As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Eater checked in with the Austin’s defining restaurants to see how the pandemic has affected business, service models, and more. First up in this series: Justine Gilcrease, owner of East Austin’s eccentric-chic French restaurant Justine’s.
Eater: How has business been so far?
Justine Gilcrease: So far, business has been good, and we are grateful. We reopened relatively late, on June 12, in order to restructure operations. This included switching to a reservation-only model, and changing our layout and our hours. Without the bar activity, and now that dinner service ends at 10 p.m. instead of 2 a.m., the vibe is a bit more tranquil than what we’re used to, but that lends itself to a more intimate dining experience.
What is the current service model?
Since the safest option is outdoor dining, we’ve expanded our patio and moved all but of a handful of tables outside, where we’ve created private, cabana-like dining areas with canopies, misting fans, and botanical partitions. The hostess is now stationed at the outside entry gate so that, immediately upon arrival, guests can be escorted to their tables, where they can then remove their masks. All staff wear masks at all times.
The patio at Justine’s, adjusted for COVID-19
Are you planning any changes due to COVID-19?
With COVID-19 numbers on the rise, we will do whatever we need to do to keep our community safe. If that means temporarily getting rid of the inside-dining options altogether or closing our doors again until the threat has abated, we will do so.
What safety measures are you currently implementing?
Requiring reservations and suspending bar service are two major safety measures that allow us to control arrival times, avoid unnecessary clusters, and limit party size to six people. Tables are now spaced 12 feet apart. There are new QR code touchless menus and we’ve adopted a no-cash policy. The restrooms are now single-use, and we’ve installed extra sinks and handwashing stations on the exterior to minimize the need to go inside (we only have three tables inside — well below 25 percent capacity). The main door stays open to limit shared surface contact, and we’ve installed an air-curtain to enhance air circulation.
Justine’s follows all CDC recommendations and is requiring guests to wear a face mask when moving about the restaurant and maintain six feet between diners not in their party.
We’ve also implemented our own internal scheduling guidelines: the same staff works three days on, four days off, at which point a different group takes over. If a staff member isn’t feeling well, he or she is asked not to come in, but will still receive wages. Justine’s has also increased management [the restaurant hired additional managers and had more managers on duty] to ensure that all safety procedures are being implemented at all times.
What are some surprises that you’ve encountered?
To be honest, I don’t think I could have ever predicted the level of anxiety, not simply as a business owner trying to stay afloat, but as a mother, a wife, daughter, friend, and employer, who understands the risks inherent in owning a restaurant at this time. By going to Justine’s, people are essentially trusting me with their safety. While that responsibility keeps me vigilant about safety measures (and up at night), knowing that the community trusts Justine’s, having reservations fill up, seeing familiar faces, even having everyone on our staff ready and willing to come back despite the lure of unemployment checks has been unbelievably beautiful and uplifting.
These responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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