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.
Suerte owner Sam Hellman-Mass
The modern Mexican restaurant closed for two months and initially reopened for takeout only, serving more casual fare and rebranding itself as Suerte Taqueria. Takeout continues, though the dining room is now open, as well.
American-Statesman: What has been your lowest point or most challenging moment of the pandemic, or what has disappointed you the most?
Hellman-Mass: It was tough at the beginning when everything shut down and there was so much uncertainty. We furloughed 50 employees, which was very sad but also the best option available for the staff, and closed the restaurant for a few weeks. Navigating the first month of the shutdown was extremely challenging — we were faced with a lot of questions and no way to have any answers about what the short-term future would be like in the restaurant business. Thankfully, we have since been able to re-hire some team members and found a path with Suerte Taqueria that is a better fit for us in this very challenging business environment.
What gave you the most hope or inspiration during the last six months?
We have had a wonderful response from our customers and the community. Early on, when we started offering meal kits, and changed our pick-up system, hours and offerings, the public responded positively and supported us. When we tried these different pivots, we didn't know if they would work, but each time we took a risk and so many people turned out to show us love. We are so incredibly thankful.
What act of community, camaraderie or support touched you the most?
When we initially closed and furloughed a lot of our hourly staff, the management team worked five days a week making meals for all of our staff and their families to pick up. Max from Urban Roots reached out and said, "Hey, I noticed what y'all are doing for your team, and we have always appreciated you supporting us by cooking at our fundraising events and making food for our community lunches, can we bring y'all some produce?" I went to their farm and loaded up my 4Runner full of their amazing produce, and we used that to provide delicious meals for our staff.
What are some positive systemic changes you could see being born from the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry?
I have been speaking more frequently with colleagues in our industry locally and around the country. Connecting with so many operators, managers and chefs has been a great way to share information and learn best practices. It has also been encouraging to see the industry come together and organize the Independent Restaurant Coalition to advocate for government assistance that so many restaurants need to survive. I am optimistic that the IRC, along with other organizations that have a voice for the independent restaurants around Texas and beyond, will continue advocating for positive change.
Are you hopeful for the future of restaurants and why?
I am hopeful. Gathering together to share food and drink is a basic human need. I've done a Zoom dinner party, a Zoom funeral and a Zoom wedding. Real-life interactions are so much better than experiencing life's best moments online. This won't last forever, although it could be tough for a while longer. In the meantime, we can still find joy, purpose and things to smile about every day. One day, whenever it's safe for dining rooms to be full again, I believe that they will be.