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The glasses stopped clinking, the laughter subsided and the music went silent. On March 17, the city’s dining rooms, often some of the most energizing and vibrant spaces for communal gathering, were closed by an order from Mayor Steve Adler, an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Thousands of people working in Austin’s restaurant industry lost their jobs in the subsequent days and weeks. The unknown was the only known, with restaurant owners scrambling to decide whether to stay open solely for takeout service, delivery and grocery sales, or close indefinitely.
Restaurateurs faced some tricky calculus, forced to weigh concerns for public health, the safety of their employees, their restaurant’s ability to pivot operationally and their own finances in a takeout-only world.
A few turned off the lights forever, like Threadgill’s, Magnolia Cafe West and Fricano’s Deli. Others shuttered temporarily, and many more turned to curbside takeout and delivery models with varying degrees of success. On the one-month anniversary of Austin’s shutdown order, we talked with the owners of three restaurants about what life and business have looked like in the age of shuttered dining rooms.
Within a week of our conversations, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that, beginning May 1, restaurants would be allowed to reopen their dining rooms at 25% capacity. A few, like Andiamo Ristorante and Rudy's Country Store and Bar-B-Q, are taking the opportunity. As you’ll read, the governor’s decision did not change the thinking of the restaurant owners we spoke to for this story. For now, like many of their peers in the Austin restaurant world, they will continue operating as they had before the statewide proclamation, for reasons of safety and economics.
Foreign & Domestic chef-owners Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley cranked up the music during their daily prep work recently. They wanted to drown out the silence that has permeated their North Loop restaurant since the city mandated that dining rooms close about six weeks ago.
The business and life partners and their reduced staff have kept as busy as possible, preparing lunch and dinner for takeout service and selling groceries, but they miss the energy and bonhomie that can only come from a full dining room. It’s one of the main reasons they got into the notoriously difficult business.
“That’s been our whole lives, really,” Heard said. “The whole restaurant part — greeting people and seeing people and hugging your regulars and taking care of them. It’s hard for us to not be hospitable. We just take the bag and put it on the table or drop it in the trunk with no contact.”
The couple realized as the coronavirus started spreading across the country that they were going to have to figure out some new business practices. And when they saw chef Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie indefinitely close his restaurant on March 15, they knew the time to pivot had arrived.
The March 17 order from the city ushered in feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, according to the couple who have operated Foreign & Domestic since buying it from the original owner in 2017.
“I think it was kind of scary quiet for a minute. Everybody really didn’t know what to do,” Heard said of the restaurant industry’s response to the new reality.
But they didn’t have time to wallow in their feelings.
The couple rolled their restaurant into a takeout operation that first night and turned all of their energy toward transitioning their business model for the coming days. They furloughed all of their front-of-house staff, though the restaurant continues to cover their health insurance, making the decision as soon as possible in order to give the 11 employees a chance to quickly get into the queue for unemployment benefits. They scrambled to find enough suitable takeout containers, prepared their remaining four cooks, cleared out space for the practical needs of running to-go service and set up online ordering.
“Pivoting into takeout is actually a lot of work,” Heard said. “Those first three nights were really bad, probably the worst three nights of service we’ve had.”
The restaurateurs consulted with their remaining staff of four to determine what was possible operationally. Then they started paring back orders and expenses to see how lean they could run, in order to make staying open financially feasible. They recognize that well-intentioned people can disagree on whether staying open for takeout or closing completely was the right call, but they decided they were making the choice that was in the best interest of themselves and their employees, while still considering public health concerns.
“Everybody has their own opinions on whether they should be open or not, and I think everybody’s being very respectful of each other, because none of us really knows if what we’re doing is the right thing,” Heard said of decision-makers in the restaurant community.
The kitchen ran through the restaurant’s remaining available food. Heard and Lemley then altered the menu to include dishes well-suited for traveling in boxes. Saucy pasta dishes made more sense than buttery ones that did not reheat well. They minimized garnishes to limit labor and food costs. Artful plating took a backseat. They added lunch service.
“It’s been a bit of a logistical nightmare,” Heard said.
In recent weeks, Foreign & Domestic went from serving about 110 guests on a weekend to fulfilling about 35 orders. Their revenue has dipped by about 45%. One thing that has helped them break even is adding grocery service. The couple realized early on that they had enough access to flour, yeast, eggs, milk and other groceries that they could add to their revenue while helping keep their neighbors away from visits to busy grocery stores. The grocery business currently makes up about 20% of their overall sales.
Heard said the restaurant’s small size and limited overhead has allowed them to stay open, unlike some of their larger peers. The couple also got a substantial boost from their landlords, who lowered their rent by about 30% for at least April and May; last week, the restaurant owners received funding for a Paycheck Protection Program loan funded by Veritex Bank in Houston.
“For us it makes sense, but we know for a lot of places it doesn’t make sense,” Lemley said.
Foreign & Domestic has adapted to the demands of their new model, putting in place routine cleaning and service procedures. Groceries and meals — which include dishes like wild nettle and leek risotto; New York strip with potato puree; and goat Bolognese with homemade pasta — are ordered and paid for online. Heard, shielded in a mask and gloves, acts as the sole food runner, taking each order to waiting customers outside and placing the bags in trunks or backseats while maintaining appropriate distance.
Regular customers who had previously dined at the restaurant on specific nights are showing up on the same nights for takeout. A group of neighbors on nearby Avenue H have started a weekly socially distant group brunch from the safety of their driveways. Some guests are coming multiple times a week. Everyone has been “extremely polite” and “very understanding,” Heard said, even when the occasional condiment might be accidentally left out of an order.
“It’s been very humbling,” Heard said. “I’ll never again get upset at a drive-thru when they forget my sauce.”
While they’ve been grateful for the business and the friendly but distanced faces, Heard and Lemley said that takeout service can’t replicate the feeling that comes with running a full-service restaurant.
“This is the longest I’ve ever gone without greeting a guest, and it feels weird,” Heard said. “You start realizing after a few days how much that drives you, because the energy is gone.”
The possibility of that energy returning flickered earlier this week when the governor announced that restaurants would be allowed to reopen with 25% capacity starting Friday. But the Foreign & Domestic owners echoed the sentiments of many Austin restaurateurs when they declared that they would not reopen, adding that operating at only a quarter of their capacity but with full overhead (staff, linens, utilities, et al.) would lead to an even greater loss of income.
If Abbott’s second phase of reopening the state economy becomes a reality on May 18, raising seating capacity limits to 50%, there might finally be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Heard and Lemley are playing Tetris with seating arrangements in the dining room to ensure they could seat half their restaurant while maintaining appropriate social distancing. They also recognize that what looks like the end of the tunnel now might be a mirage.
“We are very concerned about the possibility of having to re-close after getting everything in place,” Heard said.
In the meantime, the music plays, and the relative silence lingers along with the owners’ hopes of a return to normal.
“We miss the roar of the dining room and seeing people actually enjoying their food, instead of just putting it in a box and hoping they like it,” Lemley said.
Eric Yi could see the future. Asia Market, the grocery store he and wife Jenny Chen operate off Spicewood Springs Road, which also is home to one of the city’s best Chinese restaurants, had run out of rice by mid-February. Sales at the cafe were down about 30%.
Asia Market’s clientele had cleared the store of many staples in the preceding weeks. Chinese New Year on Jan. 25 spurred some of the rush for goods, but the main driver was the looming effect of the coronavirus on daily life. Customers, many wearing gloves and masks, were stocking up. Ticket prices that previously averaged about $35 soared, with some receipts up to $200. One woman spent about $900.
“I try not to be nosy, but they knew something was up. They either knew it was coming here or thought it was already here,” Yi said of his regular customers’ concerns about the coronavirus. “Our American lockdown is nothing compared to the Chinese lockdown. Maybe one person in the family gets to leave the house to go to the store.”
Confronted with a revenue decline of about 50% in early March, Yi decided to get ahead of any government mandates in Austin. He and Chen closed the grocery store and cafe on March 15, their sixth wedding anniversary.
“We weren’t going to wait until someone told us it’s a good thing to do,” Yi said.
Yi wanted to keep the store open to feed the community and help people stock their kitchens during a time of increased home cooking, but he said safety was his biggest priority.
“Grocery stores right now are the only people making money,” Yi said. “I want to make money, but I also don’t want people getting sick. If I get someone sick in order to help me make money, there’s no way I could live with myself.”
When many people think of takeout, Chinese food is likely one of the first places their minds go. But Yi, whose family has ties to Chinese restaurants in Austin like Yunnan Dynasty dating back about 40 years, decided that switching to a curbside takeout model still posed problems. He felt he didn’t have the right to force his staff of 15 to self-quarantine when not at work, so he was not going to ask them to come into the restaurant and grocery store and run the risk of getting one another sick.
Yi, who was unsuccessful in acquiring a PPP loan and has not received any rent relief from his landlord, said that once Asia Market and its cafe do reopen, he plans to initially only offer takeout and curbside service, consider modified hours and make protecting his employees, from gloves to gowns to face shields, a top priority. But that day likely won’t be in the coming weeks.
Abbott’s proclamation that restaurants could start serving at limited capacity had no impact on Yi’s decision-making process. Even if the government decided full capacity is allowed, he’d still have concerns.
“If today was the day everything was officially allowed to be open, I would say I’m definitely not going to open,” Yi said. “We’d give it a couple of weeks to a month to see what happens out there in the wild. I don’t know what’s happening out there anymore. I just know that testing isn’t happening. And everyone knows that some miracle isn’t going to happen where millions of tests just fall onto America. So if we can’t depend on that, we just have to see how things go out there.”
Chef Tebi Nguyen and his crew should have been celebrating the second anniversary of their standout North Austin Vietnamese cafe Le Bleu on April 18. Instead, they were drinking beer and wine and marking the one-month anniversary of the city ordinance that shuttered dining rooms.
Nguyen had already taken a big hit before the city mandate. South by Southwest was canceled 11 days before restaurants were forced to close dining rooms, and Nguyen, who also operates the award-winning Vietnamese sandwich trailer Saigon Le Vendeur, was already facing canceled events and the evaporation of expected fest-related business.
Left with an oversupply of food ordered for SXSW, Nguyen had already given all of the overstock of his perishable goods, along with some beer and wine, to staff. On March 18, he was pivoting to takeout-only service at his Burnet Road restaurant and giving employees the choice to return to work or stay at home
About a dozen have stayed on at the East Austin trailer and North Austin cafe to help execute the small menu of appetizers, vermicelli bowls and sandwiches. And if you thought a counter-service restaurant might be well-positioned to thrive despite the constrictions caused by the coronavirus, you’d be wrong. Le Bleu has seen a drop of about 70% in revenue, though Nguyen said he’s been grateful for the support of regulars, family and friends, many of whom have contributed to a GoFundMe page set up for his staff.
Many restaurants have added third-party delivery to their offerings, but Nguyen doesn’t trust outside contractors to handle his food, never mind the 30% commission many of the services charge. He delivers the meals himself, about 15 a day, in an effort to ensure the safety of his guests and customers.
Faced with fewer customers, Nguyen has stopped ordering from his regular suppliers and visits the grocery store every morning to buy supplies for the day. The menu and recipes have needed only a few tweaks. He makes the pickles a little less sour so they don’t get too aggressive after sitting in a container and makes the bread a little crunchier in hopes it can hold up longer.
Nguyen said he feels fortunate to have received PPP funding from Chase Bank, and he has prioritized paying his staff first and his rent second. As for him, he says he’s just trying to not get kicked out of his apartment, which he jokes might lead him to move into his restaurant or, more likely, his girlfriend’s place.
Abbott’s proclamation that restaurants can start seating at 25% capacity did nothing to change the Saigon native’s immediate plans for Le Bleu. Nguyen said that, out of concern for public health and his employees’ safety, Le Bleu will continue operating as takeout only for the time being. He’s unsure of the future and wonders if people will be too scared to go out once restaurants and bars are allowed to fully reopen.
He hopes that’s not the case. Nguyen has an intimate Vietnamese cocktail and street food bar planned for 1701 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. that he wants to open by the end of the year.
“It’s been my dream for years,” Nguyen said.
Takeout options and reopened dining rooms
Craving takeout or wondering which Austin restaurants have opened their dining rooms at 25% capacity? Visit austin360.com/food-drink.
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