Austin Restaurateurs Discuss Plans to Reopen (or Not)

Local restaurants on how they made the tough decision

A server at Manuel's on May 2, the day after Gov. Greg Abbott allowed restaurants to resume service at 25% capacity (photo by John Anderson)

On Friday, May 1, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott “reopened” a slate of businesses around the state, by way of Executive Order GA-18, including retail stores, restaurants, movie theatres, and malls.

This first phase of Texas’ ongoing plan to “safely and strategically open Texas while minimizing the spread of COVID-19” states that these specific retail businesses must limit capacity to 25% of their listed occupancy, among other protocols. The governor’s announcement was accompanied by Texans Helping Texans: The Governor’s Report to Open Texas (available on the “strike force” website, www.gov.texas.gov/organization/opentexas), which includes a series of “Open Texas Checklists” that outline the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) minimum standard health protocols required for all Texans. (On May 8, more businesses, including tanning and nail salons, are permitted to open, followed by gyms on May 18.)

As for Austin’s restaurants – bars are not included in Phase 1 plans – owners’ perspectives vary widely, creating different reopening plans. Some dining rooms are reopening within the new guidelines, some will remain closed even for takeout, but so far most are choosing to remain open only under pandemic-restriction guidelines for to-go orders. We checked in with 16 restaurant owners for their perspectives.

Reopened

It’s Italian Cucina
www.itsitaliancucina.com
Reopened dining room on May 1; continuing to-go
“There is a reason we are called the service industry, we are here to serve rain or shine. And yes, it is nice to have things come to you when things are great! But what about tough times? We have an unknown enemy but we will not leave the battlefield. We will fight and we will conquer, isn’t that an American way? We will still serve you with take out, delivery, and now dine-in. And we will not make excuses that at 25 percent we will not make money because it is not about money, but you! We will follow guidelines for your safety as well as our employees.” – Al Fini, owner and executive chef

Salty Sow
www.saltysow.com
Reopened dining room on May 2; continuing to-go
“We are reopening this Saturday, May 2, because so many folks have been waiting for their favorite neighborhood spot to reopen, and we’re ready to bring back a sense of community and provide some normalcy for our guests in a safe environment. We are making public safety at top priority through the way we’ll be operating the restaurant. We’re starting with the patio only and continuing to box up all the food we serve and still have a contactless interaction with a staging table for order pickup. We’ve been getting tons of inquiries about reopening from the community since the announcement on Monday, and we want to be there for our people.” – Mason Popp, general manager

“Yard Bar is going to take her time with this.” – Kristen Heaney of Yard Bar

Yard Bar
www.yardbar.com
Reopened dining area on May 1; continuing to-go
“Yard Bar is going to take her time with this. Yard Bar has always been a place people go to relax and let the cares of their day fall away – and we’re committed to ensuring that same peace of mind for our guests as we slowly reopen. For now, our hours will remain reduced. Our patio tables will be spaced at least 10 to 12 feet apart to maintain proper social distancing of at least 6 feet. Our dog park will remain open by reservations only, allowing for one household at a time. Plus, the one household rule allows us to welcome kids under 21 with their families into the park, which is otherwise 21+ due to our bar in the dog park as well as the fast-moving nature of the dogs. We hope to see everyone back at Yard Bar soon – and safely!” – Kristen Heaney, owner

Güero’s Taco Bar
www.guerostacobar.com
Reopened dining room on May 4; continuing to-go
“We are looking forward to providing work for our employees and safely serving the community. We’re continuing to make safety for our guests and staff our top priority by increasing our safety measures with strict cleaning and distancing. The health and safety of guests and staff are top priority for the team. Increased safety measures include: all employees will wear masks and gloves; sanitation stations will be present throughout the restaurant;, increase sanitation of the restaurant with extra attention to high trafficked areas; all tables will be distanced 6 feet apart; removal of salsa bar, single use menus and cups will be replaced when offering refills. [Our] South Congress restaurant, which turns 25 in May, will open seven days a week [11am-10pm], with a limited menu. The team will continue curbside to-go (including alcohol) for those who want to continue dining at home.” – Bette Lippincott, co-owner

Ski Shores Cafe (Photo by Matt McGinnis)

Ski Shores Café
www.skishoresaustin.com
Reopened dining room on May 1; continuing to-go
“Since 1954 Ski Shores Café has been all about escaping our daily challenges for a mini-vacation any day of the week. We know that right now a lot of people are clamoring for a feeling of normalcy and a reprieve from being cooped up in their homes. As of Friday, May 1, we are opening both our original location on Lake Austin as well as our new location on Barton Springs Rd as places for people to chill on our spacious, open-air decks. We’re excited for people to be able to experience our new Ski Shores Café on Barton Springs Rd. While relaxing lakeside or in the Zilker neighborhood is what we’re all about, there’s nothing more important to us than the health and safety of our guests, our staff, and our community. The Ski Shores team will uphold the highest of standards for a safe environment and we will align with the Health Standard Protocols for Restaurants as prescribed in the Governor’s Report to Open Texas.” – Rick Engel, owner

Manuel’s (Great Hills)
www.manuels.com
Reopened dining room on May 2; continuing to-go
“We are reopening Manuel’s Great Hills [on May 2] on a reservations-only basis now that the Governor has lifted the Stay at Home order. We believe people are ready for some GOOD NEWS and this is it. We will of course be following all the new rules laid out by Governor Abbott and his task force rules including seating a maximum of six guests at each table. ... It’s certainly not ideal but it’s a start. … After closing both Manuels restaurants locations for 7 straight weeks and furloughing all 80 of our employees we have now re-instated all of them on payroll. We have missed our staff and customers and look forward to seeing them again soon at Manuel’s. … We plan to take every precaution. When people do start going out again, the curve may likely go back up for a little while. But what is the alternative? Hiding in our houses for a year or more?? Everyone is going to die of something and over 98% of people who get this virus recover with their own immune system. We cannot let our entire country go broke while we shake in fear. We kept Manuel’s closed and did not even offer carryout for the last 7 weeks until it was deemed safe. Now it’s time for us to reopen and get started. It will take time to be profitable and successful again but we have to give it a try and start. I also want to add that we plan to do our best to make everyone – staff and patrons – feel comfortable and safe. We certainly realize that not everyone is ready to go sit and dine in a restaurant – and we respect that. But for those who are ready we will do our very best to accommodate and take care of them. Manuel’s has a reputation for quality and consistency and we plan to continue that 36 year legacy for our guests. For those who prefer to dine outdoors we also have a large shaded garden patio.” – Jennifer McNevin, owner

Lazarus Brewing Co.
www.lazarusbrewing.com
Reopening dining area on May 8; continuing to-go
“While we want to be open and get back to normal as much as anyone, we want to be cautious and thoughtful about it. Safety matters a LOT to us – both for our employees and our patrons. So right now, we’re adopting a phased approach. We tentatively plan on opening our patio (outdoor service only), beginning on Friday, May 8. And we’ll take all the safety precautions we can, we’ll practice safe distancing, etc. (and we have a doctor helping us think through logistics). And we’ll continue to operate our online/to-go pickup. And we’ll just kind of see how things go.” – Christian Cryder, CEO & Founder

Not Reopened (Yet)

Justine’s Brasserie

“We miss you madly and can’t wait to raise a glass, in person.” – Justine Gilcrease, owner of Justine’s Brasserie
www.justines1937.com
Dining room remains temporarily closed; continuing to-go
“Justine’s will not be open for dining-in on May 1. With COVID-19 numbers still on the rise and only 1% of Texas residents tested, we think it’s too soon. Until we are confident that providing table service will not be creating an unnecessary health risk for our staff, our guests and the community at large, Justine’s will remain open for Friday-Sunday curbside pickup only. Please know, we miss you madly and can’t wait to raise a glass, in person, to good health and the beauty of dining out. ‘Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.’ – Winnie-the-Pooh” – Justine Gilcrease, owner

la Barbecue
www.labarbecue.com
Dining room remains temporarily closed; continuing to-go
“We will not be opening for any in-dining service anytime soon. Because the business is a line-based business for our customers, with so many people close together, we plan on giving it a few more weeks to be safe.” – LeAnn Mueller, owner

Honest Mary’s
www.honestmarys.com
Dining rooms remain temporarily closed; continuing to-go
“We’re really excited about the trend towards reopening the dining rooms in Texas, and we’re hopeful we’ll reopen our dining rooms soon. For now, we are planning to keep our current Online Ordering & Take Out system, which has been working really well for us and our guests. We anticipate opening up the dining room when occupancy is closer to 50%, hopefully in mid May. For now, our outdoor patio is open for seating at both locations!” – Nelson Monteith, owner

Fluff Meringues & More
fluff-meringues.com
Dining room remains temporarily closed; open for pick-up only starting May 6
“While we appreciate that some food establishments will be able to open their dining rooms up a bit for the time being, given how cozy our space is and wanting to exercise extreme caution for the safety of our staff and our wonderful customers, we will not be doing that yet. At this time, with things changing so rapidly every few days, seemingly with so little additional information, it’s just hard to make any big decisions right now beyond the basics. Hence, we will wait and see how the next few weeks pan out before making any decisions about when and how we will open our dining area back up. Besides, we’re lucky in that our products are literally designed to be taken away if requested. For us, it’s simply a matter of safety. That said, next Wednesday, May 6, we will be opening for limited hours for *pick up only* with a somewhat limited menu including our most popular treats plus a few completely new and frozen bulk items (scones, hand pies, ‘inbreads’, and quiches). In doing so, we will have a distinct process and flow of traffic set up through our space (we’re lucky we have two entrances) and all orders must come via phone or be pre-ordered online via our new website (launching Friday). The new website will allow people to both pre-order everything for pick-up in-store or ship certain items (our packaged items and merch, and even some new items that we haven’t debuted yet!). Shipping will be available nationwide.” – Kristin Collins, founder and owner

Eldorado Cafe
www.eldoradocafeatx.com
Dining room remains temporarily closed; continuing to-go
“We will not be reopening full service on Friday. 25% is only 5 chairs and 2 bar stools. That small amount of seats brings more danger to our staff than revenue. We will stick with our TOGO system with curbside pick up. We think it is too early to open up restaurants. We are [looking] at criteria that indicate it is safe to open and we are following much of what we have read from our County and National Leaders. (Not the politicians, but the doctors and scientists.) We will come back when 1) Cases have been decreasing for two weeks and the County feels we are in a safe spot with regards to the spread; 2) Testing must be available for our staff if we are concerned about an outbreak at our restaurant. We would also like to see better contact tracing implemented; 3) Hospitals must still have bed space and the protective gear they need; 4) We need over 50% of our dining room back at a minimum to reopen. These conditions will be subject to change. [Oh, and] hand sanitizer: For the love of Dios, can we get some hand sanitizer. We don’t have enough to service the general public if we were to open. We have enough for our staff for about 2 more weeks thanks to the heroic efforts of our Cintas driver ... We hope to secure more but I am working on the aloe/Everclear recipe just in case.” – Joel Fried, co-owner

L'Oca d'Oro (Photo by John Anderson)

L’Oca d’Oro
www.locadoroaustin.com
Dining room remains temporarily closed; continuing weekly Family Meal to-go
“In short, L’Oca d’Oro will not be reopening until we see what happens in the next three weeks. During that time, we’ll be preparing to open under Good Work Austin’s guidelines which are being adopted by a number of restaurants to ensure the health and safety of our customers and employees. This part, we really need to do together so that we can all continue to move forward. Backsliding at this point would be catastrophic.” – Adam Orman, co-owner and general manager

Seoulju Korean Kitchen and Bar

“We will do all the celebrations and Soju drinking when we are 100% sure the coronavirus is gone.” – John Lee, owner of Seoulju Korean Kitchen and Bar
www.seouljuatx.com
Dining room remains temporarily closed; continuing to-go
“My staff and I over at Seoulju Korean Kitchen and Bar decided we will not be opening our dining room. As much as I would love to celebrate getting Best Fried Chicken in Austin by Austin Monthly Magazine, ultimately, we love our guests, employees, and families too much to put them at risk for 25%. Also, it will be very difficult to ask my servers to come back and risk their health for barely any tips. We will play it safe and continue to do take outs and I will continue to personally deliver food to our guests. We will also continue to be part of Runner City’s Facebook group to coordinate deliveries with the wonderful folks when I cannot deliver. We will do all the celebrations and Soju drinking when we are 100% sure the coronavirus is gone.” – John Lee, owner

Vinaigrette
www.vinaigretteonline.com
Dining room remains temporarily closed; continuing to-go
“We cannot wait to eventually reopen our dining room when it feels safe. None of us wants to be a ghost kitchen forever – we miss our dining rooms and spending time with our guests. That said, we are going to wait a moment. I think some governors are rushing to reopen but actual consumer demand isn’t there yet. I don’t think people feel safe right now, and it also feels like a pretty immense task to run a full-scale restaurant with these heightened sanitization measures. All restaurants are adopting hospital-like standards right now and it’s not easy to do. The more people we bring into the mix the more variables we have to control, the harder it gets.” – Erin Wade, owner


See photo gallery from the first day of restaurants reopening.

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