Weeks before longtime University of Texas favorite Poke Bay is set to close, business has been booming as a viral TikTok pushed the family-owned restaurant to its biggest sales day to date.
The shop, situated on the Drag, closed for two hours Tuesday afternoon after selling out in the lunchtime rush. That rush came thanks to owners Paul and Priscilla Song's daughter, Angelica, who asked TikTok users to help support her parent's business before the university takes over the building in the coming weeks.
@_angelicasong help me get on Austin tok! 🥲🥲🥲 Poke Bay in Austin TX @ UT Austin campus #atx #austintx #utaustin ♬ original sound - Angelica Song
UT Austin bought Poke Bay alongside four other businesses in December 2021. According to Angelica, her parents will be left with no help from the university as they look to relocate and continue to recover from the pandemic.
In an update, Angelica said the line wrapped around the door before the couple closed its doors to restock.
@_angelicasong Reply to @luvsarahtonin !! KEEP BOOSTING AND PLS TAG UR FAV BRANDS to work with AAPI talent. I’m going to surprise my parents w a fat check 🤪🤪 #pokebayaustin ♬ original sound - Angelica Song
The original TikTok has received 1.6 million views and 318,000 likes.
When asked about giving compensation or relocation assistance to businesses affected by the purchase, UT spokesperson Eliska Padilla said: "As the university continues to find ways to serve our students, provide additional housing options, and advance our educational mission, we acknowledge the challenges created by our growth — especially combined with Austin’s growth. We ppreciate the role local businesses have in our campus community, and we will engage them in conversations about other university options for relocation."
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Making plans around reservations made a month out aren't going anywhere.
According to OpenTable, seated dining in Austin has been up by anywhere from 7-59% since late March compared to 2019. In addition to being up against upward-trending traffic, reservations are also rising: OpenTable’s Mother’s Day reservations are up at least 34% in Austin compared to 2019.
Plus, the National Restaurant Association said the most common plans for tech investments included a focus on “online or app ordering, reservations, mobile payment, or delivery management,” so reservations aren’t going away anytime soon.
So why is the need for reservations in restaurants going up?
While foot traffic seems to have made a full recovery, the throes of the pandemic have left some scars on the industry. According to Yelp Austin Community Manager and born-and-raised Texan Tomas Rey, reservations are one of them.
Between Austin’s explosive growth in the past few years and dust settling after the pandemic had restaurateurs constantly juggling changing restrictions, Rey said one of the reasons Austinites are seeing an increased need for reservations is to manage losses.
“A lot of these higher rated restaurants, like four to five stars, require reservations but it's also the mom and pop shops,” Rey said. “A lot of these restaurants are just trying to stay open, and are operating day to day. It's really more of them being able to account for the ingredients they need to prep for or how many people are actually going to be there.”
While it isn’t the case for every restaurant, Rey said making and keeping a reservation is one of the best ways a restaurant can prepare, especially in times of financial strife.
“Their bottom line does make a difference for every day and reservations are a way for them to know how many people actually want to be a part of it,” Rey said. “I think this is our way as a consumer to rally support for local businesses by understanding that this is what keeps (restaurants from) overextending themselves.”
Sometimes trends drive reservation traffic
Built by McGuire Moorman Hospitality, Sammie’s shares the same managing company behind trendy restaurants like Perla’s, Elizabeth St. Cafe, Josephine House, Pool Burger and Swedish Hill.
Aaron, who declined to give his last name to avoid backlash, said walk-ins were rarely taken while he was bartending at new downtown restaurant Sammie's Italian, 807 W. 6th St.
On average, Aaron said reservations were booked three months out. Currently, the first-weekend reservation for two is unavailable until Sunday, June 5, at 9:15 p.m.
“It was very rare to walk in and be able to sit in the dining room—walk-ins would always be shown to the bar,” Aaron said. “But they would also reserve the bar if anyone wanted that, so there were nights where we had no one sitting at the bar until 7:30 p.m. because it was fully reserved.”
Reservations at Sammie’s were particularly in high demand, Aaron said, because the restaurant would only release a portion online and offer the rest to diners to book in advance at the end of their meal.
“When people would come to the restaurant, have a great time and want to come back they would have an option and opportunity to do that—we would instruct them to talk to a manager and see what we can do for them,” Aaron said. “It was kind of the Sammie’s motto and goal to be able to make someone even happier than they already were on their way out.”
Reservations are the “new normal”
While having to make a reservation used to bother him, Rey said that like using QR codes for menus, he believes reservations are here to stay.
However, if reservations are not your thing, Rey recommends being willing to make an adventure out of finding your meal, utilizing Yelp’s waitlist figure to get on the restaurant’s list ahead of time or finding a restaurant that reserves space for walk-ins, like Aba. Another trick for parties of 2 is gambling on open bar seating.
“I feel like this is just kind of the new normal when going out for dining or for libations,” Rey said.
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Demand for office space in Austin has hit a record high in the early part of this year and placed the capital city as one of the top markets in the U.S. for office development.
According to a new report by real estate group CBRE, competition for offices has surged average asking rates to more than $53 per square foot in Austin. This is the first time rates were more than $50 since the company began tracking in 1989.
Aside from office and building space analysis, the report says the overall economic health of the Austin metro is “robust” with an unemployment rate lowering since March 2021 and population growth that’s come with company relocations and expansions.
CBRE says this trend has been spearheaded by Apple’s Northwest Austin campus and Tesla’s gigafactory which held its grand opening last week. And it won't slow down anytime soon. The report goes on to mention Oxford Economics data that forecasts a population increase of roughly 243,000 people over the next five years.
“Following two disruptive years, the Austin office market is bouncing back from the COVID-induced slump,” the report says. “As daily COVID cases continued to decline substantially in Austin, there has been an uptick in employees returning to the workplace in early 2022.”
The tech industry has driven a return to the office lately. Kastle Systems’ back to work barometer shows the Austin metro at 63% occupancy, a slight increase from late March. Just this week, Apple joined other tech giants like Meta with easing employees out of remote work.
The tech boom has also contributed to developers’ interest in multi-use skyscrapers downtown and is where many of the new towers under construction are located.
In total, there are 30 projects totaling 5.8 million square feet of office space under construction. But CBRE reports that downtown accounts for 39% of the market’s new office construction. Just below that is East Austin, which accounts for 35% of new office construction.
Other highlights from the report include a drop in vacancy and the sublease market contracting, CBRE says.
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