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Salt & Time adjusts to the apocalypse
Mark Dewey

Rich Martinez and Sam Garrison at Salt & Time (Mark Dewey)

In 2013, two young butchers opened Salt & Time on Austin's East Side. Ben Runkle had a background in cured meats and had been running pop-up stores and a farmers market stand. Bryan Butler had been in charge of the meat department at Wheatsville Co-op. Together, they created an upscale shop and restaurant that buys whole carcasses directly from sustainable Texas ranchers.

Earlier this year, when Runkle saw that restaurants were closing in other cities because of the coronavirus, he began to have discussions with his managers. It was clear he would have to adjust his business to keep it alive and support his employees. Already having a retail component meant he had the licenses and know-how to make rapid changes.


When Salt & Time had to close its dine-in business, Runkle converted the restaurant's bar to a retail sales space. To help customers keep a safe distance from each other, he marked off six-foot increments along the bar. He had already been selling some food staples, and he increased the assortment, also adding vegetables in bulk. The shop also began selling a variety of prepared foods, alongside its take-out service.

The restaurant had been baking its own bread for years. It quadrupled its baking program, to make use of the extra capacity among its chefs and sous-chefs.

Vincent Tomasino, Salt & Time's retail manager, says regulars are coming into the shop, as well as people who do not usually frequent Salt & Time. He says customers are expressing gratitude that they can come to the shop instead of visiting large grocery stores.

While many are doubling down on staples, some still go for the luxury offerings.

"There are people eating well, living large, into the apocalypse," says Tomasino. "We sold a couple of wagyu rib eye yesterday to a guy who was celebrating his 30th birthday alone. He was going to cook himself a steak and practice the guitar."

The reorientation has been successful. Runkle says he has not had to lay off any employees and has been able to give his staff full hours. Sales are strong.

"From a financial perspective, we haven't had time to slow down and crunch the numbers," he says, "but compared to 99.9%, or even all of the other restaurants in town, we are in a healthy situation."

He is trying to help some other local restaurants by selling their products. Salt & Time carries pizza dough and sauce from Bufalina, pasta from L'Oca d'Oro and hot sauce and seasoning salt from Lenoir. Runkle also bought an unneeded supply of milk from a nearby coffee shop.

Salt & Time has been committed to sourcing from local farms. At the moment, the store is buying everything locally when it is available and occasionally bringing in other products from further away.

Runkle expects some supply-chain complications to arise as the coronavirus pandemic continues, and he thinks that local sourcing will allow Salt & Time to weather the crisis. Close contact with customers should also help guide the business.

"The fact that we have a clear and more direct relationship with our customers and suppliers will allow us to continue to serve through this craziness," he says. "We are ordering daily from farms, calling them up and finding out what they have available."


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