Uchi group CEO sees ‘a vibrant restaurant community on the other side’ of pandemic, ‘but it's going to be a battle for everybody’
If someone had asked Tony Montero two months ago if his restaurant group's award-winning upscale eatery, Uchi Austin, would be serving its sushi dishes to go, he would have said no.
"That's not really us," said Montero, chief executive officer of Hai Hospitality, which operates Uchi restaurants in Austin, Houston, Dallas and Denver.
But Uchi—like nearly 4,000 other restaurants in Austin—has had to adapt its epicurean identity after closing in-house dining to suppress the spread of coronavirus.
Suddenly, the artistry and elegance that helped define owner/chef Tyson Cole's Uchi, which opened in 2003 and has received national acclaim for its cuisine and presentation, was being served up in to-go containers in the parking lot.
It was a 180-degree turn, surprising in its appeal to fine-dining customers, and particularly for Montero, whose job it is to maintain brand identity as well as experiential quality in the Hai group of seven restaurants.
But, as Montero said, "the word of the year now is 'pivot.'"
"We're seeing comments from guests … raving about having this private, intimate Uchi experience in their home, which has been amazing to see," Montero said.
In addition to the Uchi restaurants, Hai also operates Loro, a more casual Asian smokehouse, as well as Uchiko in Austin and Uchiba in Dallas. Plans to open a Dallas Loro this October are delayed, but still on, he said.Those that didn't serve to-go before will continue even after the crisis passes, he said.
It's among many changes afoot for the Hai restaurants in this pandemic-era restaurant culture.
Uchi's menu is now defined by what's available from Texas and the East and West coasts, after restrictions and supply issues shut down daily fish shipments, such as their black snapper, from Japan in March, Montero said.
"I'd never designed a restaurant that was trying to put in less seating," he said.
The Uchi restaurants and Loro secured funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, kept much of the staff on full time, and kept all employees on health insurance, Montero said.
The company is "doing fine," he said, "for now."
"But it's going to be a battle for everybody," he said, particularly with projections that most people won't dine out in the first few months out of health-related and economic concerns.
"It has been incredibly sad to see great places, and someone's life work, suddenly close," he said.
Predictions by some experts that 20% of restaurants may close are worrying, Montero said, but the dining-out culture won't die.
"There's going to be a vibrant restaurant community on the other side," he said.
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With a taste of MLS play under their belts, Austin FC is entering the second half of a scoreless inaugural match.
The club has been given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
The two breaks aside, Austin FC has been holding their own against the match favorites. In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team has been quick and intense, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. ATXFC has also kept about equal possession with LAFC, although their shot attempts haven't been quite as nervewracking as the home team.
LAFC has given goalkeeper Brad Stuver some scares with 11 shot attempts, four of them on goal. By contrast, Austin FC has had five shots on goal.
LA has pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense isn't as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and defensive midfielder Alex Ring has shown the qualities that make him captain as he leads his teammates through their first ever match.
Will Austin FC win against the odds? It's tough to tell, but Austonia will keep you updated!