WORTHINGTON - For years, cooks at Lupita’s Mexican Restaurant worked next to refrigerators that produced so much heat that air conditioners had to be placed in the kitchen. 

The small restaurant, located at 1906 Oxford St., did not have a heating or cooling system and used so many small - and typically outdated - coolers that owner Maria Paarga thought she would have to close her restaurant.

Storing food in household refrigerators in the restaurant was expensive and not efficient.

“The equipment was so old it would break,” Paarga said. “We knew it was time to update our machines.”

Paarga submitted an application for a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) in October to help her update Lupita’s with energy efficient appliances.

On Wednesday, Lupita’s was fitted with the last of many upgrades that Paarga was able to afford with the help of the $20,000 grant she received from REAP. The funds enabled her to install a central heating and cooling system, which will keep her patrons and employees warm during the winter and cool during the summer, she said.

She was also eligible for loans through a Minnesota program, Commercial Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), after her application was approved.

Paarga used the funds from PACE to install a new walk-in cooler and freezer and replaced small coolers around the store with newer, more efficient models. The new appliances also include a glass cooler in the restaurant’s deli area that keeps sausages and chorizos fresh.

The upgrades will save the restaurant more than $10,000 a year in electrical costs, equal to the amount of energy produced by 12 households annually.

In addition, the large cooler allows Paarga to buy perishable foods in large quantities, which also lowers the restaurant’s operating costs.

“This has been my dream for many, many years,” she said, adding that many people helped her during the six-month process.

Lupita’s energy efficiency was audited before the upgrades were installed - a condition for REAP funding. Fritz Ebinger, the program manager for the Clean Energy Resource Team (CERTs), helped Paarga decipher the audit. Thanks to his fluency in Spanish, he was able to help her understand the issues that needed to be resolved in her restaurant.

Half of the applicants who apply for PACE loans do not speak English as their first language, noted Southwest Regional Development Commission Economic (SRDC) Director Robin Weis. But language is not a barrier for business owners seeking the grants, even though the applications can be complicated.

Funding for REAP comes from the federal 2014 Farm Bill that supports economic development for agricultural producers and small businesses in rural areas. The grants have helped finance 1,014 energy efficiency projects in rural Minnesota since 2009.

“The advantage of the (REAP) program is that you can start the project before the application is approved,” Ebinger said, noting that approval for the grants typically takes six weeks.

“I’m happy that I can continue to help people enjoy their experience in the restaurant,” Paarga said. “I enjoy this work a lot.”

For more information on the REAP program, visit www.rd.usda.gov/mn or contact the USDA Rural Development State Energy Coordinator for Minnesota, (651) 602-7796, or email ron.omann@mn.usda.gov.