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: Sarah Heard, chef and co-owner of North Loop farm-to-table restaurant Foreign & Domestic, who also opened a new restaurant, Commerce Cafe, in Lockhart in late May.
Eater: How has business been so far?
Sarah Heard: We have had a fairly rough few months in sales, we are basically almost covering costs at this point. We’ve done what we can to minimize costs of business without affecting the staff’s take-home pay. Takeout sales have been a huge help.
Last year was our best sales year yet, so this year has been a nail-biter. We just have to remind ourselves that we are doing our best, and that if we have to close and bankrupt, that it’s not because of anything we did wrong. It’s hard to not place blame on yourself though, the restaurant has been our family’s life for three years. Everything we do revolves around keeping it afloat, so if it were to sink, it would feel like a personal failure no matter how unfair that is.
How has COVID-19 pandemic affected business?
Business is up and down, depending largely on what the media and government post from day to day. We’ve had Wednesdays that were busier than Fridays. It's a nightmare to try to forecast business.
What is the current service model?
[Editor’s note: The restaurant is currently open for both dine-in and to-go services.] We have adjusted some service aspects — like no longer resetting silverware between courses unless asked to, allowing guests to pour their own wine, etc. This has been difficult to train ourselves out of.
Are have you made any big changes?
We’ve been working on plans for a patio for the past year, but it still isn’t fully finished. We have always had a few tables outside, but the demand for them was never really there like it is now. We put a pause on big spending when COVID-19 hit, because there’s no guarantee that, if we build this patio, we will still be allowed to use it next week. We are holding onto the funds allocated in case a full shutdown happens.
Our current patio has nice gravel and shade trees, but if it rains or the heat is too much, it’s not usable. We eventually plan to have a large permanent patio on the front of the building with fans, heaters, and drop-sides.
We also want to expand the right side of the building to allow more inside space. Everything will depend on the city’s approval of our parking plans. Currently, they won’t allow us to cut the curb and put in angled parking off the street. This would free up the drive through a portion of the lot for patio space and increase our four current parking spots to around 13. The city no longer allows parking that required cars to back out of spots into a lane. This feels a bit silly, as we are in a slow traffic area of a neighborhood.
Has opening Commerce Cafe in Caldwell County been different than running a restaurant in Travis County?
We like to say that opening a restaurant mid-pandemic in a town with a different demographic than we are used to business-wise has been like “push-starting a car uphill every day.” It’s exhausting, but it keeps us focused, diverts our attention from the news and our own racing thoughts, and gets the people who need it the most back into a paycheck and a life rhythm.
Caldwell County has been following Travis County mandates pretty closely. We follow the same set of rules at both places for ease of management and safety [Foreign & Domestic signed the Good Work Austin Dine with Confidence]. If we are following one set of rules in Austin, and not being just as rigorous in Lockhart, we have the potential to expose ourselves in Lockhart and carry it to Austin. So we just follow the more rigorous of the two at both locations to keep the safety level as high as it can be kept.
Guests have needed a little more push to follow the rules in Lockhart than they have in Austin, but overall, most have been happy to oblige. We also have $1 disposable masks available to those who forget theirs at both locations.
What are some surprises that you’ve encountered?
Our staff has been so flexible and wonderful to work with, and our guests have been so understanding and happy to abide by the rules. Our staff at both locations have been so diligent about safety, because they are so thankful to have the opportunity to support their families. They don’t want to do anything that could compromise this for their coworkers and themselves. We feel so close to our community these days.
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