Some businesses in Lake Travis and Austin areas are ready for in-store operations, others need more time

Jack Allen's locations throughout the Greater Austin area will reopen for takeout orders May 1. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)
Jack Allen's locations throughout the Greater Austin area will reopen for takeout orders May 1. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)

Jack Allen's locations throughout the Greater Austin area will reopen for takeout orders May 1. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)

Reactions so far are mixed from restaurant owners in the Lake Travis and Austin area when it comes to the governor's plan to allow certain businesses to open at 25% capacity starting May 1.

If all goes well and the number of COVID-19 cases don't spike, a second phase may allow increased operations to accommodate 50% capacity starting May 18.

Gov. Greg Abbott said during a news conference April 27 that the decisions made to gradually reopen the state’s economy are based on advice from doctors and data reporting the containment of COVID-19 in Texas. However, he said he encourages Texans to continue safe distancing practices and recommends wearing a face covering when in public.

Some business owners have said they are excited to get the ball rolling, while others say they are taking a more cautious approach, citing a need for more time to lay out a plan to reopen that is best suited to their business.

Jack Gilmore, owner of landmark Austin-area establishments Jack Allen’s and Salt Traders Coastal Cooking, said he is not taking any chances.

More than two months ago in mid-March, when restaurants and other businesses were given state orders to halt all in-store operations for customers, Gilmore said he attempted a takeout-only model.

“We tried that at the beginning to get rid of what [food] we had left, but then we decided to close it all to keep staff and the community safe,” Gilmore said. “Then, in late April, you’re told you can open May 1 at 25% ... and then there’s a gray area as to whether that includes staff. We decided to wait to open until we’re ready. I remain steadfast in wanting to keep all of our staff healthy.”

Other business owners are taking the same approach before they reopen.

Justin DeLaCruz, co-owner of Toss Pizzeria and Pub in central Austin and Bee Cave, said he believes Abbott’s order is a step in the right direction, but May 1 is too soon for him to transition to in-store service.

He and his staff are working on operational procedures so Toss can comfortably open, he said, adding there is no set timetable right now on when that may happen. For now, the business model is still centered on takeout and delivery orders.

Even though Toss’ main revenues came from dine-in business—85%-90% by DeLaCruz’s estimate—the biggest priority is to make sure a re-emergence into in-store service is done correctly.

“We want (staff) to feel safe,” DeLaCruz said. “Some of them were excited and texting me when they got the information. [They were] ready to come back. I told them, 'Look, we’re working on a plan to do it safely and effectively and efficiently, [and they’ll] be the first ones we call.' ”

While some business owners remain cautious, keeping their own timetables and making sure a reintroduction to in-store service begins at the right time for them, others say the right time is now.

Emily Williams Knight is the chief executive officer of the Texas Restaurant Association, which advocates for its members statewide. She said while 25% capacity is not enough to get restaurants back to break even, it's a good start.

"We came out very strongly in appreciation of the government’s response. By opening at a 25% threshold, he’s balancing the safety and public health with the needs of the economy," Williams Knight said.

Pete Clark, owner of the Sundancer Grill on Lake Travis and Café Blue in Bee Cave and downtown Austin, said he plans to open his restaurants back up May 1 with 25% capacity by marking certain tables closed to ensure social distancing.

Clark said he expects high-customer turnout from day one, and because of that, he is downplaying any marketing efforts.

“We’re certainly not going to throw a party or have a sale,” Clark said. “I don’t think getting 25% capacity is going to be a problem. If people don’t come out [to the restaurants], we will step up our advertising. I have a feeling we’re going to be turning people away at 25% [allowable capacity]. When this thing got announced, our phones started ringing off the wall with people wanting to come out.”

Sean Kanter, co-owner of Oz. Tap House in the Four Points area of western Travis County, said he feels the same way.

Kanter said he views Abbott’s order as the first step toward getting back to normal and added he is opposed to opening up to dine-in service all at once.

He will have tables six feet apart, social distancing practices will be in place, and his staff have already taken down the restaurant’s normal tap handles and replaced them with smaller, easier to clean tap handles, Kanter said.

“This helps get the community more comfortable, but slowly,” Kanter said. “I don’t think we’re going to get an onslaught of customers anyway, just because of human nature.”

For now, he said, this is also an opportunity to hire back some of the employees he and his partners lost. Back in March, they had to cut 90% of their staff as state orders rendered the brunt of their business model temporarily disabled.

“We’ll just have to see how it goes, take it a day at a time, or a week at a time in this case,” Kanter said.

There are guidelines within The Governor’s Report to Open Texas released April 27 stipulating minimum standard health protocols for employees of businesses that reopen on or after May 1 for in-store operations. Those include screening employees before they enter the business for possible symptoms associated with COVID-19 and training them on appropriate cleaning and disinfection.

Gilmore, who went from having almost 600 full-time employees throughout his many restaurants in March to less than 70, said those and other guidelines need to be clearer before he begins in-store service again, but he did say he would try curbside pickup service beginning May 1.

“We’ll try that for a week or two, and then will start opening probably around May 10, and maybe to 50% by May 18,” he said.

He also said he wants to use the new state in-store allowance to hire back employees he’s lost and beef up his staff in general.

“There are not a lot of restaurants that could close once, let alone twice,” he said. “I do know we only have one shot at doing it right, and we’re going to make sure we do.”

Jack Flagler and Danica Smithwick contributed to this report
By Brian Rash
Brian has been a reporter and editor since 2012. He wrote about the music scene in Dallas-Fort Worth before becoming managing editor for the Graham Leader in Graham, Texas, in 2013. He relocated to Austin, Texas, in 2015 to work for Gatehouse Media's large design hub. He became the editor for the Lake Travis-Westlake publication of Community Impact in August 2018. From there he became a dual-market editor for Community Impact's New Braunfels and San Marcos-Buda-Kyle editions. Brian is now a senior editor for the company's flagship papers, the Round Rock and Pflugerville-Hutto editions.