Austin’s first shutter arrived on March 15, while I was in the middle of interviewing a pair of chef-owners for a local magazine. Via text, we all learned that Olamaie, one of Austin’s most decorated restaurants, had made the decision to close through May 1, and let its staff go (while continuing to pay healthcare benefits). Later that evening, Dai Due, another successful community-centric restaurant closed its dining room, pivoting to to-go orders while keeping the butcher shop open. On March 17, a city-mandated closure for all bars and restaurants went into effect. (You can get updated information on which establishments are doing take-out and delivery in Austin here.)
According to the Austin American-Statesman, “the Texas Workforce Commission estimated 134,600 people were employed in the local leisure and hospitality sector in January, a figure that amounts to 12% of the area’s workforce, not counting farm workers.” While that number may seem insignificant compared to the area’s vast tech industry, the domino effect of its loss has the capacity to be devastating. Austin is one of America’s leading tourism destinations, with over 27.4 million domestic visitors annually—the majority of whom come for our live music, restaurants and bars. It’s inevitable that some establishments won’t recover following the mandated closure.
The stories I’ve heard from owners, bartenders and other staff are heartbreaking, but within this tight community, I’ve found optimism as well. Here’s what the industry is saying.
Paul Finn | Beverage manager and general manager, Garage Cocktail Bar; beverage manager, Comedor
We closed both places on the 16th, following a companywide meeting in which we had to inform almost everyone on staff that they were being laid off. In compliance with the city, we’ll be closed for at least six weeks.
The repercussions are being felt in so many places: I had to cancel repairs and maintenance with plumbers, electricians and refrigeration technicians, so they’re all feeling it too. We’re not placing any orders so our wholesale liquor stores, dry goods companies, linens and produce vendors are all being affected and of course, I’m heartbroken for the chefs, cooks, servers, bartenders and barbacks who are suddenly without work.
Right now, I feel like I’m [in] the mode of, “Get your oxygen mask on before helping the person seated next to you,” and it’s taking me some time to get my metaphorical mask in place.
In 2018, I created an informal staff protocol at Garage called, “personal mise en place (PMEP)” with the goal of creating a more mindful workplace. It includes everything from awareness training to combat repetitive motion disorders to mental health and wellness classes and providing employees in crisis with assistance. My own PMEP just completely changed on a dime. It’s very routine-oriented, and right now, the routine is shot.
My next goal is to try and create and post video of my PMEP seminar, because I think it could be helpful. I have a website, so this weekend I’m going to develop FAQ and make free, downloadable charts so it’s a resource for people in the industry going through this. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but if just one person gets something positive out of it, it’s worth doing.
Paola Guerrero-Smith | Co-owner and chef, Buenos Aires Café and The Milonga Room
On March 16, our East 6th location turned 11 years old. The next day, I had to temporarily lay off most of my staff. My heart broke into a million pieces. Even if it’s temporary it’s crushing and unreal.
Last week the management team drafted a plan for à la carte and family-style to-go menus, website updates and a takeout/delivery model that will go live on Favor and Uber Eats the end of the week, as we saw the mandate coming. We certainly didn’t think it was going to happen so fast. We’re launching Kitchen Quarantine, a live IGTV show from the café, starting Friday at 3 p.m. CDT. We’ll be sharing cooking tips, batched cocktail recipes and dishes you can make at home with loved ones.
The love and support from our staff, family, friends and community has been a huge source of encouragement and love. I cry tears of joy from how much support we have received. I am so grateful for this. I take it day by day, hour by hour, and adjust to the situation as it comes. My goal as a business owner is to ensure there is a sound place for our staff to come back to. Meanwhile, there are tough decisions and conversations happening, but I remain hopeful and in good spirits.
Travis Tober | Co-owner, Nickel City
We shuttered the bar on Monday, before the city announced closures, because the writing was on the wall. We felt it was the right thing to do protect our staff and guests. I called all employees in to lay them off, so they could avoid the large rush that was coming. There hasn’t been a day since Friday that I haven’t cried at some point. It’s hard seeing something that you and your team built get shut down by something that wasn’t your fault. The staff and the energy are what makes this bar, not the fancy cocktails or cool glassware.
On Wednesday, we were able to open with a skeleton crew delivering food, beer and whiskey [by law, alcohol can only be sold with food]; with the new waiver designated by Texas governor Greg Abbott in effect, we’ll also be able to deliver cocktails. It’s not a sustainable model, but we’re doing it to get some money in the pockets of our staff before we go into an Italy- or Spain-type lock-in, which I believe is on the way.
My advice to the public is, order delivery cocktails if they’re available and legal, and when this is all over, go to your favorite local bar and buy some drinks! I know everyone will have less money and things will be tight, but even once a week will help. And stay safe.