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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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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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