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: Sam Hellman-Mass, owner of acclaimed East Austin Mexican restaurant Suerte.
Eater Austin: How has COVID-19 pandemic affected business right now?
Sam Hellman-Mass: Suerte is definitely operating at a much lower sales volume than we were before COVID-19. Shortly after South by Southwest was canceled, we made the difficult decision to close our restaurant [before the city-mandated closure in March]. We took the reopening process slowly and cautiously. We started offering meal kits for families to give everyone a much-needed activity. Once we had a handle on the new operating protocols and systems for the safety of our guests and staff, we began serving food as Suerte Taqueria.
What is the current service model?
The concept is more casual and better suited for these times with a slightly more focused core menu of chips, salsa, tacos, quesadillas, and desserts that are great for dine-in and also travel well for takeout. We are creating some really fun specials inspired by the produce grown in our garden on Manor Road.
Do you have any changes planned?
We are going to start making more brunch-style dishes (eggs, morning pastries, and brunch beverages) to our Friday, Saturday, Sunday daytime menu. Weekend brunch has been a really fun part of Suerte, and I’m looking forward to bringing the brunch vibes back.
Had COVID not happened, we had everything lined up to start construction in March or April on our new restaurant Este [which had taken over the former Eastside Cafe]. Since we had not already started construction, we decided to wait to begin the renovations. In the meantime, we have this amazing resource on Manor Road. It has been exciting to start gardening and growing food with our head farmer Anamaria Gutierrez and our good friend Lea Scott.
We have been using what we grow on the menu, and we have just started sharing some of our produce with ATX Free Fridge Project. We are also working on sharing some of the fall crop with the Blackland Community Development Corporation in collaboration with nonprofit Save the Food. This is a hard time for so many people in our community that it brings us a lot of joy to be able to use our resources to help others.
In that same spirit, Grae Nonas and Max Snyder are incredible Austin chefs who found themselves out of work and needed to figure out a way to support themselves and their families. I’m so happy for them to have them at 2113 Manor Road making delicious food, starting their own businesses and following their own dreams in the midst of these tough times.
What measures are you currently implementing?
We assessed the requirements from the City of Austin and have implemented standards and protocols that greatly exceed the minimum requirements. All seating is spaced out at least six feet apart and our capacity is significantly reduced. We are requiring that everyone who enters the building wears a mask when not seated at their table. All of our staff wear masks the entire day, have their temperature taken upon coming to work, and sign in for the day stating that they have not had any symptoms in the last 24 hours. We have hand sanitizer at the entrance to the buildings, bathrooms, and other convenient locations. All tables and chairs are thoroughly sprayed down with disinfectant after each group. The safety of our staff and our guests is our top priority and we are doing everything we can to be as safe as possible.
We are using about a quarter of our parking lot for additional outdoor seating. We have created the safest space we can for indoor dining, but we wanted to create more space for our guests who do not feel comfortable dining indoors at this time.
How has business been so far?
Overall, I feel that we have been very fortunate. Some weeks are busier than others, but I am so thankful for the continued support of our team, customers, and the Austin community. Every time we have done a collaboration or special feature, people get really excited, so it has been fun to come up with some special limited items.
We did our Pollo Party for one month, where we featured a different half chicken special every week including chicken adobo en stylo Filipino and pollo en mole negro. We also offered an ejote tostada using vegetables from our garden, but we only offered that for as long as we had enough garden green beans.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered?
Making the meal kit videos with Suerte executive chef Fermín Núñez in his home kitchen was a fun challenge and totally different from what we are used to doing [the videos are posted on the restaurant’s Instagram]. The process included working with videographer Richard Casteel and Núñez to design the “set” in the chef’s home kitchen, coming up with the content, editing, collaborating with our graphic designer Blair Richardson to integrate the title slides, and our good friend musician Clemente Castillo to use his instrumentals as a soundtrack. It was a lot of fun, but definitely something new for us.
One day, when it’s once again safe to eat in crowded dining rooms, we want to go back to something closer to the Suerte menu and service style we love and remember. But right now, we have the opportunity as Suerte Taqueria to write our playbook to maybe one day open a taqueria which would be a blast. It has been really rewarding to make people’s day a little better through sharing our food and hospitality in East Austin.
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