LAS CRUCES – Several city lawmakers want to expand a pandemic relief program that’s meant to provide discounted meals to seniors and low-income residents at local restaurants.

The program provides $10 vouchers to needy families and individuals. Each voucher is redeemable at one of 10 local restaurants.

The 10 were chosen through an application process. In total, 16 restaurants applied to be in the program. The 10 chosen were:

  • The Game
  • The Game II
  • Jim Bobs BBQ
  • Jake’s Cafe
  • Lorenzo’s Italian Restaurant
  • La Posta de Mesilla
  • Andele Restaurant
  • AIM Fit Meals
  • Matteo’s Mexican Food
  • Ruby Tuesday

The $150,000 restaurant voucher program is administered by the nonprofit Families and Youth Inc. and was funded through a coronavirus economic aid package allocated to FYI from the city’s Telshor Facility Fund.

Each restaurant has 1,425 vouchers available for use. They’re being distributed by FYI plus other local social service organizations, Mesa Middle School, shelters and some of the restaurants themselves, according to Annabelle Fierro, FYI’s director of grants, contracts and compliance, who oversees the program.

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When a customer presents a voucher at a restaurant, that restaurant can turn around and hand it in to FYI to receive a reimbursement for its worth, Fierro said.

The aim of the program is to help Las Cruces residents who are struggling due to economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“I think it will really help alleviate the financial burden of trying to feed their families on a limited income or after a job loss,” Fierro said.

But some restaurant owners the Sun-News spoke to still said the program had helped their businesses at the same time, by bringing in new faces and increasing sales.

“We may have gotten some new customers out of this whole deal,” Lorenzo’s owner Vince Vaccaro said.

And Jake’s owner Jacob Harkness said the voucher program gave his place a “nice bump” in sales.

Jim Bobs owner Jim Leon said he handed out a few vouchers on the street to people he knew had never been to his business before, but let other organizations handle most of the distribution. Leon estimated the voucher program may have increased his new customer base by 60 percent.

The restaurants and partner organizations don’t have specific instructions for how they’re supposed to qualify recipients of vouchers, Fierro said, but the organizations chosen are meant to best reach the neediest Las Crucens.

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As for FYI, Fierro said a family could come in and ask for a voucher. FYI staff would ask the number of people in their family, plus if they’ve lost a job or income due to COVID-19. Families of four could receive four vouchers to the same business or could mix them, she said.

Some city councilors have criticized the final list of restaurants, saying it’s too limited and doesn’t help enough Las Cruces businesses. At a June 12 work session, Mayor Ken Miyagishima and some council members backed a second round aimed at reaching more restaurants.

“The money wasn’t spread out enough among small businesses in Las Cruces,” Gabriel Vasquez, the councilor from District 3, told the Sun-News.

Out of the 10 restaurants, The Game’s locations occupy two separate slots. A Ruby Tuesday franchise that’s locally owned is on there. Two Mesilla restaurants, La Posta and Andele Restaurant, are included.

Vasquez wants city resources to prioritize the most vulnerable small businesses that can’t absorb the economic hit like a franchise. He said even a locally owned franchise requires a large amount of existing wealth to purchase.

“I would rather those monies go to smaller businesses with smaller net worth,” he said.

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District 2 Councilor Tessa Abeyta Stuve supports a second round. Some restaurateurs know the system well, she said, using The Game’s inclusion as an example. But others might not have been aware of the application process.

“I have tons of small mom and pop restaurants in my area, and I’m not sure all of them have the same access or know about the same programming,” Abeyta Stuve said.

“Given how bad this economic downturn has impacted the restaurant industry, I would have expected a lot more restaurants to apply,” Vasquez said. “So that leads me to believe perhaps the information wasn’t disseminated as widely as it should be.”

An FYI spokesperson said advertising was mainly done through a Facebook post and on Instagram. The spokesperson said some restaurants alerted others to the application, which went live May 14 and was due May 18.

While Abeyta Stuve said addressing food insecurity is the priority, she told the Sun-News she’d want a second round to give different restaurants a chance. She said it’s imperative to expand outreach about second-round applications to reach more businesses.

Marci Dickerson, who owns The Game and The Game II, said both restaurants applied independently. She said FYI probably chose them both because each location serves “drastically different” geographic areas of the city.

Abeyta Stuve and Vasquez both criticized Mesilla restaurants being included.

“I don’t think Las Cruces funding should go to assist Mesilla restaurants, nothing against Mesilla,” Vasquez said.

Fierro said the applications were open to any restaurant locally since the program wasn’t funded with taxpayer money.

La Posta co-owner Jerean Hutchinson said her business applied just like every other restaurant. She said both localities’ economies are intertwined.

“I don’t see a demarcation line personally between Mesilla and Las Cruces,” she said. “We’re a community … Mesilla and Las Cruces have always worked together as a community.”

Andele owner Andrea Schneider didn’t immediately return a phone call. The owner of Ruby Tuesday wasn’t able to be immediately reached.

Fierro said a committee of FYI staff, including her, chose the restaurants based on factors such as willingness to decrease certain meal prices, location, ability to deliver food and owners who come from vulnerable backgrounds. 

The existing vouchers are valid until June 30. Because of how the program works, it’s possible not all the vouchers will be used at each restaurant by the deadline.

In response to questions about the potential for a second round, city spokesperson Adrian Guzman issued this statement: “Staff has been working on close out of the current fiscal year programs and setting up for next fiscal year. From there staff will start with review of the existing program to determine what potential for expansion would be feasible.”

Michael McDevitt can be reached at 575-202-3205, mmcdevitt@lcsun-news.com or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.

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