It has been almost a week since Austin officials ordered the closure of all restaurant dining rooms and bars in the city to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and restaurants are in survival mode. The now-statewide closures has meant staff furloughs and changing practices to accommodate carryout and delivery orders, with little guidance from governing agencies.
Still, the hospitality industry requires being nimble, and optimism prevails. Though some restaurateurs have closed shop, most have made the pivot to takeout and/or delivery models, often taking on financial burdens themselves. They are carefully and cautiously adjusting to this new reality necessary to weather the storm for at least the next six weeks (the preliminary date for resuming normal operations is Friday, May 1).
“A horrendous amount of to-go containers”
Pivoting to a carryout business model has been a scramble for most restaurants, many of which previously didn’t offer the service at all. From making sure the website can accept orders, to contemplating delivery options, to ensuring kitchens are social distancing, restaurants changed drastically in a short period of time. Sarah Heard, chef and co-owner of North Loop New American restaurant Foreign & Domestic, had to completely restructure the kitchen to work with a smaller crew and heighten sanitation standards. This crew has to learn a new rhythm to get orders out, without the adrenaline rush of a roaring dining room to fuel them. She also had to buy what she called “a horrendous amount of to-go containers.”
Delivery service can be a mixed bag as well. “A big part of what we do is about the in-person experience,” explained Laura Aidan, owner of East Austin boozy ice cream shop Prohibition Creamery. Finding ways to recreate that as carryout or delivery is a big shift, and restaurants often have to change the menus. John Baydale, owner and operator for Austin restaurant group Hai Hospitality (Uchi, Uchiko, Loro) had to cut items that would not travel well and adjust pricing to be more appealing. The team also had to logistically plan curbside pickup, down to the restaurant’s parking lot setup, in order to make sure both staff and guests felt comfortable. “Every day brings new challenges,” reported Baydale. “It is ever-changing — every hour, every day.”
Some smaller restaurants simply can’t accommodate delivery orders with a skeleton crew, opting to close down in the meantime. Others, like North Lamar Korean restaurant Seoulju, have found a market with this newly added delivery service, and plans to continue with it after the ban lifts.
Combined with the cancellation of South by Southwest (SXSW), a major source of income for many local restaurants, the dining room closure has been financially disastrous. Even with the pivot to delivery, Seoulju owner John Lee reported a 70 percent decrease in sales compared to the previous week — not to mention the significant investment in to-go containers. Restaurants have fixed costs like rent, taxes, service contracts, insurance, and utilities that they are not seeing relief from. Prohibition Creamery counted on both sales and press attention during SXSW, and without either, Aidan called the financial impact “devastating.”
As the co-owner of a five-month-old restaurant, Sara Mardanbigi of East Austin Mexican spot Nixta Taqueria is especially feeling the financial pressure. “Bills don’t disappear with a pandemic,” she explained. “We were smashing sales week-over-week, and this just halted any momentum we had dead in its tracks.” Austin cafe mini-chain Epoch Coffee owner Randi Jones Hensley also noted that sales are down since switching to curbside-only service, partially due to the shop’s large clientele of service industry employees.
Gift cards have been a lifeline for many restaurants. Baydale has been including complimentary gift cards with each Uchi and Loro order to encourage guests to come back once the restaurants reopen.
“A lose-lose situation”
Furloughing staff has been a particularly heartbreaking necessity for most restaurants to stay afloat. In addition to turning to services such as GoFundMe, many owners have personally absorbed some costs to soften the blow. As Foreign & Domestic provides health insurance to employees, Heard is shouldering those payments during the furlough. Aidan is paying full-time staff out of her pocket, as she said, “I just couldn’t imagine doing this without them.”
Though Nixta offers paid time off, Mardanbigi explained the new restaurant doesn’t have the means to support employees for an extended period of time, even though she and head chef/co-owner Edgar Rico are not paying themselves. She lamented: “It’s such a lose-lose situation and we’re trying to find ways to make this all work.”
“We’ve all had to figure it out on our own”
Though restaurants praise the support of their communities and regulars, they are seeing little help or guidance from government officials. Confusion still reigns over the legality of mixed drink sales, and Lee still estimated that adding alcohol sales will not be enough to cover expenses.
Though there are clear guidelines for established practices such as sanitization, standards are less clear for safe delivery and curbside pickup in this new reality. “We’re not getting much instruction from officials on how to make things work, so we’ve all had to figure it out on our own,” said Hensley. “The hardest thing has been just not knowing how long things are going to be like this or how bad it’s going to get.”
Restaurant owners, chefs, and workers have realized a need to advocate for themselves, starting petitions and sharing social media posts with #toosmalltofail encouraging people to contact their representatives.
“We’re in survival mode right now and are trying to stay positive to keep things afloat,” as Mardanbigi summed up. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and we’re all just doing our best.”