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: Ben Siegel, owner of Rainey Street’s bustling bar and restaurant Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden.
Eater Austin: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting business right now?
Ben Siegel: Our current service model isn’t enough to sustain us. Based on how things are currently set up, we need to get to 50 percent of pre-COVID numbers to break even, and, as I said, we are hitting 30 percent at best. We are losing less money than we were when we were closed [Ed. note: Banger’s was closed from March through the end of September], but being open is still costing us money.
What is the current service model?
We are currently running a modified full-service model, in addition to offering our food to-go. We will also be rolling out a number of new initiatives, such as a sausage cart and sandwich concept.
Are y’all planning or thinking about any future changes (due to COVID-19 or otherwise)?
The big thing for us moving forward is trying to drive more business to off-premise sales. That’s where 70 to 80 percent of restaurant sales have gone, but we have so far put very little effort in that direction.
We rolled out a sausage stand out in front of the restaurant. It’s not exactly off-premise, but it is another revenue source and something we could operate should there be another shutdown. We’ll be making some tweaks to the look and feel of our setup, but all in all it’s got that authentic street vendor vibe. Financially, though, it has been slow. The foot traffic on Rainey seems to be declining as case numbers rise nationally, which makes sense. We are hoping we will be able to keep it open as a way to serve people who want to grab and go instead of dining in.
We also rolled out a new sandwich concept. Through our eight years in business, our to-go sales have been less than one percent. Our menu was just never geared in that direction. We feel the sandwich market in Austin has been long underserved and it fits in well with the sausage house-smokehouse-butcher shop-delicatessen vibe we have going. We have a new chef leading our culinary team [Thomas Malz], and he’s put a killer menu together.
The key for us is to stay realistic while remaining optimistic, never give up, and never stop innovating. This too shall pass, and we plan to be here when it does.
What measures are you currently implementing to prevent the spread of COVID?
We mandate masks for both staff and customers. All staff members wear gloves, and have to change gloves and wash their hands at least every 30 minutes. We do health checks for anyone coming on property. We have created a service model that feels like full-service, but really does a great job of keeping a safe distance between customers and staff. We created a new position called a sanitation engineer which is kind of like a busser, but they work in a loop and perpetually clean any high-touch surfaces. We are working with a local lab in town to get our people tested, at our expense, when issues occur.
But more than anything, we are actually doing all of these things. With something as contagious as COVID, you can’t half-ass it. You gotta do all the stuff all the time and I really do think our team has done an exemplary job of that.
We did have had two team members test positive in consecutive weeks. It’s one of the hardest things to navigate in this new reality, but we all gotta do the best we can. We just tried to do what we’ve done all along: put the health and safety of our team first, be open and honest about what’s happening, and do our best to keep the public safe and informed.
We made all exposed staff quarantine for five days, and then we paid for them to get tested. If we have enough staff to open, we do; if we don’t, then we don’t. And obviously, we clean the heck out of the place. So, while it sucks that it happened, the silver lining is all of our internal processes are working. Neither team member was infected at the restaurant and neither of them infected anyone else while working, so that’s good.
How has business been so far?
As I said above, good but not great. We need to figure out how to double our revenue just to break even. But, we are a huge place, and even 25 percent of our old revenue is a pretty big number, so we remain grateful for the sales and customers we have. We also have lots of levers we can pull and a great team to innovate. We’ve only been back open about six weeks and we have already tweaked things more times than I can count. We’ll figure this out, we just need to keep working the problem.
Normally around this time, we’d be getting our first deposits for the 2021 South by Southwest festival. That obviously isn’t happening this year, and neither will the second half deposits. It’s a major hit for us, but what can we do? At this point, we need to roll with the punches and get as creative as we can. Hopefully SX will come back better than ever before in 2022.
I hope people know that every little bit counts. Whether you come in and join us at the restaurant, order food to-go, or buy retail sausage from us, every sale makes a difference. This isn’t just true for Banger’s, but nearly every one of your favorite restaurants is fighting for survival right now. So, if you have even an inkling to buy something from a restaurant, do it. The holiday season is upon us and lots of restaurants have things you can give as gifts. So do your best to shop local — the very existence of those businesses may depend on it.