Many Los Angeles restaurants have reinvented themselves as neighborhood markets to survive the ongoing coronavirus shutdown, but one Whittier taquería is taking things a step further by selling medical safety gear — including KN95 masks, the respirator masks that the FDA recently approved for use in hospital settings.
Masataco is selling the masks to doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel. Customers must present a hospital ID to purchase one of the respirator masks, which cost $5.
On Tuesday, after the restaurant advertised a new shipment of masks on its Instagram account, carloads of customers lined up to purchase them and other goods at the restaurant’s curbside, drive-up operation.
The line stretched for three blocks, according to Jason Armond, a photographer for The Times who documented the scene.
Citing traffic safety concerns, Masataco announced in an Instagram post that mask sales will continue, but customers will no longer be able to drive up to purchase them.
Fuerte won’t disclose whom he’s working with to acquire the medical gear and says he has sold more than a million masks at the restaurant in the last week. He said, “I have a friend who used to run a big importing company, and they called me and said, ‘Hey, I’m able to get masks. Are you able to help distribute them?’”
Fuerte, who operates the vegan-friendly Mexican restaurant with his brother, Alex, said the KN95 masks cost the restaurant $5.03 apiece. He posted a photo of the invoice on Masataco’s Instagram to show customers that the restaurant is not profiting from their sale.
The restaurant is also selling surgical masks to the general public for $3.
Many of his customers are law enforcement personnel and first responders, said Fuerte.
Why sell the hard-to-find masks at a loss?
“Because the money will be returned tenfold when my restaurants open back up,” said Fuerte, who recently opened a second Masataco location inside Border X Brewing in Bell.
“My social media is growing. Profits are not always in money,” he said. “Sometimes profits are in growth.”
Masataco converted into a curbside, drive-up marketplace shortly after Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered dine-in service suspended at Los Angeles area restaurants.
Many restaurants have turned to selling pantry staples and essential household items, but few have offered them in unrationed quantities like Masataco.
“When I saw that there was a shortage of rice and beans, I immediately got ahold of my vendors and put a message on Instagram asking if anybody needed rice and beans,” Fuerte said.
Customers have left messages of gratitude on the restaurant’s Instagram page, thanking the restaurant for supplying hard-to-find items like tortillas, beans, rice, lentils, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, which are stacked on tables in front of the restaurant.
Fuerte said he’s been trying to offer a safe place for the Whittier community to find household goods during the shutdown.
“We take the payment and run it inside the restaurant. Then we spray the card with hand sanitizer before handing it back to the customer,” he said.
Along with everything else, the restaurant offers its regular menu for takeout and delivery, including daily specials like a jackfruit vegan posole.
Sales have been brisk, but he says the restaurant is essentially breaking even.
“This is not making us a huge amount of money. It’s just keeping us afloat,” he said.