Q&A: Tania Merlos-Ruiz, owner of Tomate Fresh Kitchen, and husband talk challenges during the pandemic


Daily file photo by Sarah Nelson

Tania Merlos-Ruiz, owner of Tomate Fresh Kitchen, poses with one of her cakes. Merlos-Ruiz said she has seen an “outpouring of love” from the Evanston and Northwestern communities throughout the struggles of the pandemic.

Allison Arguezo, Reporter

Nestled between Coffee Lab Evanston and Noyes Barber Shop, Tomate Fresh Kitchen is run by Tania Merlos-Ruiz and her husband, Polo Ruiz. Awarded Best Restaurant in The Daily Northwestern’s Best of Evanston for the past three years, the popular Latin American eatery opened in 2013 as a storefront for empanadas she had sold at farmer’s markets.

During the pandemic, the small business closed twice — first in March 2020 for around three months and then again from December 2020 for three months when Merlos-Ruiz contracted COVID-19. The couple spoke to the Daily about the challenges they’ve faced trying to keep their employees and families safe. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Daily: How did you conduct business when the pandemic first hit? 

Merlos-Ruiz: When they called for quarantine, we actually closed. Our employees, one has a young daughter with asthma, and our other two employees, their parents are older and have a lot of underlying issues. Our concern was for our employees and families and for ourselves — not knowing what COVID really was and how long the stretch would be.

The Daily: What pushed you to close for the second time after you got sick?

Merlos-Ruiz: It was a hard decision. But, in a way, it was a no-brainer because I’d rather be healthy and be able to reopen up with my staff, my husband and my son.

Ruiz: We started finding out how business owners had died of COVID. Just like that — within weeks, within days. We knew a few businesses, which went out for good, because either the owner or the employees passed away of COVID. So for us it was real scary to keep on working. When we were closed from December to March, we didn’t make any money. So we are right now trying to gain that back, but I think that was a scary moment for us, for either of us to pass away, or one of our employees or a few of our employees. They’re all family to us.

The Daily: What’s a challenge that comes with running a business with all the safety precautions?

Merlos-Ruiz: My husband is at the pick-up window. Getting the drivers to wear the mask and be protective of everybody else. People do not want to wear their masks. They didn’t care.

Ruiz: Especially since we’ve opened the pick-up window, even students will not wear masks at all. 

The Daily: How did the Northwestern community react when you closed for a second time?

Merlos-Ruiz: When we were sick, we had quite a few students reaching out. When we reopened on March 15, we had an influx of students coming by, and it was just a lot of love. We got a lot of Christmas cards, a lot of get-well cards and emails. 

The Daily: How has the Evanston community helped you?

Merlos-Ruiz: There was an outpouring of love from the Evanston community. They would send us emails, and drop off cards. People would want to send us money to help out, a few wanted to do a GoFundMe page. Some people dropped off food and produce at my home. I am very grateful to be a part of such a wonderful community.

The Daily: What is something major that you’ve learned during the pandemic? 

Merlos-Ruiz: It gives us a better sense of what’s really, really important. And more love of what we do — our work, our family, our friends. People that are really with us through thick and thin. That’s what motivates us more now than ever. 

The Daily: Can customers expect items to be added to the menu or changes in the way you all are running?

Merlos-Ruiz: We’re going to wait before we bring the new things on the menu out. We were hoping to put new stuff before the pandemic and that stopped it, and I want to wait to see how all of this rolls out before we start going in and making changes. 

Ruiz: I think we’ll see when fall comes. That could be different. We can open our doors if all the students are getting their vaccinations. I think that we’re going to keep the same way we’re operating right now. We can see, I hope, if fall is OK to open our doors. 

The Daily: What do you love most about running Tomate?

Merlos-Ruiz: It’s an adventure of a lifetime — my culinary skills being put to practice, working with my family, my husband and my son. My son’s been working with me since he was young at the farmer’s market. And then just our employees. It’s a small family. The customers when they come, and they’re happy to see us. That’s the most gratifying part.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AllisonArguezo

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