With social distancing becoming an ever-growing focus in America due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants in Texas have had to transition to take-out and delivery options, with dining-in prohibited.
For any restaurant that features a dining room, this loss of revenue is critical as businesses are forced to reduce working hours and cut back on how many people they employ, further damaging the community.
Chris Berry, partner of River Smith’s Chicken & Catfish and Chapter President of the Lubbock Restaurant Association, said the loss of dining room revenue has put a strain on every business in the area, even the larger, corporate restaurants.
However, in the case of local restaurateurs, their business is how they provide for their families, and closing up for the duration of the pandemic isn't an option for these local businesses.
“It's affected all of us and we're not the only industry,” Berry said. “I don't think there's an industry that’s immune to it, but we felt it pretty hard. Some of the restaurants here in town, mainly those connected to national chains, just decided to shut down in the midst of this until everything blows over. But a lot of the deeply locally rooted restaurants are fighting to stay alive and are doing the best we can and really evolving almost every day into something new.”
In addition to offering drive-thru, delivery, carry-out and catering, River Smith’s also offers grocery pickup or delivery. While prices might not be as cheap as Walmart-brand items, Berry said it’s just one more service his restaurant can provide to customers.
“You know, there's no precedent for this obviously so it's new to all of us,” Berry said. “We're doing the best we can to follow safety precautions, make sure our employees and our customers are safe and make sure we're able to provide either a hot meal or a bag full of groceries at a reasonable price and keep as many of our staff employed as possible.”
While the past few weeks have brought on tough decisions and situations for many members of the Lubbock Restaurant Association, Berry said the members he talked to have stayed resilient despite the pandemic, which he attributes to their backgrounds in the industry.
“A lot of us have started as dishwashers or busters in our early days in the industry, so a lot of us worked our way up from nothing to something,” Berry said. “We had to fight for every single square inch and every single penny. A lot of us aren't here by luck or by chance. We're here because we fought for it tooth and nail. So the same goes for continuing forward.”
With the economic panic and reduction in restaurant business, grocery stores have shouldered a large portion of the burden in feeding the community. Berry said if the local restaurants decided to close up shop, the grocery stores would struggle with the further increased demand in food.
“You know, just because it's a crisis doesn't mean we ‘all have to go home’ for lack of better terminology,” Berry said. “There's still things we can do to help the community and help each other. If all of us were to shut down and say ‘you know this is too much’ or ‘this is too hard,’ the grocery stores would not be able to handle the volume of putting food on everyone's table week in and week out, as we know this is going to be a prolonged event.”
Loyd Turner, president of local restaurants Orlando’s and Caprock Cafe, said his businesses have not been hurt as badly due to the pandemic, as his businesses have saved up over the years in case of emergencies, much like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have savings, so we saved for a rainy day,” Turner said. “I'm old school, I don’t like a lot of debt. I think you’re supposed to save for a rainy day, even though saving rates are horrible. Corporately we have an emergency fund. So, it's an emergency. So, we're blessed to be able to tap into that. We planned for a rainy day, but we didn't know this was going to happen.”
Despite the emergency fund, Turner said cuts still had to be made across his four restaurants, with what was once an almost combined 350-person staff down to just 100 people. While a portion of those were college students who left following the closure of campus, Turner said most of the cooks and managers were able to be retained in the process.
“We had some people that wanted to work or we re-purposed them to be delivery drivers or phone people or curbside people, so we re-purposed as many as we could and kept them employed,” Turner said. “We were able to keep our management staff on and our key employees in our kitchen pretty much intact. They're still working, so that's how we're able to make the food and do it right.”
While the pandemic has mostly been negative for many businesses, Turner said he found the positive side in all of this in the ability to remodel some of his four dining rooms while the state-wide closure remains in place, an opportunity that would have never been possible under normal business activity.
“We’d never be able to shut down Orlando’s downtown, we couldn't afford it, but now with the dining room and the main kitchen shut down, we have two kitchens, so we're able to replace the carpet in the dining room and paint the walls and, you know, clean the floors and clean everything just really spotless,” Turner said. “So when we open they walk into a fresh, clean and painted, with new carpet, experience. There's no way we could have done it when we're open.”
While the previous few weeks have been far from enjoyable for Turner, his preparations and planning have made this transition easier, and even allowed him to draw some positives from it. When the dining rooms are cleared to reopen, he said he hopes they come back better because of the changes that could be made during the shutdown.
“I don't think I've been as tired in my whole life during that two week process,” Turner said. “Getting up at 3 A.M. Just the adrenaline rush from staying up all day. Working, not getting enough sleep, doing it again. Just running and running and trying to adapt. So, this is the first day I felt like this is the new ‘almost normal,’ you know, but now we're faced with maybe now nobody can be out at all, so we’ll see how that looks, but surely people come back.”
Joe Keller, owner of Triple J Chophouse, said the change to delivery and carry-out has been especially hard for his business as 95% of his business came from dine-in customers because it was a traditional sit-down restaurant.
“We didn't deliver anything before, we're starting to do that now,” Keller said, “And carry-out. Carry-out or curbside or however you want to order it, it was probably maybe 1% of our total sales. We barely ever have carry out, maybe 2% or so.”
For Keller, the lack of business has resulted in several people being unemployed. Without dine-in options, he has had to reduce hours with the owners, Keller and his wife Tish, and the managers running everything. The faster the COVID-19 pandemic is over, the better for his business, Keller said.
“Well, for us, the sooner the better. I mean, I have my entire hourly staff kitchen and front of the house unemployed,” Keller said, “also, I don't have a position for them because I'm not doing much business. I'm not doing any sales, so therefore I can't employ my guys, you know.”