While other Taos area eateries are serving customers on their outdoor patios or cooking up food to go, one iconic local establishment remains stonewalled by the state's classification naming them a bar, rather than a restaurant.
The Alley Cantina just off the Historic Taos Plaza has been a longtime staple of Taos, providing some of the only late night entertainment in the downtown area, and ostensibly holding the title of the only real "bar" in town. Whether it's watching local musicians rock the 400-plus years-old establishment, or playing pool and singing karaoke, the Alley Cantina has offered something for everyone. They also offer one of the largest food menus in town, and they often come up in internet searches for "family dining."
However, the state classifies the Alley as a bar - which is any establishment that made more than 50 percent of its revenue in 2019 from alcohol, according to the most recent public health order. So the Alley Cantina's 55 percent alcohol sales forced them to shut their doors while their neighbors - like the nearby Martyr's Steakhouse stayed open.
Alley Cantina owner Aaron Hiemenz explained that even though they are essentially a "full on family restaurant from 11:30 in the morning until 11 at night," that because they chose to stay open late to have live music, "our alcohol sales were slightly higher than our food sales in 2019."
Rather than be categorized as a food and drink establishment, their business technically falls under the state's category of "close contact recreational facilities," along with movie theaters, museums and entertainment venues. Currently, under the states "red to green framework," even at the yellow or green level - when other restaurants that serve alcohol can open up at 25 or 50 percent capacity (respectively) - the Alley Cantina will not be able to open for any in- person services.
Hiemenz explained that he and his colleagues have exhausted nearly every measure to try to overturn their "bar" classification. As well as sending a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office, Hiemenz said he sent copies of his food sales numbers and of his payroll, showing "the majority of my payroll was kitchen staff." Unfortunately, Hiemenz said that they "never got anywhere past that, in spite of lots of friendly faces reaching out to us."
Perhaps most unusually frustrating for the Alley Cantina is the fact that breweries, distilleries and wineries - all establishments that serve mostly alcohol - will in fact be able to open in the yellow phase, while the Alley Cantina's "bar" status leaves them closed in any capacity aside from takeout, which they tried, but ended up losing money. The problem with their takeout operation was that people had to "make an effort to park in a parking lot and walk up to our door."
As to why breweries and distilleries will be allowed to open in the yellow phase, Nora Sackett, press secretary for the governor's office, explained that different kinds of businesses have different kinds of environments, and that "breweries, wineries and distilleries are so categorized by their specific license, not their percentage of sales."
Liza Barrett, one of the owners of Rolling Still Distillery, explained the difference in licensing. "We're unique because we are a tasting room and distillery," she said of Rolling Still. "We are not technically a bar by New Mexico law, so we can operate and open at that 25 percent indoors [in the yellow phase], which we did before the second closure."
Barrett said she felt sympathy for the Alley Cantina, and wondered whether or not the decision by the governor's office was fair. "It's unfortunate. It seems a little egregious. They're just following the regulations, which I understand, but at the same time it seems a little unfair, especially for an establishment that's been open so long," she said of the Alley Cantina's situation.
As Hiemenz deals with these frustrations, he said that he plans to appeal the decision again with the new year. He said he hopes that a different decision is made or that the state takes a look at sales from 2020 - considering they sold almost no alcohol last year - and reclassifies them.
For now, they are hanging on, much thanks to government loans and local grants. The Alley Cantina was able to get a Paycheck Protection Program loan as well as a CARES Act grant from the town.
Perhaps the most fortunate circumstance for Hiemenz is his landlord's generosity. Ruth Waterhouse (who along with her late husband Buzz used to own the Alley Cantina before Hiemenz) has not been charging Hiemenz rent since they've been shut down. "We've had good fortune that I know others haven't," said Hiemenz of their financial situation.
He said hopefully with a reconsideration from the governor's office, the Alley Cantina will be able to open in some capacity in the yellow phase. As a hotspot for locals and musicians alike, the establishment's absence is felt.
Musician Ry Taylor, who frequently performed at the Alley Cantina reminisced about days past. "It was something I looked forward to weekly. Not only to play music, but also [to see] friends and smiling faces. It has definitely been hard," said Taylor.
Taylor said that the Alley Cantina has been a big part of his life, and has "been like a second family to me," he said. "I know that during this crazy time we all have to adapt, but I sure miss that atmosphere and hope it can open back up as soon as possible!"