Bouldin Creek Cafe Holds Curbside Steady and Prepares for Return
Leslie Martin's longtime vegan diner goes back to this future ASAP
The inside of Bouldin Creek Cafe, the longtime vegan restaurant flaunting its joyous neo-hippie vibe at the corner of South First and Mary, is devoid of customers. The main dining area, shuttered to the public for over a year now, its once-busy tables grouped to make a handy working surface or pushed against the walls alongside stacks and stacks of formerly welcoming chairs, has become the staging area for the venue's thriving curbside service.
Is "thriving" the right word, though? Is that what Bouldin Creek Cafe is actually doing?
"We've been really lucky," says Leslie Martin, who opened the beloved neighborhood diner back in 2000, starting out in a smaller building down the road – where McGuire Moorman Hospitality's Elizabeth Street Cafe now livens the coordinates.
"Our curbside is pretty robust," says Martin, "and surprisingly so. We didn't know what to expect last spring – we didn't know the pandemic situation was going to go on for so long – so we closed for the lockdown and opened up curbside to get some cash flow."
That's not precisely an easy shift in operations, especially for a place known for its in-person friendliness and the joys of lingering among like-minded locals, for catching up with your besties over coffee and muffins and spicy tofu scrambles.
"At first, we thought it wasn't going to last very long," says Martin with a rueful chuckle. "We thought things would be shut down for maybe a few months and we'd just tighten up and make things really efficient, have minimal labor just to get through. And then it just kept going and going. And we were never finding the right time to change things. We added some tables out in the yard, where people could eat their takeout; there was no service or anything, no access to bathrooms, just a place to sit and eat your takeout if you wanted to. But on the weekends, with our curbside business going, too, that became – it was like, wow, I really need to focus on getting the curbside orders correct, and I really don't want to expand into some intermediate phase, some middle-ground thing that's maybe gonna make us not as efficient. And so, a lot of time passed, and this curbside service is what we have now. Our parking lot seems small when the restaurant is open, but right now it's like 20 spots for deluxe curbside parking."
And is it thriving? Is Bouldin Creek Cafe, for instance, still fully staffed? Is the day-to-day operation anywhere near the level of, ah –
"We have about half of our former staff, maybe less," says Martin. She takes a sip of tea, shrugs at the helpless inevitability. "Some people moved away, some went to school. There are people who were learning coding, who finally had time to finish it. And people just want different things. Everybody's been taking stock, you know? About what's important, and what they want to deal with, and what changes they want to make in their life. So we encouraged people to pursue those things, and we thought really hard about what we want from our business. And that left us with this small crew. And we're trying to build back up, but it's quite overwhelming. We need to take care of some maintenance things, and we were waiting, until we were closer to opening up again, to do that. But now the vaccines have rolled out so fast, and –"
Martin shakes her head. A fan continues turning slowly overhead, stirring motes of dust through the big room's vault of shadow and light.
"It seemed, at first, that it was gonna take forever," she says. "But things changed so quickly, and now we're feeling a little behind. And I want to do it right when we reopen, because, in a lot of ways, it does feel like we're starting over."
And has the government – the weaponized bureaucracy that's putatively meant to enrich or at least enable its constituents – has it been any help during these difficult times?
Martin nods. "We're on the Texas Workforce Commission's Shared Work program," she says, "and, because of our reduced hours, we get some supplemental benefits through the CARES Act – and that helps us to be able to have a few more people. And we received a legacy grant from the city, too. Well, we got the first round, but were denied the second round. But there are only 25 places that got the second round, and there's a lot of competition. And now there's the American Rescue Plan, and we've received some help from that, too."
Well, damn, sometimes the system actually works. And all of that, and the vaccines, means Bouldin Creek Cafe will be reopening real soon, right? All those regulars, circling like airplanes in a yearlong holding pattern, waiting for permission to land in their caffeine-dealing, completely meatless happy place once again: They'll be welcomed back in no time? Couple of weeks from now, at the most?
"We're thinking August," says Martin. "I'd like to reopen completely, to get to a point where enough people feel comfortable dining in so we can open all the way at once. Because we spent all this energy this year, working and fine-tuning a curbside system, and I don't want to build another system that's temporary, to figure out how to deal with 50% and then abandon all that and move to 100%. I just wanna rip the Band-Aid off, you know? But maybe have a soft opening, to get used to things again – because we haven't served tables in a year, and we're a little rusty over here! And there are so many unknowns right now: What are people going to be expecting from us? What will they be comfortable with? What will customers like or not like, because now they're tuned into things they never really looked at before?"
But certainly, at the end of the day – and at the beginning and in the middle of the day, too, for that matter – certainly it's the food that people will be most tuned into?
"I feel like that's been our saving grace," says Martin. "The vegan community in Austin, they've been the main ones to come out and support curbside, and I'm super thankful, and I think they'll be the main ones to come back when we're open. There's something about our food that's like comfort food. I've had people say it reminds them of something their mom would cook them at home. Bouldin Creek Cafe, there's just something comforting about the place, the people, and the food – and right now people are looking for that. Is it because of serotonin or whatever? I don't know. But we're looking for things that will make us feel good."
Bouldin Creek Cafe1900 S. First,