Pandemic Pivots: Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant

By Melody Yuan
Nov. 30, 2020
Signage and a classic carne asada from Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant. (Photo credit): images from @tommmysmexican

How a local favorite pivoted and used a PPP loan to continue delivering their restaurant experience

Anyone who knows a thing or two about good tequila and Yucatecan food will want to stop by Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant. Known for their delicious food, warm welcome and world-class selection of fine tequilas, Tommy’s is a local San Francisco favorite. Located in the Outer Richmond neighborhood, Tommy’s has always been a place that bustled with patrons, laughter and the smells of mouth-watering Mexican food.

“At Tommy’s, we don’t just close a sale, we open a relationship,” says Elmy Bermejo, the owner of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant.

This warm and accepting restaurant culture began in 1965 with Bermejo’s late father, Tomás Bermejo. “Everyone called him Tommy, and everyone loved him and my mom,” she recalls. “It’s one of those places where generations of family members would come to visit—first with their parents, then they would bring their dates, and then they would bring their own kids here one day.”

Elmy Bermejo’s mother who also helps run the restaurant business. (Photo credit): S.F. Examiner/Kevin N. Hume

Bermejo credits the restaurant for imparting valuable life lessons upon her. She says, “Everything we learned to be successful in life, we learned at Tommy’s. My dad instilled that culture where anyone who walks into Tommy’s is treated with respect and dignity.”

Bermejo recalls that Mexican cuisine was much less known and popular back in the ’60s. “The most people probably knew were of tacos and enchiladas,” she says. “At Tommy’s, my parents slowly introduced food specifically from the Yucatan peninsula, which showed the community just how diverse Mexican cuisine was.” For starters, Yucatan cuisine uses more black beans than refried beans, corn tortillas instead of flour, and emphasizes lime in many dishes.

With the popularity and success of the restaurant, Tomás Bermejo eventually purchased the building through the financial support of families and friends. “And, boy, am I grateful that my father bought the building,” says Bermejo. “It’s been a savior not having to pay rent during these hard times.”

COVID-19’s heavy impact on the restaurant

Like many other restaurants, Tommy’s was forced to close its doors in March when California issued mandatory shutdown orders. “We were doing good business, but I remember that on March 16, we had to close our doors and put out signs saying we could only do takeout food,” Bermejo recalls.

According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry will sustain an estimated $240 billion in losses by the end of 2020; four in 10 restaurants have already closed due to the pandemic. While larger chain restaurants were able to survive, many mom-and-pop restaurants have continued to struggle maintaining cash flow and paying the bills. Tommy’s was no different. At first, Bermejo was sad cutting hours and seeing empty bar stools and tables in her restaurant—but then she decided to find a better way to pivot.

Tommy’s pivot

“What was really helpful in allowing us to pivot was when the state of California and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control announced that restaurants could sell premade alcoholic beverages alongside food for delivery and pickup,” says Bermejo. With the help of her brother Julio, who is a renowned tequila expert and creator of the famous Tommy’s Margarita, sales margins went up after they began to sell alcoholic drinks with the food.

“Tequila often doesn’t get the respect that a Scotch or rye whiskey gets, but really, tequila made of pure agave and aged appropriately can come out with very complex flavors,” says Bermejo.

(Left):Julio Bermejo, creator of Tommy’s margarita mix. (Right): Tommy's margarita mix bottle (right)

Julio Bermejo also created the Blue Organic Club, which teaches members about tequila. “As a result, we have this huge following worldwide, and we’ve had bartenders take classes from my brother or ask him for tequila consultations, which has also helped with our restaurant’s reputation,” says Bermejo. With the ability to sell bottles of quality tequilas, margaritas and even margarita mixes with their food, Tommy’s was able to maintain a positive cash flow.

Tommy’s has also found creative ways to still provide their restaurant experience to loyal customers. “We have this software company that always holds its annual party with us, and they normally pack in 65 to 70 people in our restaurant,” says Bermejo. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t have that party this year, but instead of simply not doing anything for their 20th anniversary, we worked with the owners of the software company so that we could modify the experience.”

Bermejo and her family created tequila baskets and hand-delivered them to homes across the Bay Area. “It was crazy,” she says. “We’d never done anything like this before. We got the whole family involved, and my brother, my sister, uncles, aunts, everyone was delivering these tequila baskets.”

After these baskets were delivered, Julio Bermejo organized a virtual tequila tasting party via Zoom with everyone. “It was all about making sure that our loyal customers felt appreciated,” says Bermejo. “And we did everything in our power to continue delivering a great experience for them.”

Another pivot that’s in the works is expanding Tommy’s outdoor dining experience. “We’ve been approved for a parklet space, which would really take our al fresco dining to the next level,” says Bermejo. The only thing pending is approval from all neighboring businesses to greenlight the parklet.

“We even had the priest from the church across the street write a letter to our city and vouch for our business in order to get approved for the parklet,” says Bermejo.

Getting a PPP loan

When Bermejo was first applying for the PPP loan, it was through a larger bank, and they had a difficult time because the business didn’t have an online banking account. “My mother likes to go into the bank and see people in the eye, so we didn’t have an online account when the pandemic hit,” says Bermejo. “We were directed to doing everything online, and the process was complicated.”

After being unable to receive the first round of PPP funding, Bermejo remembered a friend who recommended reaching out to Travis Kiyota from East West Bank. “I got his cell phone number and called him immediately,” says Bermejo. “He picks up the phone, and he goes, ‘OK, I’ll have someone call you right away,’ and we got the PPP funding within two weeks. The experience we got was night and day.”

“Out of all the PPP loans that I helped small businesses secure, Tommy’s was one of the businesses I was really excited about helping,” says Agnes Lew , senior vice president and director of private banking at East West Bank. “I mean, we couldn’t let down a restaurant that has a world-famous margarita!”

Bermejo and Lew hit it off immediately, and applying for a PPP loan was a smooth process. “I’m now in regular contact with Agnes Lew from East West Bank, and we actually had lunch at Tommy’s the other day outside on our patio,” says Bermejo.

Looking toward the future

While Bermejo misses the feeling of having a packed restaurant and bar, she also recognizes that it’s her role now to become the enforcer. “As someone working in the hospitality industry, we have a duty to protect the public and our employees,” she says. “So, as much as I want to have a lot of people come back to Tommy’s, I also have to make sure it’s safe for everyone.”

She laughs that she’s constantly reminding people to keep their masks on and stay six feet apart. “It’s hard because we’re such a tight-knit community,” says Bermejo. “But unless we get a strong vaccine, I’d say we’re probably going to continue operating cautiously for the safety of everyone.”

Read more about Tommy's Mexican Restaurant and other clients in East West Bank’s Annual Report.

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