The coronavirus pandemic has hammered restaurants throughout the country over the past four months. Almost every operator has endured a debilitating blow. A few exceptions exist.
You can find one of those exceptions in East Austin. Salt & Time, the butcher shop, salumeria and restaurant opened by Ben Runkle and Bryan Butler in 2013, has adjusted and even thrived since mid-March, ramping up its butcher shop business and adding retail grocery offerings, while watching its to-go lunch and dinner service shrink to a small fraction of the shop’s overall sales.
"You feel a little guilty being successful right now with everything going," Butler told the American-Statesman last week. "I think we pivoted very appropriately at the beginning of (the COVID-19 pandemic) to provide for our community."
That pivot included adding an in-store grocery with prepared foods from local restaurants, including pizza dough and meatballs from Bufalina, fresh pasta from L’Oca d’Oro and sesame-garlic oil and chips from Suerte, along with produce and dairy from Steelbow Farm in Manor and Austin-based Farm to Table, among others. Salt & Time has even helped with the design and labeling of some of the third-party restaurant packaging, relying on their knowledge of regulatory standards.
"We’ve tried to do everything we can to help other people out," Runkle said of partnering with fellow restaurants, adding that Salt & Time passes as much of the profits onto the restaurants as possible. "An extra couple hundred dollars can make a difference when it’s this lean."
Salt & Time’s regulars showed up with more frequency when the pandemic hit, in some cases daily, and the added offerings brought in new customers looking to avoid large grocery stores and support local business. The owners shifted their restaurant to take-out only service on March 15 in order to create space for the expanded grocery offerings, a practice they plan to continue indefinitely.
Prepared meals that once accounted for 40% of Salt & Time’s business dropped to about 10% of sales. And while most restaurants saw their profits plummet, due to its new business model, Salt & Time’s sales are up 50-100%. The influx of new business allowed the partners to keep all of its existing staff, with former servers retrained to work the retail side of the operation.
"We always kind of knew we had the model. We just didn’t have the volume of customers to really knock it out of the park," Butler said. "It’s unfortunate it took a pandemic to make it happen."
While grocery stores have prospered during the coronavirus pandemic, consumers at most groceries have seen the effects of the global health emergency on meat prices. Due to outbreaks at processing plants, the price of commodity beef has spiked over the last four months. But Salt & Time’s long-standing relationships with regional farmers, ranchers and suppliers, along with their in-house processing, have allowed them to avoid navigating shortages while maintaining their prices throughout the pandemic. The volatile prices of lower quality, federally subsidized meat reinforced for Runkle and Butler the idea that they’d been doing things the right way all along.
"I think our meat is appropriately priced, and meat at the grocery store is dramatically subsidized through policy and the federal government and low wages for workers, so it’s artificially low," Runkle said. "We’ve been waiting to see if any changes in that industry would ever drive their prices up where people could recognize what meat should really cost. And I think we are seeing that in some element with our current situation."
The bottlenecks in processing at companies that deal in commodity beef have also exposed some of the ethical dilemmas inherent in their methods — dilemmas the owners of Salt & Time have found themselves grateful to avoid. With some farmers and ranchers unable to process animals that they raised as quickly as possible to get to market, some have euthanized their stock.
"That is a moral quandary that I’m sure is not easy for them, but it makes me very glad that we operate in a part of the industry that’s not faced with those kinds of choices," Runkle said.
With a clear conscience, affirmation of their longtime mission and a steady stream of revenue from a pivot they were uniquely qualified to make, Runkle and Butler are ready for the next phase of their growth.
Salt & Time will open a cafe at Republic Square in early July. The cafe will serve breakfast and all-day sandwiches, with pastries and bread from Swedish Hill, and packaged charcuterie. The new Salt & Time location, which will offer contactless service, outdoor seating and a walk-up window, will also feature a coffee bar and sell draft and canned wine and beer that can be taken throughout the park. The Republic Square cafe will initially only be open Friday-Sunday, as foot traffic downtown remains relatively sparse.
The partners had originally planned to rush to meet "an unrealistic timeline" and open the new location before South by Southwest. The fest’s cancellation and the pandemic spoiled those plans, but Butler and Runkle were able to find a silver lining in those unforeseen circumstances.
"We’ve been really able to take our time and dial everything in down to the inch and refine it," Runkle said.
The cafe, surrounded by a park devoid of its usual summer programming and in the middle of a sleepy downtown, won’t make the money the partners had originally planned, but Runkle and Butler are keeping things in perspective.
"The last few months and the next year in the restaurant industry are about survival, not about trying to make a profit," Runkle said. "If we can come out on the other end in a relatively healthy place, then we’re ahead of the curve and we’re well positioned for the future. I don’t wanna get greedy."
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mentioned that the Salt & Time cafe at Republic Square will open July 4, per the owners. After this story’s publication, the owners said the target opening will now happen sometime in early July.
MORE FROM AUSTIN360
McGuire Moorman’s Neighborhood Sushi opens on South Congress
Food & Wine names Austin taqueria one of 10 Best New Restaurants in America
Cafe Josie closes after 23 years; owner says farewell for now to changed Austin
Comedor, recently named one of America’s best restaurants, reopens
Blk Odyssy frontman Sam Houston turns to chicken and waffles with Soul House