Mi Tierra, San Antonio’s Tex-Mex mainstay known for never closing its dining room, had to do just that last week for the first time in almost 80 years. But the restaurant quickly reopened as a pop-up grocery store.

The new Mi Tierra Mercado opened on Thursday, the day after Mayor Ron Nirenberg mandated all bars and restaurants be shut down to in-person diners in an attempt to limit the novel coronavirus from spreading.

As panic-buyers clear the shelves of H-E-B and other grocery stores around town, Mi Tierra has found a way to bring basic necessities to downtown San Antonians with limited grocery options. Normally filled with tables and chairs and customers as well as its famous festive decor, the dining room now features pallets of eggs, water, pinto beans, canned soup, and toilet paper. Produce sits on the trays of serving carts no longer being used by busboys to take dirty plates from restaurant patrons.

People also can order food to-go, with restaurant customers waiting outside for their orders while each grocery shopper is escorted by a gloved restaurant employee acting as a personal shopper who helps load a cart for them.

The Cortez family runs La Familia Cortez, the restaurant company that includes the flagship Mi Tierra at Market Square and four other restaurants. Pete Cortez, the company’s chief operating officer, was at the mercado on Sunday guiding customers to the items they wanted and directing employees.

Cortez said the company has been checking the news constantly to keep abreast of the latest coronavirus developments.

“What everybody’s afraid of is a ‘shelter in place’ order,” he said. “We haven’t received that here in Texas yet or San Antonio. So we’re very grateful for that. We’re monitoring the cases very closely and we’re doing everything that we can to keep everybody safe. That’s why we’re employing the personal shoppers.”

Carts usually used for busing tables have been adapted into grocery carts as employees serve customers. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Like other grocery stores, the mercado asked customers to practice social distancing, with blue masking tape marking the spots where each shopper should stand before moving to the next grocery item station.

Mi Tierra and its surrounding buildings used to house produce businesses until the 1950s, when around 40 produce tenants moved to the San Antonio Produce Terminal Market on South Zarzamora Street. Cortez’s grandfather worked nearby at the Via del Carmen grocery store, which was located where the downtown University of Texas at San Antonio campus is now.

“In a way, what’s old has become new,” he said. “We’ve gone back to the roots. Some things haven’t changed – our parking lot is still full, there’s still lines to get into Mi Tierra. Now this – instead of waiting for a table, you’re waiting for a personal shopper to take you through our dining rooms that are no longer dining rooms that are now grocery shelves.”

Mi Tierra has been limiting purchases of some items, such as disposable gloves; customers may buy only two boxes at a time. Cortez said his employees were doing their best to make sure that as many people were able to find supplies as possible.

“Everybody that has come here for the most part has gotten exactly what they wanted,” he said. “They didn’t get to the front of the line and then were told, ‘I’m out of this’ or ‘We’re out of that.’ But certainly as tomorrow comes around and we get another shipment, we’ll be able to do that even better.”

The pop-up grocery has been staying open until it sells out, Cortez said.

“We’ve gone through literally hundreds of sacks of beans in three days,” he said.

Around 65 people were in line for the pop-up mercado at 3 p.m. on Sunday. A security guard let one person in every time another left, and individuals waited around 30 minutes before getting to shop.

Noe Garcia and his wife, Elizabeth, walked out of the mercado toting two full bags of groceries and a bucket of Mi Tierra’s carne guisada. He had been looking for eggs and found them there, he said.

“They had everything we needed,” he said. “It was just a little bit more expensive than usual, but they had everything we needed.”

(from left) Elizabeth and Noe Garcia carry their recently purchased groceries from the Mi Tierra mercado. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Disclosure: La Familia Cortez is a Rivard Report business member. For a full list of supporters, click here.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.

Scott Ball is San Antonio Report's photo editor and grew up in San Antonio.