Negotiating with landlords, emptying bank accounts, paying for employees’ health insurance, suffering lost income from closed dining rooms, responding to various state and local orders, pivoting to takeout and other revenue streams: Restaurant chefs and owners have faced the toughest year of their careers.
We asked 10 chefs and owners of Austin restaurants how they’ve navigated the pandemic, whether they’ve been able to find any silver linings and what they see for the future of the industry. Interviews were conducted by email and on the phone. Some answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Hoover’s Cooking chef-owner Hoover Alexander
Hoover Alexander not only saw traffic into his dining room slow to a crawl, but with the slowdown of University of Texas athletics, he also lost the majority of his catering business. He’s worked to backfill those losses by "putting as many oars in the water" as he can, focusing on online ordering for takeout, selling pre-packaged heat-and-serve meals, adding an in-restaurant market selling local products and prepping a new mobile kitchen to sell fried chicken meals.
American-Statesman: What has been your lowest point or most challenging moment of the pandemic?
Alexander: It was deja vu. I remembered 22 years ago telling my now-deceased partner and investor and Night Hawk connection Vernon O’Rourke that we had so many different delays with permitting and on and on that, "Man, next week we’ve gotta open because we’re at a point where we’re gonna be broke before we open or we’re going to open up broke, and I just hope and pray we at least have a swing at bat to be able to at least open up broke and swing." And that’s what happened.
So, flashing forward to today and the last six months, when COVID hit and we had to make a decision to carry on with just a little bit of to-go, we plummeted to like 10 to 15% of sales immediately. To say the least, that was very challenging and a test of your faith — how do we keep going forward? I just go back to different things I’ll recite in my head to stay positive, like "If" by Rudyard Kipling, just keeping your head and just keep going forward and keep waking up everyday. I basically try to flood my mind with positive thoughts and minimize thinking about the 10-15% of business.
What act of community, camaraderie or support touched you the most?
When you hear the stories about how we can help first responders and how can we help those who are worse than us. My whole mindset was not feeling sorry, just feeling grateful, because I looked around and so many people were just done right away. Reading about and hearing about how so many people had the same idea and were organizing about how can we help our neighbors and how can we collaborate. The reality quickly set in how very much, I always say, we’re tied to the ankles together. My encouragement has just been listening and watching how the food community has rallied around to try and help each other. I know about the sleepless nights and the long hours.
What are some positive systemic changes you could see being born from the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry?
Very much so. Looking toward the positive side of all the turmoil and pain. One, people thinking more local. More and more people are aware of the true meaning of producing food locally versus the manufactured stuff people become used to. I’m so proud of the new chefs and new restaurants. It warms my heart to see the creative folks in our food business supporting urban farms. The other is, consumers are now realizing the cost to small independent restaurants for third-party delivery. And there’s more and more conversations realizing there’s 20-30% of expenses incurred by folks like me. I think and hope there will be a greater partnership and cooperation as we go forward with a new model for them and for us. Just that whole awareness that we do matter to each other, up and down the food chain. I see some glimmers of hope that the pressures of COVID will eventually bring us closer together.
Are you hopeful for the future of restaurants and why?
We’re giving birth. We’re going through birth pains. But I’m optimistic that long term it will be different; we don’t know how long this labor period is gonna last. I’m just encouraged about the future and at the same time want to make sure I am part of the future. For those that get there, I think there are gonna be some wonderful things. The challenge now is: Are you gonna be one of those ones surviving to enjoy whatever the hell it looks like down the road?