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.
LeRoy & Lewis chef and co-owner Evan LeRoy
Evan LeRoy and his partner, Sawyer Lewis, pivoted to takeout before their truck’s homebase of Cosmic Coffee & Beer Garden was able to reopen its outdoor seating to customers. In the meantime, LeRoy diversified his professional duties, creating a Patreon page to offer cooking tips to subscribers, selling barbecue sauce and new merchandise online and starting a podcast.
American-Statesman: What has been your lowest point or most challenging moment of the pandemic, or what has disappointed you the most?
Evan LeRoy: I think the lowest point came at the very beginning of the pandemic when we were gearing up for what was supposed to be our best spring to date. With the cancellation of SXSW and events, we saw all the revenue that was supposed to contribute to our biggest season just all fall away in a single day and the realization of what that could mean for our business, our family and our employees was frightening. The most disappointing thing about the pandemic has been the lack of cohesive response and assistance. We could have been in a completely different place by now.
What gave you the most hope or inspiration during the last six months?
I’m inspired by our team every day. They’re risking a lot, and we’ve all been up and down emotionally, but we have rallied around each other and made it our mission to not just survive, but try to thrive in this environment by supporting each other and getting creative.
What act of community, camaraderie or support touched you the most?
Our friend and co-worker Jazz Mills has started a program to feed the homeless in Austin called Free Lunch. It’s not that much more complicated than making as much fresh food as she can and giving it out to people who need it, but she’s taken the pandemic as an opportunity to connect with so many people who have been forgotten during this time. She’s really walking the walk.
What are some positive systemic changes you could see being born from the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry?
I think there will be more attention to wellness in the industry as a whole. The most actionable change that I see happening is that people will stop coming to work sick. I’ve never called out sick from a job even though there have been plenty of times I probably should have. Everyone is much more careful about taking care of themselves now and, hopefully, less hospitality professionals will burn themselves out as a result.
Are you hopeful for the future of restaurants and why?
Yes, I am hopeful for the future of restaurants. We are a resilient group of people and we always figure out a way to make it work. Our passion for food and service aren’t going away, we just have to continue innovating and finding different ways of delivering that to people beyond just serving large groups of people inside.