Counter Culture’s Sue Davis: Countering the Coronavirus Blues with Greens

Eastside vegan powerhouse pivots, increases pay, perseveres

Sue Davis debuted her vegan food trailer Counter Culture in a North Loop parking lot in 2009. Three years later, with a Kickstartered backing of $13,000, she took her meatless menu and went brick-and-mortar on East Cesar Chavez.

Sue Davis, courtesy of Counter Culture

There, the restaurant earned even more popular and critical hosannas via Davis' skills with vegetable-based, dairy-free, and raw foods made from scratch. So – steady as she goes, one dish in front of another – Austin is booming and Counter Culture is another cherished success story in the mix of the city's culinary scene. But, fast-forward another eight years …

… and here we are in the midst of this COVID-19 situation, with a weeks-long stretch of no dine-in business for anyone, and longtime restaurants shuttering permanently all over town, and the perennial economic harshnesses of the food service industry under heightened (and it’s-about-goddamn-time) scrutiny, and – ah, what’s a woman to do?

“I feel like 90 percent of my time right now is setting up the online menus so customers can see everything clearly for ordering,” says Davis. “Where they get a sandwich, then the screen pops up WOULD YOU LIKE A DRINK, and some other things that servers would say that I can’t say. It’s complicated.”

Yeah, it’s complicated. As are the various Phases of reopening enforced by – excuse me: semi-firmly suggested by – Texas state government. And how’s that Panglossian agenda working out for Counter Culture?

“It’s not ideal,” says Davis. “We’re not open to dine-in customers, we don’t feel like it’s safe. It’s too early, and we’re not set up for it – we have a small patio and you have to go through the dining room to get to it. It’s just not worth opening the patio to have, maybe, four tables. We have 10 tables total, but we wouldn’t be able to seat everyone. And most of our customers have said they’re not ready to go back to restaurants, and they commend those restaurants that are waiting – that’s their mindset. Because they want to support people who are waiting and doing the right thing. But it’s hard, because we’re at about 40 percent of our normal sales – and I don’t ever expect it to be back to 100 percent – and it’s not sustainable, longterm.”

And yet, in spite of that, Davis is paying her staff more than ever?

“We got rid of tips,” she tells us. “I got a PPP loan, so I’m able to pay my staff – the ones who wanted to come back. Some would have to take the bus and don’t feel comfortable doing that now; some moved away; some, after four weeks, got other jobs. But about 70 percent of my staff is back, and since they’re not really providing table service, with the PPP loan, I’m paying them far above minimum wage: I’m starting them at $18 an hour. And hopefully this loan will be forgiven. If it’s not, then I’m in trouble.”

Because capitalism giveth, to paraphrase a tangential text, and capitalism can taketh the fuck away. And in these overly interesting times, the ever-fraught hospitality industry is even more of a gamble than usual.

“I’m trying to do everything right,” says Davis, “but things keep changing. My bookkeeper is very patient with me. Every new article we read, we’re like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to pivot – do this!’ It’s very unsettling. But we’re tipless right now, and, ideally, it would be a great system to keep. In the past, I asked my servers ‘Would you like to raise prices and go tipless?’ But they like the tips. But now, all this uncertainty and the business not being steady, they couldn’t survive off tips – and I don’t want them to have to worry about that. So we’re using the loan money to go tipless. And when the loan money is out, unless they extend it, we’ll just have to raise our prices a little and keep going tipless. Until things are back to semi-normal.”

Austin Chronicle: And what are things like now?

Sue Davis: We’ve changed our whole menu. It wasn’t geared to take-out – that was maybe 5% of our business before. So when I thought about doing our existing menu prior to reopening, I just looked at it and was like, No, nachos will not travel well. You know? We had a lot of sandwiches, and I took pretty much all of those off. We’re doing more family-style meals, pre-packaged cold meals that you heat up at home. We used to have a lot of you-can-choose-your-sides, a lot of you-can-customize-things. Now, for our hot items, it’s like “This is the meal,” you can’t mix and match anymore. We do have a few more salads than we did, though. I feel like people are just eating a lot of pizza, so we’re trying to offer healthier things. We also have some grocery items, and we’re even selling sanitizer and toilet paper as little add-ons.

Austin Chronicle: And is this exclusively for take-out?

Sue Davis: We’re also doing our own delivery for a two-dollar charge, so we can compete there. We’re not getting a whole lot of delivery, though. It’s all trial and error right now, and we’re trying to be creative. We might have to expand our delivery area, to go a little farther out? But also I think people want an excuse to leave their house, they don’t mind driving over.

Austin Chronicle: Does it seem easier, or at least a better idea now, being a vegan restaurant?

Sue Davis: Well, I’d say yeah – at least in our little bubble: We have a community built up around us that’s really supportive. And because it’s healthier, and this whole thing has shown how the treatment of animals and the workers in the industry has been terrible. But, most people? I really think they don’t care. I’ve had friends who’ve eaten at Counter Culture maybe once or twice in all the years, and I know the vegan lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but now a few of them have asked me about recipes for the first time. I never thought they would, so I think some people are starting to open their eyes. But, for the majority of people? I know there was a long line at Olive Garden yesterday. So the mass population, they’re still going to their chain restaurants. You’d think people would, right now, in Austin, you’d think they wouldn’t be going to chain restaurants, they’d be supporting the mom-and-pop places. But, um, we’re all in our little bubbles, you know? The Chronicle’s readers are in part of the bubble, too. But there’s a huge world out there that doesn’t even think about things like that. Unfortunately.

Austin Chronicle: And what about Sue Davis? Why aren't you part of that, ah, let’s say oblivious majority of people?

Sue Davis: Well, I’ve been vegan for close to 20 years, and vegetarian for years prior to that, and I’ve always cooked a lot. My mom cooked a lot when I was growing up. She had a catering company at one point, so when I was a kid I would help her. But I’ve always loved to have dinner parties and cooking classes wherever I’ve lived. I grew up on the east coast, but I’ve lived all over the west coast, and I tried all the ethnic food I could anywhere I traveled. But I grew up as a kind of picky eater: Everything had to be well-done, and with french fries or a baked potato or bread. But when I became vegan, for some reason, I became food-obsessed and a world of food that I’d never tried just opened up to me. I was all about food colors and textures and different flavors. Like, you think of apples, and there’s over a hundred varieties, but we always eat the same three or four kinds. It’s just endless. And I get bored easily, so I’m always researching. I’ll go to the Asian market, wind up looking at some ingredient I’ve never heard of, then researching it and trying it out. And I hate food waste, so if we have something, we need to use it up. You know, you get carrots from a farm-to-table and they come with all these top greens – so let’s make a pesto out of that, or a chimichurri or something. Just being playful with food, doing things I’m craving or that I don’t see other people making. Things like that.

Austin Chronicle: Your watermelon mango gazpacho, for instance, that you gave us the recipe for – thank you for that – it seems perfect for summertime. And what about, well, what about after summertime? What happens to Counter Culture? I mean, if the current situation continues for months and months … ?

Sue Davis: It’s worrying. The PPP loan is helping me survive, and if this shutdown continues, it needs to be extended. I’m a saver, I have savings – but I have plans for those savings. I’ve been working hard for ten years and I’ve been penny-pinching, and I don’t want to use all my savings. Counter Culture’s not going to go anywhere, and I will use those savings, but I’d rather not. And if this had happened to me in my first three years of the restaurant’s existence, I wouldn’t last over four months. My rent is six grand a month. Utilities are $1400 to 1500 hundred a month – especially in the heat, with four different A/C units. Payroll every other week is 40 to 50 grand, and doing 40% of business just covers payroll. It’d probably be better for me to just close, pay rent, and that’s it – instead of working so hard to cover payroll and still paying rent out-of-pocket. But that’d be terrible for my employees, and we’re a happy little family, you know? So I’m hoping the virus doesn’t spike again, or, if it does, that we get another loan. If things do start to open up and it feels safe, I’m thinking about having someone put a gate on my patio, like a door – so we could have direct patio seating eventually. But that’s, I don’t know, maybe a month or more away.

Austin Chronicle: That’s … damn, that’s some drastic shit to deal with. How do you cope with all of this? Personally, I mean.

Sue Davis: What keeps me going is our tight-knit community of vegan businesses, veggie businesses. Leslie [Martin] from Bouldin Creek is a good friend, and we talk on the phone like every three days. And we’re all going through the same thing. There’s online groups, Facebook groups, so we stay in touch. And some people are doing great. Like, some food trucks are doing good right now. Pizza places. People who maybe just have counters that were kind of already set up for this? But when you have a restaurant that has 70 seats that are empty – or, actually, right now they’re full of cases of take-out boxes! [She laughs.] It’s just different when people order take-out: They’re not ordering as many appetizers and drinks and desserts. And the family meals and stuff are great, but I think a lot of people are cooking at home, still, and not eating out. I don’t get walk-up traffic now. My whole neighborhood along Cesar Chavez, it’s just kind of quiet, I don’t see anyone walking down the street. And I’m surrounded by restaurants that, ah, they all look vacant. [She sighs, shakes her head.] Gloom, huh?

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