At this point, it’s almost cliche to compare 2020 to a dumpster fire, but this year was notably difficult for those in the restaurant industry. As expected, the biggest stories of 2020 centered on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as businesses faced an uncertain future and confusing regulatory changes with little government support. The year also included periods of social unrest: in late May, Black Lives Matter protests over police brutality and systemic racism began shortly after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, leading to a broader social justice reckoning across the United States — including outrage over allegations of racism, sexism, and other abuses within the restaurant industry.
Amid the ups and downs of the tumultuous year, there were moments of levity: the Fab 5 from Queer Eye landing in Austin; new options for sushi, fried chicken, and sandwiches; and a beloved barbecue figure making her Netflix debut.
Read on for the top Austin dining stories of 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic
For restaurants, the pandemic has meant a year of chaos: opening, closing, moving to takeout, deciphering ambiguous regulations, and investing in patios and PPE — all with very little aid. For bars, which are still not technically allowed to be open in Travis County unless they serve food, the situation is even more grim: Over 10,000 restaurants have closed in Texas this year, with estimates that 30 percent more will close in the next six months. For a more personal perspective of how restaurants are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, check out Eater’s series with Austin’s essential restaurants.
SXSW is canceled due to COVID-19 concerns
For many people, the moment that the COVID-19 pandemic became real was March 6, when South by Southwest decided to cancel its annual festival, just days before the event. This marked the first time the festival had been canceled in 34 years, and restaurants — who see enormous revenue boosts from increased numbers of tourists and event buyouts — began to worry.
Austin restaurants and the Black Lives Matter movement
With nationwide protests erupting this June over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police, many Austin restaurants showed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. That took the form of joining the protests, donating when profits were already scarce, or promoting the city’s black-owned businesses.
Austin burger chain faces criticism for controversial posts by co-owner’s spouse
In June, Austinite Trina Nolen Schaff appeared to share several posts on Facebook disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement, as seen by screencaps. Her husband, Brian Nolen, is co-owner of K&N Management, the company behind fast-casual restaurant chain Mighty Fine Burgers and the Austin franchise locations of Rudy’s Bar-B-Q. The internet backlash was swift — people vowed to never eat at the restaurants again, called for boycotting the businesses, and left messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement on the restaurants’ social media accounts and Yelp pages; meanwhile, multiple former employees shared stories of harassment at the company. Schaff never apologized or admitted to creating the posts, though K&N swiftly condemned Schaff’s statements and reached out to the former employees who alleged harassment.
Tootsie Tomanetz on Chef’s Table
Netflix’s critically acclaimed documentary food series Chef’s Table featured beloved Texas pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz of Snow’s BBQ this year. The episode, released in August, featured some great lines about barbecue and life from Tomanetz.
Owner of seafood truck faces backlash for racist posts on social media
Another Austin restaurant personality, Beaux Hobbs, the owner of Buda seafood trailer Beaux Seafood, disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement on his personal Facebook page in June, including posts that promoted a number of conspiracy theories surrounding George Floyd’s death, as seen by Eater at the time. Again, the reaction was immediate — people left negative ratings and comments on the truck’s Yelp page, while local organizations encouraged followers to not visit the business on Instagram — though Hobbs has never apologized or responded to requests for comment.
Beloved Tex-Mex restaurant closes, and then reopens with new management
Crestview restaurant Enchiladas y Mas closed in April after 26 years in business. However, the closure was short-lived, as Eva and Carmen Hernandez, who were previously the restaurant’s general managers — and the daughters of the late co-owner Roe Hernandez — bought the restaurant and re-opened in August. The menu remains the same.
Korea-based Korean fried chicken chain opens in Highland
Yet another Korean fried chicken restaurant has joined Austin’s ranks, with Korea-based chain BB.Q, which opened in August. BB.Q (which stands for “best of the best quality”), opened in Highland with wings, chicken, Korean specialties, and a full bar.
TABC revokes liquor licenses for Austin bars defying COVID-19 precautions
Texas bars were allowed to briefly open this spring, provided they operated at 25, then 50 percent capacity, implemented social distancing measures, and had table-service only. Memorial Day festivities quickly proved that many bars were ignoring these regulations, and on June 23 four Austin bars (Unbarlievable, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Soho Lounge, and Buford’s Beer Garden) had their liquor licenses suspended for 30 days. The suspensions were largely moot as Governor Abbott ordered bars closed again by June 29.
Unbarlievable’s time in the spotlight for defying safe operating regulations rekindled ire towards the bar, whose owner, Brandon Cash, has made racist and misogynistic remarks in the past.
New Japanese restaurant makes big moves
Tsuke Honten opened in February as a food truck serving $29 omakase, and quickly became the hardest-to-get reservation in town. In November, chef Michael Che announced he will be moving the omakase to a new restaurant, Tsuke Edomae, which is opening in the former Kyoten Sushiko space next year. Th truck will pivot to focus on skewers with Monika Vasquez taking over as head chef.
Austin pastry chef opens new bakery service
Almond croissant expert Kendall Melton (formerly pastry chef for Contigo, Sugar Mama’s, and others) branched out with her own bakery, Vivian’s Boulangerie. Named after her late cat, Vivian’s was originally sold through farmers market app Vinder before moving to Melton’s own site.
Queer Eye comes to Austin
In early March, the Fab Five hosts of Netflix series Queer Eye announced they would be filming the show’s sixth season in Austin. However, that whole pandemic thing put the show on hold for a few months. In the meantime, food expert Antoni stayed in town, adopting a dog from Austin Pets Alive and whipping up a new show from his quarantine kitchen. Although initial reports said filming for the Austin series resumed in July, it appears to still be on hiatus.
Aaron Franklin is opening a sandwich shop
Remember February, when we were excited about the news that Aaron Franklin and partner James Moody would be turning long-abandoned East Sixth building Uptown Sports Shop into a sandwich shop? Those were more optimistic days. Expect sandwiches, gumbo, breakfast, and a full bar whenever it opens.
- All Year in Eater Coverage [EATX]