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.
Chez Zee owner Sharon Watkins
Sharon Watkins pivoted her colorful 31-year-old Northwest Hills dining institution to curbside takeout, serving the same comforting New American dishes for which the restaurant is popular, before reopening her doors.
American-Statesman: What has been your lowest point or most challenging moment of the pandemic, or what has disappointed you the most?
Sharon Watkins: The Saturday we closed the restaurant. It was March 21. The first day of spring and we were closing after selling down our inventory with no thought of when we might open.
My kitchen was concerned, so we decided to clean and repair the restaurant and wait and see what would happen. With the pulse of your life being the daily heartbeat of a restaurant, it was strange and sad. I sat in my car at the back kitchen door and cried.
What act of community, camaraderie or support touched you the most?
One of our longtime group lunch customers, Open Forum, canceled their last lunch, but they sent us the money anyway. The check came on payroll day and it boosted my spirits and helped our bank account. I am forever grateful.
What are some positive systemic changes you could see being born from the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry?
The ability to slow down. The notion that less is really more. The thought that all the answers are not at my fingertips. The challenge to be constantly present. That good enough is good. Good is good. Enough is. Maybe we can rest in the accomplishment of doing our best each day.
Are you hopeful for the future of restaurants and why?
I have a vision of a robust restaurant industry post pandemic. Gathering, celebrating, grieving, seeking solace in a safe beautiful place is in our nature. We will want it evermore. I just don't know when "post pandemic" will come.