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.
Baby Greens owner Sharon Mays
Sharon Mays was a trailblazer when she opened a drive-thru salad concept in South Austin in 2004. She closed in 2009 but brought her healthy fast-casual back to life in North Austin in 2016. Baby Greens is open for takeout.
American-Statesman: What has been your lowest point or most challenging moment of the pandemic, or what has disappointed you the most?
Sharon Mays: By far the most challenging part of this entire situation is that we don't really know what's going to happen from one week to the next. Some weeks our sales are really great. And the very next week they will make a significant drop. When the fear and anxiety go up in the community, our sales go down. I'm truly disappointed that our elected leaders have politicized the situation. In March they mandated that everyone's personal and professional life come to an abrupt halt. It's been almost six months, and it doesn't feel like there's a plan being developed that would safely get on the path to reopening. Businesses are expected to just hang on and try to survive while politicians spend time making decisions based on what's going to generate the most votes come Election Day.
What gave you the most hope or inspiration during the last six months?
I love how our local restaurant community has come together to help each other and protect each other and root for each other. I've been on email chains and text messages and Slack channels with other restaurant owners and managers, and everyone is down to support each other. Everyone is sharing resources and ideas. Businesses are collaborating on popups and cross promotions. Anything and everything to keep each other afloat. We all have each other's back.
What act of community, camaraderie or support touched you the most?
Baby Greens has been lucky to have a tremendous amount of support from the Austin community. Our customers show up for us in ways that have truly touched my heart. In the early days of the pandemic, when our sales were so low I didn't know if we would survive, we had two customers that made a special effort to support Baby Greens. One day a customer named Steve left a note for me that said, "I come every day and buy two wraps. Please don't give up." And he came every day and bought two wraps until we were pre-pandemic busy again.
We had a customer named Lynn order lunch for her team every week. She paid a courier to deliver the food to her office, which was 13 miles away in South Austin (William Cannon and Mopac area). She ordered from us for almost two months, until her budget was cut. I think about both of these customers on days when I'm really tired and feel like I've got nothing left to give.They described their support as "little," but it was actually very significant. It was a reminder to me and my staff that Baby Greens did matter. That our efforts mattered.
What are some positive systemic changes you could see being born from the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry?
I hope we build a more resilient industry with better profit margins and a much more diverse and inclusive workforce. Though we are on a rough road, this pandemic has given us the opportunity to step back and evaluate what really works and trim away some of those established "best practices" that don't provide any measurable value.
Are you hopeful for the future of restaurants and why?
I am very hopeful for our future. People often ask the hypothetical question, "If you had it to do all over again, would you do it the same way?" That's a real question now, and one that can be answered with the benefit of hindsight and experience. I've already begun working on Baby Greens' next chapter, and I'm looking forward to where this road may take me. Venturing into the unknown can be exciting if you let it.