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Longtime family restaurant finds success in shifting model

Albert Lea’s Casa Zamora had a simple mission when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic: to keep each other healthy, safeguard their employees and keep the community safe. In turn, they hoped that mission would help them preserve their brand and future.

That goal appears to have paid off with the success the family has seen during the pandemic — even without reopening their doors to in-person dining.

Brenda Zamora, who manages the restaurant with her brother Jay, said Casa Zamora is one of the few restaurants — if not the only one — in town without a dining room open to the public.

Zamora, whose parents, Jake and Lupe Zamora, own the restaurant, said they have taken the decisions about their 51-year-old family business seriously.

“We’re all family,” she said. “We basically knew getting COVID wasn’t an option for us because we don’t have second jobs.”

In turn, they wanted to be an establishment that makes people feel safe in uncertain times.

The restaurant has a small dining room, in which it is difficult to social distance, and she said they didn’t want to have to police their patrons about face masks or kick people out, which she said would take away from the family atmosphere that they have built there for decades. With many customers also coming from other states, she said that also brought too much uncertainty for them to factor in.

Food is ready for takeout at Casa Zamora in Albert Lea. Provided

As eating patterns evolved during the pandemic, she said they learned that many of their customers felt more comfortable eating from the comfort and safety of their own homes where they could be in control of their own safety.

With that knowledge in mind, they put their heads down and went to work, shifting their business model.

They shortened their hours and streamlined some of their processes, allowing them to focus on consistency, which Zamora said has been their key to success. In addition to offering carryout from their regular menu, the restaurant started offering take-and-bake meals, including quesadillas, burritos, breakfast burritos and enchiladas. She said when people take their take-and-bake meals out of the oven at home, the food should taste exactly as if it had come straight out of the oven at the restaurant.

“We love that people eat our food in their homes,” she said. “It’s where one should feel most comfortable. It’s a huge compliment.”

She said the restaurant has been flourishing and actually is doing better now than it was before the coronavirus, which she credits to their loyal patrons and the support of the community.

“It’s kind of exploded,” she said. “We’re actually scared to do something different, and we’re excited to see where this goes.

As far as where the business is headed in the future, she said the family will wait for her parents to get vaccinated before they make any other decisions.

“We’re really thankful for our customers,” she said. “They’ve allowed us to keep our doors open, but at the same time keep our doors shut.”