at a bar or stand, so you have tables for that height. Other people want to be in a cozy conversation, so you have smaller tables or a lounge area. Some people are introverts, so you give them a booth to work in. Some like community tables and space. You have to create all of those little vignettes.

In Santa Fe, we are an eclectic community. It’s an art center, and we are very design-oriented. That all goes into creating the space.”

Two individuals sit at a wooden booth
Two individuals sit at a wooden booth

PREPARE YOUR PRENUP

To Spitzer, partnering with an investor is “like getting married:”

“You have to pick someone who’s going to add value to your business more than just financially. One of our investors is the owner of the Cowgirl and knows how to run a successful food and beverage business. Another one of our investors owns the Violet Crown Theater, and that space is incredible. So when you ask for their advice, they know exactly what they’re talking about. They’ll see your blind spots and advise you. We definitely lean on their wisdom, but we also make sure that we make the final decisions. The other thing is to have an exit strategy, so we have the option to buy them all out in five years.”

DITCH THE PLAYED-OUT GOURMET PLATING

Gienke and Spitzer wanted to evolve past fine dining’s big square white plate with ornamental sauce drizzled over pre-selected dishes. Spitzer explains that their dishes start simple and build up from there:

“The food starts off vegetarian and vegan based, and they’re very simple. It’s like comfort food but international. We have polenta, rice bowls, or toasts, and then we build upon it so that you have layers of goodies. And then, you can add-on from there. So I could add fresh salmon on top of my Japanese bowl or bacon on my toast. That kind of thing. Instead of just having set things that people pick apart, it’s the opposite. We have a base and build up on them, and that allows there to be something for everybody.”

KEEP COVID AT BAY BUT PLAN FOR A COZY FUTURE

Gienke and Spitzer felt it was important to create a safe environment that still connected customers to the community. To Spitzer, this came down to the outdoor seating experience, and the presentation of the to-go box was vital:

“With COVID rules here in New Mexico, people can only sit outside. So we opened up our balcony that overlooks the Railyard. People can sit out there and still feel like they’re in their community because they’re looking at the scenery and people walking along.

It was really important to upgrade our packaging. We chose sustainable boxes that we can still artistically present the food in. So when you open up the lid, it looks beautiful as opposed to just a normal to-go box.”

“When we do open up again, I think people will feel really comfortable being in little separated networks that aren’t so exposed to the whole room.”

Gienke adds that there space will be ready for life after the pandemic, where customers might need time to transition back into our old norms:

“I like to design spaces for people that like to be tucked away but still experience the energy of the room. We made nooks in our space for that, and it translates into a post-covid world. When we do open up again, I think people will feel really comfortable being in little separated networks that aren’t so exposed to the whole room. We’re thinking that way now since we are all hiding in our houses. So it’ll be a little easier transition into the world.”

Thinking of opening your own café and enriching your community? Get expert guidance by applying to the Creative Startups Santa Fe Food LABS, a virtual business Pre-Accelerator for northern New Mexico Food Entrepreneurs. This intensive four-week program is designed to move entrepreneurs from early concept, past prototyping, and into the market quickly. Our Creative Startups expert mentors will work with you, covering concepts like customer discovery and development, business formation and structure, cash flow projections and creating a sales pipeline, everything you need to get your food and beverage startup off the ground.

Join us for our Spring 2021 LABS Pre-Accelerator for Northern New Mexico Food Entrepreneurs by applying here by February 28th. We hope to see you there!

An air plant sits in a koi pond

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