A day after he told the Statesman that the coronavirus pandemic had led to unprecedented disruption in the restaurant business, Jack Gilmore decided to close all of his Jack Allen’s Kitchen and Salt Traders Coastal Cooking locations effective Thursday afternoon.
Gilmore, who said the government-mandated closing of dining rooms Tuesday forced him to lay off about 500 members of his approximately 600-person staff, will keep the locations closed until the city-mandated date of May 1.
The restaurants founded by the chef who has spent his entire adult life working in the hospitality industry first had shifted to a takeout-only model this week following the dual orders signed by Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, but Gilmore’s concerns over public safety and the safety of his employees led him to eliminate to-go service.
"It’s hard to make decisions like this, but first and foremost is the safety of our people and the safety of our guest," Gilmore said. "We wanted to do our part in the community and completely shut it down, and literally wash our hands with anything that could happen, might happen, would have happened or should have happened."
Gilmore isn’t the first restaurateur to declare a complete shutdown of his restaurants — Olamaie’s Michael Fojtasek was likely the first — but he’s one of the biggest, joining multi-unit operator New Waterloo (Sway, La Condesa, Le Politiue, et al). Smaller operators like Veracruz All Natural and Hillside Farmacy have also decided not to offer take-out.
While he doesn’t begrudge fellow restaurateurs for continuing to say afloat with takeout and delivery service, Gilmore says he’s "absolutely, 100 percent blown away" that the city government is still allowing restaurants to offer the services when it is unclear who might be carrying the coronavirus and how it might propagate.
"We need to shut down everything," said Gilmore, adding that he was 100 percent behind locking down any chance of the virus spreading. "It’s not gonna happen if we don’t shut ‘er down."
Gilmore said his restaurants are preparing care packages with food for his employees and will be handing them out curbside during a two-hour window Friday. Gilmore says he made it clear to all of his laid-off employees that he will have a job for them when things stabilize and he is able to reopen his six restaurants.
The former longtime executive chef at Z’Tejas and father of multiple Jame Beard Award nominee Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine and Odd Duck, originally hoped to be able to donate food to AISD or the Capital Area Food Bank but said his inclination was tempered by the thought that there may be any chance he could get anyone sick.
With the future uncertain, Gilmore says he thinks the entire food chain is in peril, from the farmers and fisherman who supply food, to the people who package, deliver and cook it. He hopes that things have calmed enough for the restaurants to reopen by May 1, though he says there is much unknown ahead. In the meantime, he says he will attempt to renegotiate his leases in hopes of limiting the financial burden on the restaurant over the next few months.
As for what others can do, Gilmore is pleading for people to stay at home, practice community distancing, wash their hands and don’t touch their faces.
Otherwise, he believes, "We’re all gonna look at each other in six weeks and say we gotta go another eight weeks. And then what? Then we’ll have to do an ultimate shut down when we should just do it now."