Austin’s iconic Nau’s Enfield Drug hopes see to the business return to its heyday amid pandemic woes
First dates over frosty milkshakes. Family outings for juicy hamburgers.
Nau's Enfield Drug, which opened in 1951, has been a lot of things to a lot of people over its long history in Austin.
Laura Labay, manager of Nau's, at the store this month. Labay's parents, Lambert and Kathleen, purchased the store in 1971. (Kristin Finan)
For Laura Labay, it's a place that represents the shared dream of her parents, who purchased the business in 1971 just before she was born. It's the place where she grew up helping wipe down sticky booths by the soda fountain and where she still works, side by side with her 81-year-old dad, Lambert Labay, who, in addition to being the owner, has been a pharmacist there since 1963.
"Everyone's heard of Nau's. We're one of the top 10, top 5 businesses that Austin has always been unique for," said Laura Labay, who has managed the store for 23 years. "And we're one of a handful of businesses that still have that community connection and that history."
Kathleen and Lambert Labay at Nau's soda fountain in spring 1971, just after they'd purchased the store. Kathleen Labay was pregnant with daughter Laura at the time. (Laura Labay)
Now, due to a series of unfortunate events including the coronavirus pandemic, it's also another Austin institution that's struggling to survive.
"We've talked, unfortunately, a few times about closing. We're still trying to make ends meet," she said, adding that a combination of an emergency restaurant remodel and the pandemic made 2020 the year where "utterly our world crushed."
The Labays own Nau's, the business, but not the building in the Clarksville neighborhood where it's famously located at 1115 West Lynn St. In early 2020, prior to the onset of the pandemic, the cafe portion of the business closed because the property needed some updates including a new air conditioner. Due to the pandemic, however, many of those updates stalled—while the pharmacy and drug store have remained open, the once-famous café has now been shuttered for about a year.
"I really hope that comes back because Austin has lost so many iconic places," said Anne Rapp, a neighborhood resident and Nau's customer, after purchasing a lottery ticket inside the store. "It's places like Nau's that make Austin special and maintain its soul. I think the soul of a town is as important as anything."
A sign at the entrance of Nau's welcomes four-legged visitors. (Kristin Finan)
Rapp, who works in the film industry, said Nau's "reputation precedes it a little bit."
"I've had many times when big players in Hollywood, from Los Angeles to New York, come here for Austin Film Festival for the weekend," Rapp said. "On more than one occasion, I'll be knocking around with a lot of them and they'll say, 'Can you take me to Nau's? I've heard they have great breakfast.'"
Laura Labay, 49, agreed that the café and soda fountain, which featured never-frozen hamburger patties and from-scratch shakes and sodas, are the heartbeat of Nau's, estimating that sales are down 80% over typical years, "if not worse."
"I could put in a modern-day drink dispenser and modern coolers, but why would anyone come in for that?" she said. "They come in because it looks like a soda fountain. The café is really the driving force that is going to be our salvation."
Right now you can't sink your teeth into a juicy burger or saddle up at the soda fountain, and the store's selection of nostalgic candies, unique soaps and fun gift items is also limited due to difficulties sourcing those items amid the pandemic, but you can still pick up a newspaper, grab a prescription or even arrange a home delivery if you live nearby.
Lambert Labay, 81, is the owner of Nau's Enfield Drug, where he has worked as a pharmacist since 1963. He and his wife, Kathleen Labay, purchased the store in 1971. (Laura Labay)
Laura Labay said many of Nau's customers are more like family, adding that the neighborhood rallied to support the business after her father suffered a heart attack in 2016.
"It was just an outpouring of good faith from our neighbors, all walks of life were trying to help us, and they did. People have memories from growing up here and this is part of their lives," she said. "I don't think you could say that about your neighborhood Starbucks."
Laura Labay said she welcomes anyone who is interested in the café revitalization efforts or in helping to keep Nau's going, in general, to contact her directly.
"Most people would have given up, but I have a dream that this is going to come back to its heyday before my father retires," she said. "I just don't want people to forget about us. We're going to be back, and be better."
As Texas gets ready to lift the mandatory mask mandate on March 10, food and bar workers gathered at the Texas Capitol to express their frustration with the lack of COVID-19 precautions without adequate access to the COVID-19 vaccine.The event, which began at 1 p.m. on Monday, was hosted by the Austin chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, Restaurant Organizing Project and The Amplified Sound Coalition.
Christa McWhirter<p>Crystal Maher, a member of the Restaurant Organizing Project, stands in front of the Texas Capitol to express to other protesters in attendance how not being eligible for a vaccine has impacted her ability to safely keep her job. </p>
Christa McWhirter<p>Kiara Collins, Eric Santos and Taylor Escamilla are all essential workers who have been questioning their safety in their workplace. As many of the other protesters, the three wore masks with the word "Expendable" on it. According to Collins, they were only given to essential workers in attendance to represent how they have been treated since the onset of COVID-19.</p>
Christa McWhirter<p>As Maher continues to introduce speakers, two essential workers who came out to support the protest, record as counter-protesters heckled the event's speakers.</p>
Christa McWhirter<p>Some of the counter-protesters in attendance were live streamers from InfoWars, an extremist organization, who heckled speakers until the rally dispersed. </p>
Christa McWhirter<p>A representative of the Del Valle Community Coalition spoke about the impact the lack of vaccine access has had on the Del Valle area. As she attempted to give her speech, anti-masking protesters yelled at her causing many people to attempt to block them out.</p>
Christa McWhirter<p>Protesters blocked the way of anti-mask counter protesters as they heckled the event's speakers and held "My Body My Choice" signs. "It's kind of insane how they're using 'my body, my choice.' It doesn't only affect you. So it's not just your body," Taylor Escamilla said.</p>
Christa McWhirter<p>Jeanette Gregor, cofounder of Amplified Sound Coalition, also had to fend off counter-protesters as she gave an impassioned speech about the danger essential workers place themselves in by going to work and have yet to qualify for COVID-19 vaccine. </p>
Christa McWhirter<p>Around 2 p.m., State Troopers began to arrive at the Capitol amid heightening tensions from protesters and counter-protesters. As police presence began to increase, the event came to end about 15 minutes later. Despite the constant back and forth between sides and the arrival of law enforcement, the protest came to end peacefully.</p>
The world has changed drastically over the past year, and South by Southwest, one of Austin's most beloved institutions, has, too.
After being abruptly canceled by the city last year, one week before it was set to kick-off due to the increasing understanding of the potential impact of COVID-19, it returns this year in a virtual format March 16-20.
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Austin Public Health will release first dose COVID-19 vaccine appointments on a weekly basis starting Monday evening. The specific days and number of appointments made available will depend on the weekly allocation from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Previously, APH released first dose appointments on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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