ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At a “very young age,” Myra Ghattas was an expert in taking pennies from the weight scale at Duran Central Pharmacy and stuffing them into paper wrappers.
She and her three siblings grew up at the downtown landmark after her father, Robert Ghattas, purchased the business in 1965.
“All the kids grew up working there at a very young age,” Ghattas says. “It was just an expectation, and I think we all look back on it as a positive thing that happened in our lives. We established a good work ethic, and we value local business and working hard.”
Now, Ghattas owns a catering business and three restaurants in Albuquerque: Slate Street Cafe, an eatery at the Albuquerque Museum and her most recent addition, Sixty-Six Acres. Her sister, Mona Ghattas, has taken over the longtime family pharmacy/restaurant.
Myra Ghattas earned a sociology degree and was studying for law school entrance exams, when she became a Hyatt employee charged with opening the new Downtown Albuquerque hotel in 1990.
She got hooked, and from there, her career skyrocketed. She transferred to much larger, fancier Hyatt properties in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where she held high-level food and beverage, catering and sales positions.
But an “entrepreneurial drive” that she says she got from her father began nudging her to become her own boss and launch her own business. She concluded that “if I’m going to open my own place coming home made the most sense.”
“I was definitely one of those people that left and didn’t appreciate it as much until it was gone,” Ghattas says of Albuquerque. “And then I would come home and visit and think, ‘I can breathe. It’s easy here.'”
There wasn’t much in the neighborhood when you opened Slate Street at Fifth and Slate 15 years ago. How did you choose the location?
“Marble Brewery was not here. Amerasia and the sushi place weren’t here. There were only a few little Downtown eateries right on Central or right off Central, like in the lobbies of some of those big office buildings. When I recognized that all three courthouses were within walking distance, that seemed to be a real positive for me. And the space was big, and it could afford me the future potential of a catering operation, which is what happened. We developed our upstairs wine loft. It just made sense. Having said that, I wish I was on a busier street. I wish my location was a little more visible because I think that’s been a little difficult, marketing-wise.”
What’s been the most difficult time in your 15 years?
“Right now, absolutely. With COVID-19. Tenfold. The second would have been the recession in 2008. I was moving up quickly, financially and making progress and on the correct track. And that recession hit us hard. This is a very challenging industry. There are a lot of ups and downs all the time.”
In what ways has the pandemic affected you?
“I will tell you that when we shut down all our places (in mid-March), I laid off 79 people, so that is very difficult. Almost every week, we pivot, meaning we re-evaluate and do something different. And that might be, ‘We’re closed right now. Now, we’re open for curbside, now the hours are this, now we’ve changed and expanded them, now we’re open for dining, now our patio’s open, now we’re going to add more hours. I mean it’s just been every week, we change. If we don’t, we won’t survive.”
What do you think makes you successful?
“Passion for not only the industry, but the people in the industry. I love food, I love beverage, I care a lot. I am very good at building teams. You could interview anybody from my team, and I think they would say with confidence that they feel like they’re part of a family and they feel like they’re part of something bigger. And many of them could go other places and make more money. So I think that’s valuable.”
What’s on your bucket list?
“How much time do you have? I hit one a couple of years ago. It was a big one. I jumped out of a plane. That was a good one to check off. I have a lot of checks. I’ve done a marathon. I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Those are all in the past, though. My future ones: I’d like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro again with my daughter. I’d like to do the Grand Canyon, rim to rim. There’s a lot of travel places. I want to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, visit the temples in Myanmar, learn to juggle and learn to blow glass.”
Have you ever faced an uphill battle in your industry because you’re a woman?
“Absolutely. Particularly when I was in hotels, it was a male-dominated industry in the leadership roles and on the beverage side of things, like alcohol distributors. There’s always challenges, but I will say that I always felt like I didn’t mind being one female in a group of 10 males. Like, bring it on.”
What kind of changes do you think the pandemic will mean for your business long-term?
“The large gatherings that we catered are absolutely gone for the year, and I could see them being limited in capacity for an extended amount of time. I think that people’s habits have changed, and that it’s not only that they feel safer staying at home and that they want to stay home for their safety, it’s also that they got used to it. Maybe they’re kind of liking it. Maybe they’re enjoying cooking or they found that take-out is very easy. And there aren’t other people in my industry who can say, ‘Oh, when this happened, this is what we did.’ It’s not relevant any more. It’s a different world. So we have to try what we think is going to work and if it doesn’t, we can try something else. The path is going to be really hard,and I don’t know if we’re going to survive or not. But we won’t know for awhile.”