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.
El Naranjo chef-owner Iliana de la Vega
Chef Iliana de la Vega had the new South Austin location of her Oaxacan-inspired restaurant open for only six months before the pandemic forced its temporary closure. The chef chose not to offer takeout only at first, but eventually opened her dining room and started takeout service when the state allowed for 50% occupancy.
American-Statesman: What has been your lowest point or most challenging moment of the pandemic, or what has disappointed you the most?
Iliana de la Vega: Closing the restaurant in March was difficult, but we knew it was the right decision. When the governor decided to allow non-essential businesses, such as restaurants, to open again, we felt it wasn’t the right choice. We felt it was too early, so we decided to wait for another two months before we opened again. For us, that was the most challenging moment, because we felt it was too soon, but we couldn’t wait indefinitely and lose business, especially since we were just getting established in our new location. We were worried about exposing our staff as well as our guests, and also about the possibility of having to close again and being unable to reopen once more, which would have been impossible for us to do.
It’s been difficult for us because this isn’t the first time we had to close a restaurant due to external circumstances, and we’ve had to start all over again. We’ve been disappointed with the government’s lack of empathy and support for small businesses and independent restaurants that, as it is, already get by with a small margin of earnings, while we create thousands of jobs and a sense of community. During these times, it’s been even harder to get by.
What gave you the most hope or inspiration during the last six months?
I think the dedication, effort, love and creativity of our staff has made these difficult times a lot more bearable. There have been times when I’ve felt dispirited and uncreative, and they’ve been there supporting us and the business, always with a positive attitude and willingness to make things work.
What act of community, camaraderie or support touched you the most?
I think what Chef José Andrés has been doing is wonderful; I wish Austin would have been included. Working with the government to hire restaurants to prepare food that is to be given to those who need it most is a genius idea. That strategy gives smaller businesses work and food to those in need. On a personal level, many of our clients and friends have bought gift cards, without any intention of using them at the moment, simply to give us some income. Also, our landlords’ support with rent has been incredible.
What are some positive systemic changes you could see being born from the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry?
Takeout, for example. I think the hospitality industry has had to become more creative and think about food that can travel well without changing the integrity of the dish. I hope to-go cocktails will stay also.
Are you hopeful for the future of restaurants and why?
Yes, I believe and hope that our industry will survive. Restaurants are a vital part of community — it’s where people gather, relax, and enjoy food and their time with other people.
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