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COPING WITH COVID: El Jefe Texican Cantina

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Coping with COVID

SC Biz News is speaking with small businesses and community leaders about the impact of the new coronavirus on business and industry, and how this is changing how they operate.
Contact Andy Owens, aowens@scbiznews.com, with any questions or ideas.


Roy Neal, co-owner of El Jefe Texican Cantina, delivers Charleston Hero Lunch Boxes to the Medical University of South Carolina. Neal said the boxes help health care workers and frontline responders during the crisis and keep his kitchen staff working. (Photo/provided)

Roy Neal said when his mother died last year, doctors in Charleston helped her and his family through the pain and gave him time with her.

When Neal, an entrepreneur who co-owns a restaurant on King Street, saw the coronavirus outbreak pushing health care workers to the brink, he felt it was time to do something to help them.

“They gave me another four days of life with mama,” Neal said. “I said, ‘You made a big impression on me. I’m going to come back and pay it forward.’”

Neal’s restaurant, El Jefe Texican Cantina, wasn’t immune to the ripple effect COVID-19 was having on the food and beverage industry in Charleston. He also had been through more than one crisis and knew people needed something to look toward and jobs to hold on to during a crisis.

“We’re doing probably 10% of the sales I’m used to doing,” Neal said. “But our staff is somewhat intact. We haven’t really laid off anybody. We’ve reduced hours.”

El Jefe asks donors who support the Charleston Hero Lunch Boxes to send a message of encouragement to recipients if they like. (Photo/provided)Neal and his partner opened El Jefe three years ago, but he runs several business and is primarily in property management.

When the federal government shut down in 2018 and 2019, Neal and El Jefe stepped in to offer some hope for people working for the Coast Guard, National Weather Service or anyone else who was affected by the shutdown. Neal said El Jefe gave federal workers and their families something to eat.

“We gave away taco platters to anyone who wanted to come in who were affected by the shutdown,” Neal said. “When this virus hit and everyone started laying off employees, we decided to take our federal shutdown menu and turn it into Charleston Heroes Lunch Boxes.”

The lunch boxes keep his kitchen staff employed, he said, and even though they’re not seeing the cash flow of a normal April, El Jefe is keeping people on the job and feeding health care workers.

“We’re not getting rich off of it. I got kitchen staff right now,” he said. “I’ve got waitstaff right now. It’s awesome. It helps.”

The hero boxes are paid for with $10 donations. Neal said anyone can make a donation, and they’ve come from across the country after word got out.

When El Jefe’s landlord, Chris Price, president and owner of PrimeSouth Group LLC, heard about the boxes, he asked if he could sponsor 500. Neal went to work making sure they found a place to feed folks.

“We’re here for the health care sector,” Price said. “We’re here for anyone who needs us, but this is a landlord and tenant trying to help the community. We’re all kind of in this together. Everybody thinks landlords and tenants are on opposite sides, but we aren’t. All of them are our partners.”

PrimeSouth is a boutique portfolio developer that maintains ownership after investing in a property. Price said about 60% of their investments are in retail, including food and beverage, and 40% are in office space, which is helping them weather the crisis.

“If you can’t pay rent, we will figure out the reimbursement process. Don’t pay rent; we’ll help you out,” Price said.

Roy Neal, co-owner of El Jefe Texican Cantina, delivers Charleston Hero Lunch Boxes to health care professionals at Roper St. Francis Mount Pleasant Hospital. (Photo/provided)Neal used his business contacts to find out where the boxes were needed and began working the phones. The boxes go to all of the local hospitals, fire departments, police departments and anyone in health care and emergency services being affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, he said.

The restaurant makes a little money on the boxes, he said, which helps keep his employees working and his business operating, but he and his staff are also driven by the community service aspect and the connecting of individual donors who are desperate to help.

“I’m all about helping out everybody. This is just something we came up with. We’re hustling. We’re doing whatever we can,” Neal said.

He said businesses during this time have to find something that keeps them in business, especially when it’s not easy. If they can help the community at the same time, that’s an extra bonus.

“It’s too easy to close the doors,” Neal said, “and once you close them it’s really hard to open them back up. I would use every resource I have and reach out to everybody. People want to help you. You know that’s what you gotta do. Just hustle. This is when it’s hard.”

For information about El Jefe’s Charleston Heroes Lunch Boxes or to sponsor the effort with a large or small donation, send email or call 843-926-5333.

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

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