By Paul Stephen, Mike Sutter and Chuck Blount, Staff writers
Hungry San Antonians will find a different dining landscape awaiting them Friday after Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision allowing Texas restaurants to reopen dining rooms that day at 25 percent capacity — but just how different is yet to be seen.
Several restaurant owners say they can’t make the numbers work with just 25 percent of capacity and will stay closed or continue to offer takeout only. But even those eager to open have no idea if they’ll be able to attract enough customers to make opening worth it.
San Antonio’s dining scene has been unrecognizable since March 18, when Mayor Ron Nirenberg ordered restaurants and bars to close their dining rooms to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, some owners have shifted their businesses to a takeout or delivery model while others have shuttered completely during the outbreak.
Within hours of Monday’s announcement, restaurateurs citywide were weighing which of their properties would be worth reopening and what levels of staffing they’d need to make those businesses run smoothly within Abbott’s new safety guidelines, which include maintaining a 6-foot distance between customers, screening employees for illness, using disposable menus for each new customer and other measures.
Staffing all those shuttered dining rooms will be among the first challenges owners will face with much of the restaurant workforce currently laid off from their previous jobs.
Andy Hughes, who’s been in food service more than 20 years, most recently worked at Stone Oak restaurant Full Belly Cafe and Bar. He doesn’t see much financial benefit to operating a restaurant under such tight restrictions.
“I’m kind of torn. I want to get back to work as much as the next person, but I just don’t see how it’ll work,” Hughes said. “Twenty-five percent capacity just isn’t doable for any restaurant. It’ll slow the bleeding, but you’ll still end up going out of business.”
Hughes is also keenly aware of the potential exposure to the coronavirus he’d experience while waiting tables and the cost associated with enacting more safety protocols during service.
“I just don’t know as an employee how much protection there will be for us. Clearly, guests won’t wear masks while eating. And the amount of waste, I’m guessing there will be five pairs of gloves per table. Every time you drop off drinks or pick up plates. You could easily wind up going through a case of gloves in a night, and that adds up.”
For restaurants that shuttered completely, the May 1 date means starting from scratch with new staff; probably a new, more limited menu; and brand-new safety practices, and the numbers just don’t add up for some.
Braunda Moody Smith, co-owner of restaurant and bar Lucy Cooper’s Texas Ice House, said that for now, she’s going to keep her property boarded up and doesn’t plan to reopen until mid-May. May 18 is the date when restaurants would be able to go up to 50 percent capacity if all goes well with this new phase.
“Really, 25 percent occupancy doesn’t do a lot for us. That would be like 50 people, and if 10 of those are staff, there’s almost zero profit in opening the doors.”
Diana Barrios Treviño initially closed her four properties: Los Barrios, La Hacienda De Los Barrios, La Hacienda Scenic Loop and Viola’s Ventanas. She rehired about 20 people to help prepare heat-and-eat meals sold at various area H-E-B stores, and she intends to continue that for the time being.
That staff allowed her to gradually reopen her restaurants for takeout service over the past few weeks. She said she has enough staff on hand to operate at the 25 percent capacity mark and plans to open all her restaurants Friday. She said additional employees will be brought on as the permitted capacity grows.
“We’re still deciding the hours. It’ll probably be lunch and dinner,” Barrios Treviño said. “We will be cautious. We’ll continue wearing our masks. We will be monitoring all of our employees and taking care of them. We have a lot of people that want to come back to work.”
Some restaurateurs with multiple properties spent the day debating which ones made sense to unlock Friday.
Steve Mahoney, who owns several San Antonio restaurants and bars, was already looking over the licenses and certificates of occupancy for all six of his properties to see which ones he could open Friday. He plans to have Francis Bogside and Tucker’s Kozy Korner — both of which stayed open selling takeout — and Hanzo open at the mandated 25 percent occupancy limit.
Throughout the shutdown, Mahoney has kept all his managers and kitchen staff on payroll and hopes to fill in other staff positions as needed during the transition.
“We always knew that we had to be ready for a comeback. … So we never got to a skeleton staff situation, and we will be ready to go,” Mahoney said. “I have no idea how profitable or sustainable we can be with a 25 or 50 percent occupancy, and we also still need to discover how willing the public will be to come out again.”
Restaurateur Jean-Francois Poujol will be able to reopen one of his Beacon Hill restaurants, SoHill Cafe, but not Julia’s Bistro & Bar, the French restaurant Poujol owns just two doors down on Blanco. Both closed shortly after restaurant dining rooms were shut down a month ago.
SoHill’s dining room likely will reopen Friday, and it will begin offering takeout before that, on Tuesday. “At 25 percent, we can make it work,” he said, adding that 25 percent matches his best projections for operating strictly with takeout.
But he’s finding it a challenge to rehire staff, as enhanced unemployment benefits are making it harder to lure some of them back. And a disrupted supply chain means even the basic meats and vegetables he needs are hard to come by.
The numbers just don’t work for higher-end Julia’s.
“At 25 percent, I can’t hire enough staff to make it like it was before,” he said. “I could do it with a different menu, but not now.” Poujol said Julia’s dining room might be able to reopen under the 50 percent rules.
Chef Jason Dady plans to open Tre Trattoria and Two Bros. BBQ Market on Friday.
“We will most likely allow patio dining at Two Bros. right out of the gate,” he said. He added that Tre might open with 12 to 14 tables indoors and out.
Dady had to trim his staff from around 250 workers to 12 throughout the properties, including Range, which closed. To boost the bottom line, Dady just launched Jason Dady at Home prepared meals for five H-E-B stores. Sales begin Tuesday, including antipasti and Tuscan Bolognese from Tre Trattoria, brisket chili from Two Bros. and wild mushroom bisque from Range.
Still, if you build it, they will come isn’t reality, and there’s no guarantee the dining public will be lining up to take a seat at those restaurants Friday.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last week indicates that 80 percent of Americans support the efforts taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus so far and that the same percentage would willingly comply with those regulations for at least another month.
David Tapia certainly isn’t in a hurry to get back out there. The San Antonio resident is a regular and enthusiastic supporter of the city’s restaurant scene, eating out three to five times per week. He’s also the founder of Exegete Healthcare International, a consulting firm that works closely with the medical field.
“A little anxious is what I am,” Tapia said Monday afternoon after Abbott’s announcement. “I hear direct feedback from physicians and clinicians, and really, we have to balance the people over profits. … You can’t always trust the general public to be knowledgeable of the best practices.”
Tapia said he plans to continue supporting San Antonio restaurants that offer curbside and delivery options until the coronavirus spread shows a significant decline. And he’s not alone.
There aren’t many San Antonio restaurant customers more enthusiastic and devoted than Richard Balderas, a retired UPS driver who eats out three times a day — he hasn’t cooked for himself in 20 years, he said — and posts his daily takeout trips to Maria’s Cafe, 2M Smokehouse, Bakery Lorraine and others on Instagram under the handle @eatdrinkandberichard. But even he has his doubts.
“I’m not ready to go back,” he said. “It’s just too soon. I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing my family. I’m prepared to sit out all of May and see how this goes.”
Paul Stephen is a food and drink reporter and restaurant critic in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Paul, become a subscriber. email@example.com | Twitter: @pjbites | Instagram: @pjstephen