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How Barton Springs Tex-Mex Restaurant El Alma Is Adapting to COVID-19

Chef Alma Alcocer talks about the Bouldin Creek restaurant’s new at-home cooking subscription service and how the team feels supported by the community

A meal kit from El Alma
A meal kit from El Alma
El Alma/Facebook
Erin Russell is associate editor of Eater Austin, a native Austinite, and a big fan of carbs.

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: Alma Alcocer, the chief operating officer of El Chile Group and executive chef of Bouldin Creek Tex-Mex restaurant El Alma.

Eater Austin: How has COVID-19 pandemic affected business?
Alma Alcocer: In many ways, it is like running two restaurants out of one location. We are operating at about 40 percent capacity and running a substantial takeout business. We have a whole new system for takeout that is way more streamlined, so the customer never has to get out of the car. We are also partnered with several third-party delivery companies, like Favor and Uber Eats.

What is the current service model?
We are open for socially distanced dine-in, curbside, and delivery. We’ve also just launched “El Alma at Home” which is a community subscription model that lets us do virtual cooking classes, cocktail classes, and send monthly recipes and newsletters.

People are looking for fun, interactive experiences that they can do from home, and we wanted to offer that to them. The response has been great. The restaurant has always been driven by regulars, and they jumped on board really quickly.

Do you have any changes in the works?
Besides “El Alma At Home,” which is our first time branching into digital content, we are always working to keep our menus both for food and drinks up to date and fresh, and we are also looking for ways to add capacity while maintaining social distancing. I think we will maintain the systems we have created for takeout and curbside [after the pandemic], because they work better for our guests.

What measures are you currently implementing?
We are sanitizing constantly, in addition to having the building professionally cleaned and sanitized overnight. We are taking temperatures of everyone who checks in and keeping everyone six feet apart. We are also requiring reservations which helps us control how many people are in the building at a given time. Of course, everyone must wear masks.

How has business been so far?
The response from our clientele has been amazing. They have been supportive, forgiving of our mistakes, and happy to have a patio and dining room where they can enjoy some comfort food and a margarita. Not everyone is ready to go out to eat, and we totally respect and understand that. It is not anything like it was before volume-wise, but I think people who are dining out can tell how hard we are working to keep everything safe, so they keep coming back. For everyone else we have curbside and delivery.

How is the El Chile group operating as a whole in light of the pandemic?
It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all strategy. We’ve had to really tailor the response for each location. Even within the same brand, the South Austin El Chilito is facing a totally different set of challenges than our East Seventh Street location. Businesses on Manor Road are really affected by the university schedule, while businesses on Barton Springs are more affected by the lakes and parks being open. We are working hard to manage each location the way that makes the most sense for them.

How were you affected by the closing of Yuyo?
Obviously, it was very sad. A lot of great places shuttered as a result of the pandemic, and it’s been hard to watch the way it has hit this industry. With all the changes, there has been a really big shift in what people are looking for in a dining experience now. We are still connected to that space and hope to do something exciting with it in the near future.

What are some surprises that you’ve encountered?
We have more time to see ourselves as part of the community. As restaurateurs, we have a renewed respect for our servers, cooks, dishwashers, and all our vendors that come through every day despite the difficulties and the fears. We’ve been open for nine years as of June, and seeing our neighbors and our regulars rally around us — buying gift cards, hiring us to cater small family events, ordering takeout a couple of times a week, signing up for the “El Alma At Home” membership — it feels really really good. It means a lot that, with everything happening in the world right now, they are taking a few minutes to show us some support.

We have become a much kinder restaurant, both in-house and the way we relate to all other people. We spend more time thinking about every part of the dining experience, and making sure people feel safe and cared for the whole time they are there. We are also running a smaller team, so the staff has become even closer. We’ve all been through something historic together.

El Alma

1025 Barton Springs Road, , TX 78704 (512) 609-8923 Visit Website