As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Eater checked in with Austin’s defining restaurants to see how the pandemic has affected business, service models, and more. Next up in this series: General Manager Liz Nyfeler and owner Nic Patrizi of Cherrywood Italian truck Patrizi’s.
Eater Austin: How has COVID-19 pandemic affected business?
Liz Nyfeler: Moving to operate as a takeout restaurant was strange at first — prior to COVID we didn’t accept any to-go orders. We wanted everyone to sit down with friends and family for a proper Italian meal — spend a few hours eating, drinking, laughing, and arguing with each other. There was definitely a small fear that there wouldn’t be the same demand without the in-person service and ambiance. Thankfully, we’ve seen a ton of support from our regulars, and we’ve also gained a lot of new customers who might have previously been scared off by our long line on busy nights.
What is the current service model?
Nyfeler: We are operating as a takeout restaurant for the foreseeable future. We encourage folks to order online, but accept phone or walk up orders as well. Keeping our staff safe and gainfully employed has been a big priority through all of this. We are in no rush to get things “back to normal” until COVID is under control. [Editor’s note: During this time, host site Butterfly Bar at the Vortex is open for services.]
Are y’all planning or thinking about any future changes (due to COVID-19 or otherwise)?
Nyfeler: Of course there are discussions about what the longer term future looks like with or without COVID, but we’ve really been taking this week by week, and sometimes even just day by day. The first week of shutdown, we tried doing phone orders only and had no idea how to effectively enforce social distancing.
Nic Patrizi: We got bombarded with orders and had 150 people showing up at the same time. One of the delivery drivers made Liz cry.
Nyfeler: It was a chaotic nightmare. We’ve come a long way since then, by making changes constantly to continually improve our business model.
What measures are you currently implementing?
Nyfeler: We’re doing the standard social distancing (enforced by physical barriers), required masks/face coverings, hand sanitizers, etc. If anyone on our staff has experienced a possible exposure, we will pay for their COVID tests and any missed shifts. There have been a couple of close calls, but thankfully, none of our staff have tested positive. Ensuring access to testing without financial repercussions allows us to trust that our staff will be honest with us about possible exposures and creates an environment where our staff isn’t worried that their coworkers are being reckless and coming to work sick.
How has business been so far?
Nyfeler: Honestly it’s been pretty good, all things considered. We had experienced some pretty rapid growth over the past couple of years. While that’s not really the case this year, we’re doing so much better than any of us would have guessed if you told us we’d spend the majority of 2020 doing takeout only.
What are some challenges/surprises/unexpected positives that you’ve encountered?
Nyfeler: Our crew has formed a pretty tight bond throughout all of this and been incredibly supportive of each other. It’s definitely been stressful constantly adapting our business model and we get to pet a lot fewer dogs on shift.
What was it like to open Vic & Al’s (Patrizi’s new Cajun restaurant), during a pandemic?
Patrizi: It was definitely not the smartest thing to open up a new restaurant. We were supposed to open at the end of March, but at that point, we couldn’t, so we dedicated ourselves to making sure we could pay everyone properly with our community kitchen.
We still haven’t really opened fully — we’re still doing everything in a to-go format. If we’re supposed to be a little neighborhood watering hole and our neighborhood is socially conscious, the idea of us looking like we’re busy has a long-term negative effect on the outlook of the restaurant, more so than being temporarily closed. But three outside tables is not the way to keep a restaurant afloat.
I’m worried about people getting my staff sick, and their level of comfort. It’s a weird situation. You’re balancing someone’s genuine emotional fear and sense of safety in the world with the need to make money, because, otherwise they will have another set of dangers and problems forced upon them because they have no money.
We’re deciding to make sure that the staff’s fear and safety and emotional health is a primary concern. For the money thing, we’re just paying them more. Luckily, Patrizi’s can subsidize Vic and Al’s right now. We’re lucky Patrizi’s is doing okay, so my staff is not relying on the volume of tips.
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