Despite all the work required to pivot from a dine-in to to-go business model in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, several Austin restaurants that initially served carryout dishes have decided to cease their operations — temporarily or for the duration of the crisis. Safety, lack of clear guidance from any regulating authority, and a need to strategize for the future were all reasons behind the closures, according to four restaurant owners who spoke with Eater Austin.
As expected, the safety of both employees and diners was the number one concern for these owners and chefs. “We were not willing to take the chance that anyone on our staff was sick and could possibly infect the folks in our neighborhood who were being so generous and coming out to show their support for us,” explained Adam Orman, co-founder and general manager of the Mueller Italian restaurant L’Oca d’Oro.
L’Oca d’Oro provides a living wage for all its staff, something that became a struggle once the restaurant switched over to an online ordering system, which didn’t allow for an additional service charge. However, Orman said, “we would have continued to figure those things out if we thought that there was absolutely no risk involved.”
For Jack Gilmore, chef and owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen (JAK) and Salt Traders Coastal Cooking (STCC), the risk for even to-go orders quickly became much more personal when a hostess tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, March 19. Gilmore, who had initially offered takeout for the purpose of using up recently ordered inventory, immediately shut down operations for all five of his restaurants (the three locations of JAK and two locations of STCC) and sanitized them. (The employee has since made a full recovery.)
Restaurant owners also reported conflicting or absent information on how to operate safely from government agencies. Orman reported receiving emails from Austin’s Environmental Health Services Division (EHSD), Health & Human Services, the James Beard Foundation, Texas Restaurant Association, Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Center for Disease Control, and from the restaurant’s health care provider, Euphora Health. “The list of ‘sources’ was endless, but none of them felt definitive,” he said.
Orman pointed out that the EHSD’s temperature threshold to send home an employee changed over the course of four days. Everyone in the industry is “still trying to figure it out,” says Gilmore — there are restaurants operating right now without really knowing what they’re doing.
And without these clear answers, the risk of continuing to stay open was too great. Ultimately, “we don’t believe that L’Oca d’Oro, or takeout food service in general, are essential,” Orman explained, echoing a sentiment that is being expressed by restaurant owners around the country.
While sales were understandably slower at this time, surprisingly that wasn’t the determining factor to these owners’ decisions to halt to-go services. In fact, Steven Dilley, owner of the Neapolitan pizzeria Bufalina, reported that sales were only down slightly from normal before the restaurant closed — and that business was overwhelming the skeleton crew needed to work safely in the space.
Sales were also “decent” — approximately 30 percent of a normal day — at the North Shoal Creek Tex-Mex restaurant Eldorado Cafe, said chef and owner Joel Fried. However, the restaurant paused its takeout service because it needed time to complete administrative work, such as applying for financial assistance, making sure laid-off staff could file for unemployment, and strategizing for its reopening. After a three-week self-quarantine for all the restaurant’s staff, which began March 21, Fried plans to reopen the restaurant in April with a more streamlined takeout menu.
Dilley also plans to reopen Bufalina with what he called “a slightly different model that should further mitigate risk for our diners and employees.” In the meantime, the restaurant is offering a newly launched curated wine service, and has products available at the butcher shop Salt & Time’s market. The restaurant is also still providing free pizzas for staff and hospital employees.
Gilmore and Orman, meanwhile, are gearing up to open again once the City of Austin lifts its order requiring the closure of restaurant dining rooms at the beginning of May. Orman is working to help set up industry-wide policies like sick leave (which the restaurant already offers) and health care to further protect his staff, and trying to work with the state on insurance policies that would help cover potential similar situations in the future.
Right now, Gilmore’s focus is on logistical concerns for when restaurants eventually reopen, and what will constitute the new normal. “I believe our industry has changed overnight, and we all will get better for it,” he said, referring to the even more stringent sanitary practices. But, he added, “I don’t believe we have seen the worst yet.”