Business isn't bad at restaurants reopened at low capacity, but 'you can't really make a living like that'
Manuel's Mexican Restaurant on Jollyville Road in Northwest Austin reopened for dine-in and take-out on May 2 after being closed for seven weeks. It was one day after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order, allowing some businesses to reopen at 25% capacity, took effect.
"If we don't jump through this window now and try to get reopened, there's a pretty good chance we never will," co-owner Jennifer McNevin said of her decision-making process.
But reopening a restaurant is a challenging equation, local restaurateurs said, and different eateries have found different solutions.
After spending long days applying for federal assistance, calling congressmen and cancelling automatic payments to vendors, McNevin had to switch gears when Abbott announced the rule change. She reinstated 80 employees on her payroll, trained them in new safety protocols meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 and ordered food.
"There's a million things that you don't even anticipate," McNevin said. "And then you're worried, Will anyone even come to the restaurant with all the fear?"
Since reopening, McNevin said Manuel's has seen "really great business every single day" and both staff and patrons have embraced new safety protocols, such as tables being spaced six feet apart.
Manuel's downtown location, on Congress Avenue, remains closed because most office buildings and hotels are still empty. McNevin is hopeful the governor will allow restaurants to expand capacity to 50% soon.
"We have two restaurants, and only one is reopened right now, and it's only reopened at 25% capacity," McNevin said. "You can't really make a living like that."
A few blocks away, III Forks Steakhouse is open on a reservation-only basis, in addition to take-out service. "We'd been prepping for it for many weeks," General Manager Brian Kelley said of the governor's order. On May 1, the dining room reopened at 15% capacity, to allow staff time to adjust to new safety protocols—such as kitchen timers signaling when it's time to change protective equipment—and manage traffic flow around the restaurant. It has since expanded to 25% capacity.
Demand for reservations outpaces supply and hasn't cut into the restaurant's take-out service, Kelley said. Patrons have also been "extremely courteous," tipping generously and adjusting to the safety protocols.
But Kelley echoed McNevin's financial concerns. Dine-in service has improved cash flow and helped the restaurant keep some of its staff employed—at least for now. "Ultimately we're not where we need to be," he said. "We can't be at this level of business forever."
For Mike Black, co-owner of Terry Black's Barbecue on Barton Springs Road, the decision to reopen was financially motivated—but not by his business' bottom line.
"The reason for being open was to get my employees back to work," Black said, adding that many of his employees either didn't qualify for unemployment benefits or did and never received any.
Since opening Tuesday, Black has rehired about 70% of his staff, despite not seeing as much business as anticipated. "It's to be determined in the next week or two how big of a loss we're going to take bringing these people back," he said. "But we're willing to take those losses if it means getting a paycheck in their pocket for the time being."
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