BELEN — Calling it a matter of survival, one Belen barbecue joint will continue with dine-in services despite the governor’s most recent health order.

Greg’s BBQ, on the corner of Main Street and Camino del Llano, continued to sling brisket and hot links this week, providing indoor dining at the restaurant, defying the governor’s order to shift back to take out and delivery only starting Monday, July 13.

Greg Spragg, owner of Greg’s BBQ in Belen, stands with his son, Mike, in front of the restaurant in Belen.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

Karen Spragg, who owns the business with her husband, the eponymous Greg, said their decision was not solely based on keeping their business alive.

“If we have to go through another shutdown, we won’t be able to withstand it, but we also have an obligation to our employees who rely on that income,” Spragg said. “They have to pay rent, make car payments. We employee five to seven people. If we don’t sustain that, where are they going to get a job? There are not many people hiring right now.”

Like any other business, Greg’s has ongoing expenses to meet whether it’s making money or not, she said.

“You can still go to the gym and work out for two or three hours, but you can’t sit down and have a 30 minute meal with your family?” Spragg questioned.

The new public health order issued by the governor last week rolled back restaurant’s ability to offer inside dining at 50 percent capacity, which had been permitted since June 15 after being limited to carry out and delivery only orders.

Restaurants and breweries can still offer outdoor seating at 50 percent of the maximum occupancy and carry out and delivery services, but Spragg says that comes at a cost.

Packing orders for carry out can add $2 to $4 to every order, depending on the size.

“When you order to go, you have your sides in a container with a lid. If you want your sauce on the side, that’s another container and a lid,” Spragg said.

Throw in napkins, disposable cutlery and condiments, and those extra costs start to cut deep, costs Spragg and her husband don’t pass on to their customers.

Having a meat-heavy menu has also pushed their costs higher, she said, and again, isn’t passed on to diners.

“I can’t raise my prices to my customers. I respect them enough to know they are going through some things right now, too,” she said. “I know a lot of places in Albuquerque are charging a ‘COVID tax.’ We don’t want to do that.”

Reverting back to outdoor dining at 50 percent would only allow eight people to eat at the restaurant at a time, Spragg noted.

On Tuesday, Greg said the eatery is seating customers in the patio area first.

“If we have more, we’ll see,” he said. “We felt like this was the best decision we could make.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Spragg said restaurant staff have been diligent about sanitizing — the tables, chairs and menus are all cleaned daily.

At tables inside customers are seated at every other table, she said, so they aren’t next to each other.

“We also alternate tables and keep them empty for a day. If someone sits at table 1, no one sits there the next day,” she said. “All our servers, dishwashers and cooks wear masks and gloves. We are following all the requirements and have increased all our sanitation.”

Spragg herself falls into one of the high-risk categories, a situation her employees are aware of.

“I know what I can and can’t do,” she said. “That’s one reason we make sure everything is so clean.”

Belen Police Chief James Harris let out a heavy sigh when the News-Bulletin told him about the restaurant’s plans.

“I think something people don’t seem to understand is that the governor has very wide latitude in making rules,” Harris said. “This is a health order that is enforceable by law.

“Whether we believe it is overreaching or inappropriate, it is still, at this point and time, the law. If this business or any other business chooses to defy the order, they need to understand they are opening themselves up to legal action.”

The chief said he would speak to the business and possibly issue a citation, as well as refer the matter over to the New Mexico State Police.

“I hate to do that. I know people have to make a living. All this is doing is adding insult to injury,” the chief said.

Harris said while he sympathizes with Greg’s position, as well as other businesses forced to close under the COVID-19 restrictions, as a police officer, he has an obligation to the law and the citizens of Belen and Valencia County.

“There are laws I don’t necessarily agree with on the books but that doesn’t mean I can ignore them,” he said.

Spragg said she and Greg have talked about their response if law enforcement does cite them.

“We’re not going to throw an all-out fit,” she said. “We understand they have to do their job and respond. We also understand this is a very tense situation and people are scared. It’s not that we don’t believe the virus exists; we completely understand it’s real. We also understand the possibility of people losing their jobs, their homes, their vehicles is very real. We’re scared for everyone and pray everyone in our community stays healthy.”

On Monday, the New Mexico Environment Department suspended food permits at four restaurants — three in Carlsbad and one in Hobbs — that opened for dine-in service in violation of the current public health orders.

NMED also inspected two Weck’s restaurants in Santa Fe and Farmington, which were offering dine-in service on Tuesday. Upon inspection, the restaurant management immediately agreed to comply and ceased indoor dining. Further action may be taken by the department.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.