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: Paola Guerrero-Smith, co-owner and master of grill of East Austin Argentinian restaurant Buenos Aires Cafe.
Eater Austin: How has COVID-19 pandemic affected business?
Paola Guerrero-Smith: The business we have been working on for 15 years has changed and morphed into something I never considered possible. We put all of our energies into the takeout experience, reorganized our menu and our lives to make it possible. At the reopening of the dining rooms, we reformatted the entire floor, moved our piano, took tables away, and changed the decor to make the experience warm and hospitable. We barely made it, but we did it.
There is a constant monitoring of sales, and the prime costs (goods sold and labor). We are operating at less than 50 percent of income with 100 percent of the financial responsibilities of running a business.
Purchasing has reverted back to the old days, where we are doing the purchasing of goods ourselves. When we first opened the restaurant 15 years ago on South First and Oltorf, our buying-power and storage capabilities were limited. We could not afford or store large quantities of products, so we personally went to the stores to buy what we needed for the week ahead. As we grew, our structure changed and were able to order our goods from purveyors. This comes at a cost, but it saved us time and were able to afford the extra fees. Now, we are back to saving every penny we can, despite the physical effort it requires.
Every dollar saved allows us to keep going. At this point, it is not about profit, it is about navigating this crisis to ensure we make it, and that we all have a job at the end of it.
What is the current service model?
We are currently offering dine-in, takeout/curbside, and virtual dinner experiences for both Buenos Aires Café and [on-site bar] Milonga Room. The bar recently reopened as a private dining room for 10 or fewer guests. We have plans to reopen that space for smaller reservations later on.
Are you planning any future changes?
Buenos Aires is offering virtual cooking classes, from how to make empanadas to live cooking and grilling demos. Milonga Room is currently offering those virtual experiences like amaro flights to-go, as well as date nights with founder and creators of Milonga Room, Ryan and Paola. These kits have everything you need for an intimate night in: cocktail and tapas kit and tarot readings.
The virtual experiences seem to be working for us, and we are looking to expand them. We are currently working on building our Argentine Wine Club, a project that started as a dream of mine that’s now taken a new direction. It will be a monthly subscription where we will feature a bottle of wine from the diverse wine regions of Argentina (the country is not just about malbec), accompanied by snacks such as cheese, charcuterie, and house-made accoutrements. The idea is to keep supporting our winemakers and Argentine market alike. I am very excited to launch it in October.
While we would love to have a patio for diners, we just aren’t able to invest in that at the moment.
What measures are you currently implementing?
For staff, we require the use of masks at all times. Tables, chairs, doors, and windows are sanitized at the beginning of each shift and throughout the day. A detailed sanitization procedure happens after a dine-in party leaves, and all tables and chairs are cleaned and sanitized again. All front-of-house staff wears disposable gloves when running food, and constant handwashing is, of course, required. You can never wash your hands enough in this industry, and now more than ever. Patrons are required to have a mask when they enter or circulate through the building. The menus are accessible through QR codes provided, that can be scanned with their phones. Single-use paper menus are available, just in case they’re needed. The restaurant has also several sanitation stations.
How has business been so far?
We definitely have a new standard from where we are basing the new slow and busy shifts from. Regardless, it is very difficult to predict, some days are painfully slow, others are better.
What are some surprises that you’ve encountered?
On March 17, after cheering our 11-year anniversary on East Sixth Street, I had to walk upstairs and lay off my entire staff. I sat with our management team to discuss a plan. I was heartbroken. To my surprise, they wanted to keep going regardless. I have to say that was the most profound moment I have experienced this far.
The four of us kept operating the restaurant, we were exhausted, but the sense of unity and love for what we do gave all of us the strength to keep going. Weirdly enough, we had fun. November will be our overall 15-year anniversary, needless to say we aren’t the new cool kid in town. Our marketing has been mostly word-of-mouth and the occasional mention here and there. We were terrified about the closing of the dining room mandates, because our online presence has never been our strongest suit. It was a challenge to change the dine-in model to a take-home experience.
Despite the many downs, there have also been beautiful moments of kindness and love from our staff and our patrons. To hear things like, “Thank you for being open,” “Keep going, lady,” has lifted my spirits in moments when I needed to hear that the most.
My mom, chef Reina, has been an incredible source of wisdom for me. As we both navigate these challenges, I have found in her a solid companion, and, to my surprise, I discovered that we have more in common than I thought. Our bond is stronger than ever.
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