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Severe weather ruins Austin restaurants' Valentine's Day plans and profits

Matthew Odam
Austin 360

Restaurants have fought mightily to survive during the coronavirus pandemic. With honed safety practices in place and a vaccine rollout in its second month, Valentine’s Day was looking as if it would be one of the rare bright spots of the past 12 months.

The holiday was expected to be a financial boon for many restaurants that have been crippled by the pandemic, with reservations booked weeks in advance for prix fixe dinners and other special offerings. Then Mother Nature took over.

The severe weather that blanketed the area for days led to some Austin restaurant owners closing their dining rooms completely and others scrambling to service severely reduced reservation numbers with skeleton staffs.

A tree sags under the weight of ice on North Lake Creek Parkway near Lakeline Mall Drive on Friday. The severe winter storm cost restaurants an expected financial boon for Valentine's Day.

Foreign & Domestic: a fire and a storm

Foreign & Domestic chef-owners Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley received an alert at 7:30 a.m. Sunday that the thermostat in their North Loop restaurant had jumped from 67 degrees to 85. They checked their cameras and saw smoke in the restaurant and contacted the Austin Fire Department. They then jumped in their car for a 20-mph ride through dangerous conditions from their home in Luling to their Austin restaurant. 

The Fire Department arrived and broke into the building without causing any serious damage within 10 minutes of the call from the worried owners, and when Heard and Lemley arrived, the unspecified problem had been resolved (they think it was a malfunctioning auxiliary heater). Their rough day was just beginning. 

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Last week the owners had reservations for 135 guests for their special $65 three-course Valentine’s Day prix fixe dinner. Cancellations started coming in Thursday, followed by rebookings and then more cancellations. By the time the restaurant, which was staffed at about 50% because of weather keeping employees from coming to work, closed Sunday night, 45 guests had been served — about average for a regular Wednesday night. 

Cancellations also came in for brunch, with the restaurant losing about half of its reservations for Sunday afternoon. The weather turned what probably would have been the restaurant's biggest day of sales since the start of the pandemic into just another day. But the owners hadn’t ordered as if it were just another day. After the truncated evening of service and slew of cancellations, they plan to run their Valentine’s Day special after they open this week, whenever that is. As of Monday afternoon they had not made a decision on whether they would open for dinner Tuesday. 

The couple also took a hit at Commerce Cafe, which they opened last year on the square in Lockhart. They had prepared for 30 guests there, but served only six people Sunday night. 

“It’s definitely frustrating. We pulled 18-hour days trying to get prep done,” Heard said of their effort at Foreign & Domestic. “The amount of work that went into preparing for reservations we had was exhausting; then to have one of the slowest days in a long time was definitely a bit of a letdown. Of course, we don’t want anyone to die. We’re shaking our fists at the sky right now.”

Carpenters Hall: Reservations cut by two-thirds

Carpenters Hall, the all-day restaurant inside Carpenter Hotel in the Zilker neighborhood, also saw the numbers in its reservation book shrink considerably in the hours and days leading up to the storm. 

Before the bad weather started creeping toward Austin, the restaurant had planned for the possibility of serving 200 people. By the end of Sunday night, that number had been cut by two-thirds. 

Executive chef Jorge Hernández led a spartan kitchen staff with just two other cooks and a dishwasher, preparing dinners for two for $120 that included prime rib, roasted duck breast with foie gras cannelloni, and poached apples with ice cream. Hernández, who joined the hotel’s operating hospitality group, the Mighty Union, in January 2020, said the diners were a mix of people from the neighborhood and hotel guests. 

“We’re just happy to feed people. If somebody wants to come out and needs food, we’re going to try and feed them,” Hernández said. “It hurts to look at the number a little bit, but i don’t think that’s anything new to us during COVID times. We always assume that something bad is going to happen, so we try to be as smart as we can with the menus we write these days. We’re going to be prepared.”

Because of the treacherous conditions, staffers who made it to work Sunday were offered rooms at the hotel, and the food and beverage operations at Carpenter were limited to hotel guests Monday to keep employees and guests off the road.

By Monday afternoon, the staff had much more company than over the weekend. The hotel was booked at 25% capacity Saturday, but calls started coming Monday morning, and all of the hotel rooms were booked by noon. 

Juniper: ‘Nobody can control Mother Nature’

Chef-owner Nic Yanes’ East Austin Italian restaurant Juniper didn’t have the benefit of in-house guests. The restaurant had reservations for 120 on its books for a five-course Sunday night dinner of kampachi crudo, lobster ravioli, ribeye and more. Not one person dined in the beautiful space. 

Out of concerns for the safety of his staff and guests, Yanes made the decision before noon Sunday to cancel dinner service. The restaurant contacted those with reservations, some of whom still wanted to come into the restaurant for dinner, and offered the meals as a takeout option if picked up by 5 p.m. 

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A few dozen meals still went out the door via takeout, though their tabs were much smaller than they would have been with a dining room experience probably full of wine and cocktails, and all of the restaurant’s front of house staff were robbed of the chance to make substantial income on tips. 

Yanes, who said the weekend would have been the restaurant’s best since the pandemic started, could muster only a bewildered laugh. 

“I don’t even know what to think about it, really. It’s so funny,” Yanes said. “It’s really hard. We’re out at these restaurants trying to make a living. I feel like we got through a year of this COVID with limited scares and cases, and we get the vaccine, and then you get smacked. It’s crazy. Nobody can control Mother Nature.”

Home Slice Pizza: This storm was different

Valentine’s Day isn’t just for prix fixe meals. Casual restaurants, especially pizzerias, and delivery services usually do brisk business on the holiday, as well. The storm also pounded them.

Home Slice Pizza made the decision early Sunday to close both of its locations at 2 p.m. Co-owner Jen Strickland said Valentine’s Day is usually one of the restaurant’s biggest sales days of the year. The restaurant also usually stays open during storms to serve the community, Strickland said. But this storm was different. 

“We were concerned about the safety of our employees coming and going to work, and when we saw all the delivery services also going that way it further validated our decision,” Strickland said.

The restaurants had to cancel some orders placed in advance, including those for Home Slice’s special Valentine’s Day pizza kits, and called affected customers to let them know ahead of time. Home Slice announced it would be closed Monday and Tuesday as well, with Wednesday operations still to be determined. 

“Losing sales from the trifecta of Valentine’s Day, a Sunday before a school holiday, and the school holiday is a huge deal in the restaurant business, but of course not as important as keeping staff and customers safe,” Strickland said. “Having to be closed today (Monday) and tomorrow, too, really hurts, especially since we’ve been dealing with lower sales all during COVID.”