As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Eater is checking in with Austin’s defining restaurants to see how the pandemic has affected business, service models, and more. Next up in this series: Carmen Valera, co-owner of venerable Tex-Mex restaurant Tamale House East.
Eater Austin: What is your current service model?
Carmen Valera: We are currently offering outdoor dining and to-go orders only. When on-site dining was allowed, we decided to stick with outdoor dining until there was a vaccine. Our outdoor areas are beautiful and I think we made the right decision when I hear customers say they feel safe eating here.
We implemented online ordering, and ordering at the table. You take a seat in our garden, scan a QR code, place your order, and we bring the food out to you. It is a change from our counter-service model, kind of a mix of counter- and table-services. I think we are going to stick to this model after the pandemic. It helps alleviate long lines and people can sit down and relax and enjoy their time.
Have you made any changes due to COVID-19?
COVID-19 has required being open to change, but the east side is always rapidly changing, so we have always found a way to adapt and to try to improve what we do.
When the pandemic first hit, we started cutting every cost we could. We cut off the cable for the TVs no one was going to be able to watch; we decreased purchases.
Then the reality of what was happening sent us in to a period of shock, grief, and anxiety for what would happen to our business, employees, customers, community, and ourselves. We decided to close for a few weeks to try to figure out what we were going to do. We channeled all that angst into other things. For me, it was the garden at Tamale House. I just needed to be in that beautiful space both physically and mentally. Mom took the longest break from work she had in more than 50 years. She rested, but kept cooking and creating recipes at home.
COVID-19 forced us to stop and reevaluate everything. What, how, and why we were doing it, and did we even really want to do it anymore? The ideas for what we want the future to look like for our business just started coming, and we could begin to act on them.
Mandatory closures and, frankly, business sales going way down forced me to get creative. With more time and less money, I had to learn how to build and finish out the space myself. I went to YouTube University, bought myself a few basic power tools, and just got to work. Someone asked me how I did the stucco walls, and I said, ‘Well first, you make a big mistake. And then you figure out how to fix it, and you end up with something quite beautiful and unique.’
I am not really sure how we will do with outside dining when the weather turns really bad. My dream is to find a sponsor to put a tent outside or several small tents. We just can’t spend $10,000 to do it, as I would rather use resources to keep our staff at 40 hours.
I was always mindful that this pandemic was affecting everyone from our east side neighbors to people and communities across the globe. And that it was affecting communities of color especially hard.
Could you elaborate on that?
The pandemic shed a really bright light on cracks that were already in the system, that could be made even bigger after the virus is contained. Of course, this virus can attack anyone, but it is affecting those with means and those without means very differently.
Ten million jobs have been lost and not regained yet. Nine million of those are in the service sector. People of color and women make up a vast proportion of that sector.
3.6 million people are experiencing long-term unemployment. 5.5 million women have become unemployed, and Black, Hispanic, and immigrant women are being hit especially hard. A huge number of them don’t work from home — they have jobs where they have to physically go to work. They also are facing school closures and a lack of child care, so even if they have a job to go to, they can’t.
Positions in food processing plants, agricultural jobs, food service, hotels, and hospitals are filled by people of color, women, and immigrants, and they are taking public transportation to get to work. They didn’t have health insurance or access to health care before a serious pandemic, and they don’t now. They live in multigenerational households. They are the essential workers, though many were not given any assistance during the pandemic.
People of color work in these businesses, but people of color also own many of these small business. Just drive around the east side, and see all the small mom-and-pop restaurants and businesses that are closed Sunday through Thursday or, worse, permanently. And these small businesses drive this economy, and they’re having restrictions put on them and should be helped to survive. That means restaurants, barbershops, entertainment venues, and hotel businesses are suffering.
I remain convinced that small restaurants are just as safe, if not more safe, as big grocery stores. So if you are going to put restriction on us, then help us. Decrease the property taxes on businesses that were restricted this year. Use the rainy day fund, because it is a tsunami right now.
If our leadership continues to do nothing, more people will lose their jobs, there will be foreclosures, restaurants will continue to permanently close, and the food lines will get longer.
What measures are you currently implementing to prevent the spread of COVID?
We limited our hours and days to try to be open on the days there is business, which also gives us plenty of time to clean and sanitize.
We spread the tables out to maintain social distance and removed some tables and chairs. We limited our menu a little bit, but have slowly started bringing things back and are excited to introduce some new dishes soon. We went to disposable plates and utensils, individual packets of condiments.
We spend so much money on PPE for our staff and disinfecting supplies that it has its own line item on our profit-and-loss statements now. We have ourselves been tested and get our staff tested as well.
How has business been so far?
Business is definitely down. It does not matter what capacity you allow restaurants to open at. People are scared to go out. The tourists are not in town, and some of the locals are either cautious to go out or can’t afford to go out. We went from being on track to having the best year ever to just being able to pay our employees.
Above all, I am grateful to our employees who have stuck by us and our customers who make remaining open even possible.
If you want to see your favorite local spots on the other side of this pandemic, please do what you can to support them. And call your representatives and senators in Congress to support the Restaurant Act.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.