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.
Slab BBQ managing partner Raf Robinson
Raf Robinson and his partner, Mark Avalos, opened their first location in North Austin in 2014. They reopened the dining rooms at both of their locations for a few weeks in June but voluntarily closed them out of concerns for customer safety and providing a pleasant dining experience.
American-Statesman: What has been your lowest point or most challenging moment of the pandemic, or what has disappointed you the most?
Raf Robinson: The lowest point of the pandemic was the Friday in March right after the shelter in place was announced (March 17, my birthday). We had to lay off roughly 75% of our staff. I was heartbroken and felt totally hopeless for the future of our restaurant.
What gave you the most hope or inspiration during the last six months?
The first thing that gave me inspiration to keep fighting was a conversation with one of our pitmasters and (one of our) managers. They both said, "You figure out the finances, we will be here til you tell us to go home." Their dedication even in the face of uncertainty kept me in the game.
And being on the phone with my CPA and banker late night on the Sunday before the government reopened the application portal for the PPP loan on Monday really boosted my confidence, knowing I had a team of people who were willing to go the extra mile for us.
What act of community, camaraderie or support touched you the most?
We decided to serve some of the most vulnerable people in our community. We have been feeding 100 refugee families in Austin every week since the end of April. We’ve had total strangers sign up to deliver meals to the families. We’ve also had people from out of state who heard about our program donate money to support the cause. We literally received a check from an anonymous donor that just said "refugee meals."
What are some positive systemic changes you could see being born from the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry?
Well, takeout and delivery have been something restaurants have been trying to figure out for years now. I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet, but I think it has been pushed to the front burner for many restaurants nationwide, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see some better solutions emerge that will make this part of the business better for restaurants and customers.
Are you hopeful for the future of restaurants and why?
I believe humans were created to live in community. Breaking bread together is a part of nearly every culture. There will certainly be some adaptation and evolution, but I am confident that those of us who are passionate about making great food and bringing people together will come up with creative ways to continue to do that.