Two Local Vegan Powerhouses to Close This Month
But don’t despair, not all hope is lost
By A. Richmond,
4:42PM, Sun. Dec. 4, 2022
Still more independent restaurateurs are calling it quits ahead of the end of their lease, this time, a double blow to the plant-based food community in Austin. On the same day, Counter Culture and Skull & Cakebones announced their closure ahead of 2023.
The thoughtful, colorful, comfort-food cafe Counter Culture, run by Sue Davis, will close at the end of December. The vegan spot originated in 2009 as a beautiful blue food truck, then moved into a location on North Loop, and finally touched down on East Cesar Chavez, serving customers craveable meals for the last 11 years.
Via an Instagram post, Counter Cafe owner-chef Davis said, “I don’t have a clear picture of what the future will hold for Counter Culture, the way people eat out has changed. I love Austin wholeheartedly but with the rising costs I’m not sure it’s feasible to rent again, and buying seems like a faraway dream.”
I had to ask: How has the way people eat out changed in the last ten-plus years?
In many ways, Davis said, and it’s not just the pandemic. It’s also real estate, and the way we work now. We talked on the phone the same day she posted that the cafe would close December 26. About running a cafe, she said, “It’s not the same game. Our lunches have really changed, they’ve gone down, by about 60%. All of our regulars work from home now. We used to have lunch meetings, many lunch meetings every day. Like an 8-12 top. That’s gone. We used to have about 20% to-go orders. Now, it’s about 40% to-go orders. Hopefully people will come back to eat inside like they used to. Then the homes in this area in general have transitioned to Airbnbs, meaning less families living nearby. Food costs have gone up, the companies all have ordering minimums when they didn't before. Plus new fees for delivery. It’s across the board. A lot of factors, nothing terrible.”
Davis explained that she’d planned to be in her current location for 10 years and buy a building of her own. Then Covid hit, then everything shot up in price.
She said without bitterness, “Everything crumbled. Prices at locations I was looking at went up from $800k to $2 million in a year. When you rent, you're liable for the buildout, and the AC, and the plumbing. I could easily put $100K into (this location). But we’ve kind of grown out of the kitchen a bit. If I owned this building, I would tear down a wall. do some major renovations.”
She continued, “A lot of commercial real estate is bought by developers or restaurant groups, I’m just one person. I keep my ear to the ground. I’ve looked at a lot of abandoned buildings that people say they don’t want to sell, or the price is astronomical. Or, they tell me they don’t want to sell, and I see a commercial real estate sign at that location a bit later. Then I watch as the building sits empty.”
As Davis knew the timeline for her business plan was coming to a close, someone offered to take over her lease a few months early, and she took the opportunity.
“The owner of Arlo’s is going to buy out my last couple of months. I’ve been in a 5% rent increase through my 11-year lease. Now my landlord can raise the rent a bit more. I have a great landlord, we’ve had a great relationship. After 11 years, I’m still really hands on. I’m in the kitchen every day. I wouldn’t mind a break to regroup.”
Staffing has been hard, Davis said. But she gave her staff a month’s notice, and is planning a party so that Counter Culture can close on a celebratory note. “I only have a staff of 12, but some of them have been with me for many years, and we’re like a family. We have some time, there’s going to be lots of food, there’s going to be a party.”
Along with making only vegan dishes, Davis made everything from scratch, down to the ketchup and mayo. And keeping costs low to the customer is still a priority for her.
“I don’t want to make the $15 veggie burger. I want to make affordable food. I want to be able to feed everyone. If I get to own a building, I’ll have more control over that.”
On the same day that Counter Culture announced its imminent closure, vegan baking powerhouse Skull & Cakebones announced the sudden closure of their Dripping Springs cafe, market and wholesale bakery, also via Instagram. They’ve operated out of that location for seven years, maintaining a national and local presence.
Owned by Yauss Berenji and Sascha Biesi, Skull & Cakebones’ playful, yummy vegan treats appeal to the kid in all of us, and they offer a range of sophisticated pastries and savory items. Along with plant-based food, their focus is on promoting local brands that are led by women, BIPOC individuals, and/or members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Skull & Cakebones owner Yauss Berenji was fiercely optimistic, untethered to expectations, and enjoying this time of ambiguity. Because the future of her business isn’t quite clear. The wholesale bakery has a chance to transition, and the cafe may return in some iteration, but right now everything is up in the air.
“It’s bittersweet for sure. We have plans that aren't finalized yet.”
Like Davis at Counter Cafe, Berenji said that a series of factors led to the hard decision to close. “We put a lot of money and time in the last seven years in this location, and we live in Dripping Springs. The two big factors for us were rent inflation, and a lack of labor source in the area.”
Skull & Cakebones relocated from Austin to Dripping Springs knowing it would be a little bit harder from the labor force perspective.
“The rapid growth in the area was super affluent, if that makes sense. And It’s not just Dripping Springs.”
Their landlord told the bakery that, because of the increase in his property taxes, he needed to increase the rent.
In 2021, Skull & Cakebones opted for a month-to-month lease, instead of a five-year option. Berenji said, “we decided to see how it would play out. At the time that was beneficial for us. We paid full rent through the pandemic. We didn't get any rent relief. We were just keeping it all at bay. Our landlord talked to us at the end of the summer, then we kinda got hit with the news that things would change rapidly when we were at ACL.”
They were offered close to a 40% increase in rent.
Berenji explained her vision for her soon-to-be-former location.
“Our intention with the brick-and-mortar was to use it as a test market for our wholesale products. When you’re wholesale, you don’t get that one on one interaction with or feedback from customers. Having that storefront for us was important. Community is important. There isn’t really a plant-based space for people. And we had menu development questions like, ‘Do people want honey mustard? Do they want balsamic?’”
As a potential deal hangs in the balance, (she hopes to have “some essence of finalization in the coming week”), Benrenji, like Davis, needs time to take a breath.
“All the issues that came with the pandemic still exist, and in many ways things are harder now, especially in the restaurant world. Or we can say, okay, let’s look at this opportunity: we can do anything we want, in a way. We looked at who we are, what we have become in the last seven years. Then, at things we could modify. Can We still grow our business, and focus on things that have been on the back burner?”
On the back burner, Berenji said, is the desire for a more intimate setting to create more elevated dishes. Plant-based, of course. Not that she’s turning her back on baking.
“We started in the bakery world. I’ll always be a baker.” But Berenji wants Skull & Cakebones to transition into not fine dining perhaps, but “more supper-clubby. I’m hoping to make those one-off evenings, to do something where it benefits the community.”
The local plant-based community?
Berenji laughed, “You don’t even have to be plant based!”
Admitting that “the last few years have been really hard” in the restaurant world, Berenji said she was forced into some major introspection.
“We had to sit down and evaluate: do we want to be done? Do we believe in what we’re doing, and can it be salvaged? In that space, whatever decisions we made, it was starting over in some way. What do we want to do in a perfect world where nothing matters? How can we take the things we’ve learned and do something with that? Because we’re not done, and not ready to be done. We just can’t keep doing it in the same way that we have been.”