The Texas Longhorns football team will take the field Saturday in Austin for a season opener unlike any other in history.
The game kicks off during a global pandemic, days after three coronavirus clusters were reported in West Campus, and will be played in front of fewer than 20,000 fans, only about 3,000 of which will be students.
About two miles away from Royal-Memorial Stadium, a darkened restaurant also will serve as a sign of these unprecedented times.
Hamburger joint Dirty Martin’s Place, a favorite of Longhorns and locals with a history that dates back to 1926, will not serve burgers on opening day for the first time in owner Mark Nemir’s memory.
Nemir, whose grandfather bought the property in 1936 and owned the burger joint from 1944 to 1954, shuttered the restaurant on March 17 when the state ordered dining rooms closed. It has remained closed since. But Nemir says the flattop has not cooked its final burger.
Nemir, who bought the business from Cecil Pickens in 1989 and later purchased the valuable land from his family, plans to reopen the restaurant he has shepherded and renovated over the last 31 years. He’s just not sure exactly when that will be. That’s gonna depend on outside forces, like the state government or the creation of a vaccine for COVID-19.
Despite its no-frills nature and low prices, Dirty Martin’s had experienced tremendous growth over the past three years after a decade of serious economic struggles. A few years ago, Nemir brought on Daniel Young, a lifelong Dirty Martin’s fan and a veteran of the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, and Young helped attract catering and events business to the restaurant that also added a full bar in recent years.
Dirty Martin’s had seen profits go up more than 20 percent each of the last three years, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
"Talk about about a momentum stopper, brother," Nemir told the Statesman this week.
With no possibility of private event or large group business, Nemir decided that reopening Dirty Martin’s once the state’s original order was modified to allow partial in-restaurant dining didn’t make economic sense.
"You can’t do it selling onesies and twosies," Nemir said.
Nemir didn’t give much consideration to the idea of operating as take-out only. The owner knows that part of the enjoyment of eating at Dirty Martin’s is coming to the historic building with friends and seeing the friendly faces that have worked there for decades. Taking the burgers home just doesn’t offer the same unique experience or flavor.
"A greasy burger is the best when it’s hot and greasy," Nemir said.
The native Austinite, who briefly attended the University of Texas before attending Southwest Texas State University, acknowledges he’s in a better position than many restaurants owners because he owns his property, but with a property tax bill of more than $30,000 annually, the cost of doing such limited business would’ve been a recipe for disaster.
"We could’ve opened and could’ve bled out by now," Nemir said. "Maybe I’m making a mistake, but I don’t think I am."
Nemir says he will likely reopen the historic restaurant if the state raises the capacity limits on dining rooms back to 75%; otherwise he will have to wait for a vaccine.
In the meantime, he feels for his older clientele who are confined to their homes and he misses the energy the students have brought to his business over the decades. But he’s hopeful things will eventually get back to normal.
"When we do come back it’s not gonna happen overnight, but I do think we’re gonna get back to the place where we want to be," Nemir said. "Those kids don’t go to college to sit around in a dark room reading a book."
UT reports 3 coronavirus clusters in West Campus
Texas requiring students to get free COVID-19 test before attending Saturday’s game
Bohls: My Texas predictions? Cosmi, Ossai pace the Longhorns to … another Alamo Bowl