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: Jack Gilmore, chef and co-owner of farm-to-table mini-chain Jack Allen’s Kitchen.
Eater Austin: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting business right now?
Jack Gilmore: So far in 2021, things are about the same as the fall of 2020. The new 50 percent capacity mandate hasn’t helped or hurt at Jack Allen’s or our sister restaurant Salt Trader’s, because our maximum capacity is 50 percent with the six-foot distancing rule.
I’ll be honest: it’s odd walking through the dining room these days. One of the main reasons I got into the restaurant business was for the community and our guests. I enjoy the hospitality aspect of it all, and that has definitely changed. You aren’t able to welcome people with a smile right now. I try to express through my eyes that we can, as a human race, get through this by being devoted to our community, and we take that responsibility very seriously. I can’t tell you what it means to me to walk through a semi-busy dining room, knowing these people trust you with their safety. I don’t take any of it for granted.
What is the current service model?
Over the last 10 months, we have tried almost everything. Right now, in addition to dine-in service at limited capacity, we offer curbside, call-in, and online ordering, which we see spike when tighter lockdowns occur. Dinner service is shorter now than it used to be. We add lunch service on a location-basis as demand occurs with staff and guests. It’s a shift-to-shift juggling act. Just like everyone else, the goal is to break even and build from there. Tom [Kamm, co-owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen] and I are on the same page about staff wellness and guest safety — it is our number one priority.
Do you have changes planned?
It has become clear to all of us that we were not prepared financially for something of this magnitude. But even more so, we were not prepared to take advantage of all the IT crap — online ordering, EZ pay, QR codes, etc. — which we did not utilize before the pandemic. We’re hiring an IT person soon to help geek out our systems for good and give our guests a seamless experience. We feel like half-assing our systems leaves an opportunity on the table.
What measures are you currently implementing to prevent the spread of COVID?
Chefs create and follow their own recipes — we know how to make new things. But when it comes to COVID we realized we must lean on others’ knowledge about protocols. Now we implement the best protocols and are able to change quickly as needed. We over-communicate with all staff members and demand safety first. We still get the occasional idiot that tries to come in without a mask and a 20-year-old hostess has to be the one to put them on the spot. Our staff understands that we trust their judgment, and we, as managers, have their back. We spend a lot of money that we don’t have on safety: gloves, sanitizer, services that come in to disinfect, etc. Restaurants have always done a good job with safety, so that is second nature to us, it’s just extremely costly for COVID.
How has business been so far?
Our sales have taken a huge hit, but we know there will be an end. When though, who knows? We have learned so much about our operations and have gained a lot of knowledge— and even more respect for all the raw products that we count on [from farmers].
Anything else we should know?
I have found out the hard way that it is a lot easier to close a joint than it is to re-open one, mostly due to the fractured food chain and all of the vendors. We partner with some of the best vendors and farmers. They are nimble and do what they can to take care of us. At the beginning of re-opening, the first call we made was to our vendors to get them on the same page. Then they ask us how much we want. We stumble and honestly say “Shit, I don’t know,” so we commit and implement. Then a server comes back, or a bartender asks the question of ‘How much can we make in tips?’ and we say, “Shit, I don’t know.” Trust and loyalty to our staff and guests is number one. Always has been and always will be. Fortunately, so far, it is working. We are humbly learning and reacting as we go.