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: Kevin Fink, chef and co-owner of Emmer & Rye.
Eater Austin: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting business right now?
Kevin Fink: It’s definitely devastating business. I think that, more than anything, it shifts so much of why people go out to restaurants. While there is enjoyment, happiness, and excitement, there’s definitely always an awareness on the other side. It’s almost like you’re like waiting for a call or something when you’re out — there’s just this underlying current to things that keep you from sometimes being as present with the situation as you’d like to be. There’s still reservedness in the indulgence and happiness we used to have.
What is the current service model?
We’re currently serving our normal a la carte menu, which we recently returned to at [downtown live-fire restaurant] Hestia as well. We’ve always held ourselves to pretty stringent spacing guidelines — the difference between 50 and 75 percent capacity never really mattered for us because, in our dining room, we can’t go over a certain amount of covers for our safety, our staff safety, our customers, and just peace of mind. We used to have about a hundred seats inside, and now we have 50.
What measures are you currently implementing to prevent the spread of COVID?
We have three different types of sanitizing solutions: an alcohol for all of our staff’s electronics when they come into work; a particular solution that is meant for cloth and porous surfaces; and the traditional sanitizer for our tables. Our bathrooms are cleaned every 30 minutes. Everything is now single-use, whether it be menus or the no-touch hand-washing station.
We retrofitted all of our items really, really rapidly. We put plexiglass above all of the booths to make sure that somebody who’s seven-foot-tall could be standing next to the table, and there’s not necessarily the crossover of air. Right now, our bar is also fully plexiglassed in, so there’s a nice waiting area going into the winter where you can come in and be distanced from people and not come up to the bar, but not have a waiting area where you’re out in the cold.
What changes have you made and are you making due to COVID-19?
We invested maybe $4,000 in heaters and plants to really make the outside space have its own identity. I think there is so much to where you eat that makes it feel special. For the outside area, we describe it as Tulum-esque but it’s really kind of South Texas-esque, with a ton of indigenous plants and natural barriers. We have heaters for each table and this beautiful covered area. Honestly, outside reserves faster than inside.
We also had to discontinue the circulating cart for safety reasons, but it allowed us to create a new menu of curated snacks available throughout the meal. Our food has always been really delicate, but the chef’s snack menu has allowed us to get to the next level. Dishes on the cart had to have longevity as you were walking it to the tables, whereas with the snacks, you could have this dish right after it was created.
We’re also going to start selling our pasta with Whole Foods Market, and we recently started selling Monster Cookies and the Basque cheesecake online.
How has business been so far?
It has been as reasonable as you can expect for the circumstances. For the amount of seats we have, we’re very happy with where we’re at — we’re definitely not where we were in 2019, but, with our model, I wouldn’t feel comfortable if we were. It’s such a weight that is constantly with you every week, and you have to be able to make peace with that and still see the joy and the happiness because there are so many depressing things written about restaurants.
Most of the things people are writing about are closures and the lack of hope in the industry. There is still a lot of unity and strength and that is not being covered as much by media — the positive and way the community is pulling together. Restaurants are looked at as charity as opposed to integral parts of our society.
We have a really incredible community, people have been focused on how to be supportive. I don’t think the community of owners and chefs has ever been stronger. I’m very proud of how our team has been resilient during this time, both emotionally and creatively.