Most Austinites probably don’t remember Westling's Minimax, Dismukes Pharmacy or the Sundae Palace. Mother’s Cafe owners John Silberberg, Anne Daniels and Cameron Alexander do.
Each of those businesses disappeared from Mother’s Hyde Park neighborhood, but as the city changed around them, the trio behind Austin’s longest-running vegetarian restaurant remained, serving vegetarian enchiladas, topping salads with tamari-cashew dressing and building community in their humble and welcoming restaurant.
The three owners have amassed more than 120 years of employment at the restaurant that has survived floods, a fire and multiple economic downturns. But with no certain end to the coronavirus in sight and a refusal to open their dining room during a pandemic, the owners will bring their run as arguably the city’s current longest-running restaurateur trio to an end after next weekend. Mother’s Cafe plans to serve its final meal on Oct. 24.
A 40-year lifespan for a restaurant is a rare thing; for that time to include the continual presence of the same three faces is almost unheard of. Mother’s Cafe founders chef Charles Mayes and Blake Mitchell opened the restaurant, originally called Good Food Cafe, near 24th and Guadalupe streets in the late 1970s and moved it to its current home on Duval Street in 1980.
A 21-year-old Alexander started as a cook on opening day in June 1980. Within a few months, Daniels arrived to work as a server. Silberberg’s the new guy. He didn’t show up until 1981.
The trio bought the vegetarian restaurant from the founders in 1985 and grew the healthful oasis in this burger and Tex-Mex town into a local institution, winning over diners with fresh food, moderate prices and a sense of family that pervaded the entire restaurant. And, of course, its tranquil garden, originally built as an open-air space in 1981 with no permits or site plans. Austin was different then.
"For me, these past 40 years have been so much about the great, longterm friendships that I've developed with so many kind, hard-working, talented and dedicated co-workers. People that have poured their hearts into helping us navigate the crazy growth — folks that treated the restaurant as if it were their own," Alexander said in an email.
Mother’s, like most restaurants, felt the pain of the pandemic before the general public grasped its enormity. Business slowed considerably in early March. Once the coronavirus grabbed hold of the city and dining rooms were forced to close, business slowed to a trickle. The owners made the decision at the end of March not to pick up the option on their lease, which was slated to end in September. (Before the pandemic, they’d intended to renew.) Then they weathered their most brutal summer with dinner takeout only, Paycheck Protection Program loan money and a handful of employees, as sales fell about 75%.
Silberberg said that their landlords, whom they’ve had the entirety of the operation’s life, were reasonable and understanding, offering some forbearance and then allowing the Mother’s owners to sign a month-to-month lease for October at a greatly discounted rate. But the owners eventually had to face a hard reality: the bridge to a safer dining world was too long, the struggle too overwhelming and the prospect of having to fully reopen sometime next year too daunting.
"We do not feel that dine-in is safe," Silberberg said recently. "It’s very difficult to say that. I’ve worked in hospitality since I was 19. It’s an airborne virus where unmasked people talking can release it and it can spread. It will spread in restaurants."
The owners refused to reopen their dining room out of an abundance of caution surrounding their employees’ and diners’ health. Silberberg thinks that that even if they did open their dining room to the currently allowed 75% capacity, Mother’s customers are too conscientious and informed to dine indoors in large numbers.
"And we don’t sell a second beer to hardly anyone," Silberberg said with a laugh.
And takeout service alone hasn’t been enough to sustain the business, even after an Austin Chronicle article in mid-September announced a possibly imminent closure.
New and old customers crushed the restaurant with takeout orders after the article, tripling recent receipts for a week or two (though still falling about 25% short of pre-pandemic sales). Despite the touching gesture and the gratitude the owners felt for the love, the temporary bump could not sustain the restaurant.
"It’s like as you’re on your death bed, every previous sweetheart and lover wants to come over and have sex with you one more time," Silberberg said with his trademark wit. "This is great, but I sure would’ve loved it if you had come by a couple of years ago when I was feeling better."
Sales waxed and waned after the Chronicle article, and though Silberberg said it’s hard to close a restaurant that’s actually doing decent business currently, the inescapable reality set in.
"The only way restaurants are coming back is if there’s a whole aid package down the road to help operators reopen. I don’t think it makes sense to try to prop up restaurants now," Silberberg said of the need for more federal intervention. "Four years after a forest fire, there’s trees and raccoons and butterflies, but it’s not the same ones."
The Mother’s owners intend to continue to grow their packaged foods business, led by the popular tamari-cashew dressing. Silberberg said they’d be open to discussions about selling the restaurant’s name or exploring a future elsewhere, but Hyde Park won’t feel the same without the butterflies and raccoons that have inhabited that corner at 43rd and Duval streets for longer than many Austinites have been alive.
Faced with a future that won’t include their work home of 40 years, the owners look back with full hearts.
"We happily created memories of a lifetime where delicious healthy comfort food met with special memorable experiences," Daniels said in an email. "I received a minimum 30 hugs a night, countless compliments and pats on the back as folks left the cafe with big smiles and full bellies night after night. I consider myself one of the luckiest and most fortunate people I know to have a 40-plus-year relationship with my amazing two business partners and with Austin as a whole."
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