As some of the largest cities in the country ordered restaurant dining rooms to close, Austin restaurant owners were wondering Monday whether similar orders would come here. Some announced their own plans to close dining rooms in lieu of take-out and delivery, with some choosing to close completely.
The day President Donald Trump advised Americans to avoid eating at restaurants and meeting in groups of 10 or more — and news came that Dallas and Houston would join New York state and Los Angeles in mandating closure of dining rooms while allowing takeout — some of Austin’s most popular and prolific restaurant groups and individual operators, including New Waterloo, McGuire Moorman Hospitality, Home Slice Pizza and Franklin Barbecue, all announced major changes to their way of business.
Those announcements came the day after Olamaie chef-owner Michael Fojtasek chose to close his refined Southern restaurant until May 1 and before a city news conference scheduled for Tuesday morning.
"It’s not safe. My team’s not safe. I don’t know who’s immuno-compromised on this team or whose partner is, but if somebody catches it here and gives it to somebody and somebody dies, that’s not right," Fojtasek said Sunday.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the Statesman on Monday evening that the possible closure of restaurant dining rooms and non-essential business was discussed during a Monday night meeting at the Emergency Operations Center and that a news conference was planned for Tuesday morning.
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"The kinds of actions that are being taken in Houston and in Dallas and in states and cities across the country is the kind of action that I support," Adler said Monday night. "Already the injury to service workers in this city is immense, and to small businesses, bar and restaurant owners and operators. And I think it is incumbent upon all levels of government to recognize this generational crisis for what it is and really come to the aid and assistance of these folks.
"I know that my colleagues on the council and I are addressing that issue quickly and seriously and recognize the gravity involved, and we need the state and the federal government to do the same thing."
Fojtasek of Olamaie said he considered offering delivery service and take-out but said the risk of accidentally transmitting the virus was too great. He said he thinks all restaurants in the city should close for the sake of public health, although he understands why others are choosing to curtail service or switch to take-out or delivery.
The James Beard-nominated chef said he had been disappointed in the lack of leadership and communication from Adler and the city. Fojtasek said the communication from the city had been basically non-existent until Monday, when the mayor told a group of restaurateurs on a conference call that the city would be open to contacting landlord and lenders on the restaurants’ behalf.
"I’d like to see some leadership," Fojtasek told the Statesman on Sunday. "A huge sector of our economy has already started to take a massive hit, and it’s only the beginning."
Olamaie’s Sunday closure announcement, the first by a major restaurant in Austin, was followed Monday by announcements from two of the city’s biggest hospitality groups.
New Waterloo, which operates multiple restaurants and hotels in Austin, announced that it was temporarily closing 10 restaurants, including La Condesa, all Sway locations, Le Politique, Il Brutto, La Matta, Central Standard, Otoko and the bar Watertrade.
"Our goal is a simple one — to protect our community, our teams, and our company," the Austin company said in a statement. "We are committed to not letting food go to waste and will use existing inventory to provide meals for our displaced staff. We will also have additional resources available to them to navigate this crisis. We are heartbroken but hopeful that the decision to act now will mean we have businesses and jobs to come back to when this passes."
New Waterloo said it will furlough employees who will no longer be able to work, adding that they closed relatively early during the pandemic in hopes that would get their employees "ahead of what will surely be a backed-up unemployment system in the days and weeks to come."
New Waterloo employees who are enrolled in the company’s health care benefits program will be covered through April.
McGuire Moorman Hospitality group also announced Monday that it had temporarily closed all 15 of the restaurants it operates, including Perla’s, Elizabeth Street Cafe, Lou’s, Jeffrey’s, and all of the restaurants at the Proper Hotel.
MMH co-founder Larry McGuire said the company is "hour by hour trying to figure this out." Late Monday his company sent out an email stating that Lamberts, Elizabeth Street Cafe, June’s, Swedish Hill, Jeffrey’s, Lou’s, Joann’s Fine Foods and Pool Burger would all start taking call-in orders or take-out and curbside delivery on Tuesday.
The organization does not yet know how the temporary closures will affect staffing and benefits.
Joining MMH and New Waterloo among the ranks of the closed Monday were campus-area staple Texas French Bread and Asia Market and its in-store eatery.
While some restaurants decided to temporarily close, many, including some of the most popular restaurants in Austin, eliminated dining room service and shifted toward take-out only service.
Award-winning Franklin Barbecue announced Monday that it would temporarily close its dining room effective immediately and shift to curbside delivery for to-go orders.
Diners can order barbecue online, with pick up curbside. As always, food will be served from 11 a.m. until sold out. Owner Aaron Franklin says he also plans to have delivery service soon. The recently added taco and coffee trailer at Franklin Barbecue is currently closed, but Franklin said he plans to add pickup service for both in the next week or two.
Three locations of Via 313 and the two locations of Home Slice Pizza also announced they would be taking only to-go orders, with Via 313 delivering its Detroit-style pizzas curbside and Home Slice offering both window pickup and curbside delivery.
Even some of Austin’s best restaurants that have never offered to-go service made the addition this week. East Austin restaurant Launderette, North Loop favorite Foreign & Domestic and Emmer & Rye on Rainey Street all introduced call-in ordering for to-go food.
Those restaurants’ decisions to shift to take-out service came on the same day that the Texas Restaurant Association released a statement asking Gov. Greg Abbott and multiple city mayors to keep restaurants open. The statewide organization advocated for restaurants to be allowed to remain open in a limited capacity.
"For some in Texas, our 55,000+ restaurants are their primary source of food, and for the 1.3 million employees of the Texas restaurant industry, it is their primary source of income," Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, said in the release. "Keeping restaurants open to provide food via delivery or take-out and pickup, enhanced with safe, zero-contact curbside pickup, is vital to the support of Texas’ communities and the State’s second largest employers’ ability to support their teams."
Among the restaurants that have continued with in-restaurant dining, many, like Chez Zee in Northwest Hills and Better Half near downtown, have reduced seating in their dining rooms in order to enforce social spacing. And pretty much every Austin restaurant that has communicated publicly in the last week has committed to stricter standards of sanitation and cleanliness.
Given the massive movement among restaurants in just 24 hours to regulate themselves and adapt to the rapidly developing landscape around the coronavirus pandemic, expect more changes to come, whether directed by the government or not, in short time.