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.
Dai Due chef-owner Jesse Griffiths
Hunter, fisherman, chef and business owner Jesse Griffiths has kept the dining room closed at his East Austin restaurant and butcher shop since March 16. Dai Due has been offering curbside takeout service, and the restaurant’s patio at the restaurant has reopened, though Griffiths has no immediate plans to reopen the dining room.
American-Statesman: What has been your lowest point or most challenging moment of the pandemic, or what has disappointed you the most?
Jesse Griffiths: The first few weeks were pretty scary, but also a time where we were determined to make it through, not knowing — or choosing to believe — that it would drag on for so long. Not having a clear idea of what's happening so that we can inform staff has also been very frustrating. For me personally, as a person that has chosen the hospitality industry for life, voluntarily choosing to close doors, to not let customers use the restroom, to enforce mask orders and generally be somewhat inhospitable has been innately difficult. Add in that a good portion of the community thinks we are idiots for not opening the restaurant, while the other is scared to leave the house, and it just makes me sad. We are here to serve everyone, not be some divisive political point.
What gave you the most hope or inspiration during the last six months?
The staff. Everyone basically went into war mode on day one and has served without complaint during times that have been personally trying for them. The crew at Dai Due, and those that came over from the Taqueria, have been so resilient and determined throughout. Our main priority and reason we haven't opened the dining room is to keep them safe, because they deserve that. Customers can make their choices, but staff can't, so we listen to them.
What act of community, camaraderie or support touched you the most?
In general, the support of the community. People have been kind, and consistently kind. They know profoundly what it means to spend some money at restaurants right now, like they're investing in having locally owned restaurants in the future. People have offered to help in so many ways and it truly keeps us going.
What are some positive systemic changes you could see being born from the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry?
I think that there's been a sort of forced empathy for the restaurant industry. Your meaningless two-star Yelp review might have seemed timely and notable last year, but now people understand with more clarity what it takes to make food happen, how insanely thin the margins are, how low wages are and how important it is to have decent restaurants in your community. Mistakes on our end are handled the way they should have always been: the customer brings it to our attention and then we try to fix it, because we love what we do and bad experiences aren't some sort of plot against the customer. The pandemic has humanized us.
Are you hopeful for the future of restaurants and why?
Yes, and no. I see corporate chains surviving because they have the money to do so, while small operators are just so weakened by the sheer length of this. I see a corporate consolidation coming. But I also see food trailers uniquely poised to weather this because they're built for takeout and outdoor dining. They're like restaurant seedlings popping up after a forest fire, so seeing independents surviving in any form is hopeful. I feel terrible for all the small operators that haven't made it this far, and hope that this creates a new opportunity for them to reimagine and rebuild in what will certainly be a wide-open, blank slate of a restaurant future. But it’s the consumer that will determine where they want to eat in the future because every dollar spent with a local business is also a dollar not spent at a big chain.