*Editor's note: Since the publication of this article, The Downtowner Bar & Kitchen closed Dec. 31, 2023.

The dining industry across the country has faced multiple challenges in the past couple of years due to COVID-19, staffing struggles and inflation leading to higher operating costs.

Around 100 restaurants in New Braunfels have not been spared in the obstacles faced by the dining industry; many local restaurants have had to get creative to persevere through the region’s economic challenges.

Mallory Hines, vice president of tourism development at the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce, said the dining industry in New Braunfels is one of the largest labor forces in the city and a top 10 industry in terms of gross regional product.

“Food and beverage has a major economic output,” Hines said. “From the restaurant buying the raw product to the consumer buying the meal to the wages to the employees spending those wages in the economy, that money ripples throughout the local economy.”

Hines said restaurants in the area provide a unique experience for locals and visitors alike.

“We have a broad array of types of cuisines and experiences,” Hines said. “When I just think about how you can dine and hop over to a dance hall, you can dine on a river; you can dine and go bowling; you can try all these incredible types of cuisine, many of them within walking distance to create this incredible walkable experience, which is something that New Braunfels has to offer. And it’s just pretty special.”

The industry had a gross regional product—or market value—of $339 million in Comal County, which is a 55.5% increase since 2020, showing strong financial growth despite staffing, supply and inflationary constraints.

Pandemic recovery

In August 2018, veteran restaurateur Collin Campion opened Texas Bistro. The restaurant serves modern American cuisine with a Southwest influence.

When the pandemic began, like many local business owners, Campion had to get creative. He relied heavily on social media to promote Texas Bistro and began selling to-go family meals, which did not break even but allowed the restaurant to remain present in the community.

Chad Niland has owned The Downtowner in New Braunfels since it opened in 2017 and was inspired to open his own restaurant after being a lifelong chef. He defines his restaurant as a “classic boozy brunch place” that serves American cuisine.

“The industry will never be the same,” Niland said. “Whatever happened during COVID and post-COVID until now, the industry is completely different, and you have to adapt and achieve [and] overcome, or you’re not going to be here.”

Ross Wilkinson opened The River House in Gruene in 2015 with the vision of creating a full-service restaurant that served fine Southern scratch cuisine alongside a unique wine list. He recalls Garth Brooks playing at Gruene Hall shortly before the pandemic began, filling the streets of the historic town with thousands of people. With Gruene Hall closing temporarily, a lot of the foot traffic had left the area.

When the pandemic began, Wilkinson said he did not try to sell hot food and began doing cooking demonstrations online called “Sauce with Ross,” in which customers could prepurchase the ingredients of recipes from him and then cook alongside him through Facebook Live. He also sold take-and-bake meals for people to heat up and enjoy at home.

“[COVID-19] was obviously a huge hit but then a very, very healthy rebound. I’m so delighted to see the way our restaurants were creative,” Hines said. “They rolled with the punches; they adapted, and visitors came back to New Braunfels.”

Sky-high operating costs

Like many local restaurants, The Downtowner has had to cut customer favorites off the menu due to the increased price of products, such as its crab cakes, which the business would have had to charge $30 for to make a profit. Niland has also had to raise menu prices to reflect increased product costs, which led to having a different clientele.

“I love serving people good food, but we’ve got to get a cut of it,” Niland said. “It’s hard to explain to [customers] that this is the actual cost of what they’re eating, for us to produce it, the labor behind it, the building overhead, the insurance and property taxes, everything.”

One of the continuing trends that began during the pandemic is the increase in to-go orders. The price of to-go materials—such as disposable utensils, cups and boxes—increased significantly, contributing to the cost of operating the restaurant. Other products that have risen to record prices include eggs, chicken, beef and seafood. Overhead costs for materials, such as cleaning supplies, paper towels and latex gloves, also increased, Campion said.

Campion is among other local restaurant owners who have had to adjust prices on their menu to keep up with product costs, but he said he is constantly watching forecasted prices to adjust his menu back down.

“If you’re dining out all over the town or the state [or] country, the prices have definitely increased everywhere,” Campion said. “It’s hard to eat out, and we still have meals here that we try to be competitive with a meal at Whataburger. Those fast-food prices have gone up significantly.”

Alongside increased utility rates and property taxes in the area, the cost of renting out restaurant space in New Braunfels has increased by nearly 31% since 2013, according to CoStar Commercial Real Estate Group.

“Talking with other restaurant folks in town, they’re all facing the same things,” Campion said. “Be it if they rent it or they own it, their utility bills have gone through the roof. We’re finally seeing a little relief on gas that’s kind of come down over the last two months.”

Staffing struggles

Wilkinson said he sourced the best meats and produce he could find throughout the country to determine what items were on his menu at The River House, leading to needing well-trained and passionate cooks.

“It’s just been really hard for us to get it back to what it was [before the pandemic],” Wilkinson said. “Whether we’re talking about the cost of labor because ... not only do they need to work a lot, but they need to be really thoughtful and dedicated and care.”

The River House closed temporarily in January for deep cleaning and to complete renovations, and it plans to reopen this spring under a new name and fresh concept. The Birdhouse Fancy Chicken & Fine Wine will focus on all things chicken: smoked, fried, hot and cold.

Wilkinson said the decision came after a lot of deliberation and was made so the business was not priced out of the market.

“I’m tired of hearing myself tell customers that we’re short-staffed, so I know they’re tired of it,” Wilkinson said.

Community support

At least 13 new restaurants opened in New Braunfels in 2022, and an additional six have opened so far in 2023. The average visitor is spending about 7% more on food and beverages year over year, according to Hines.

“We know that the cost of goods may have increased for our restaurants,” Hines said. “But what I see from where I sit is incredible resilience, bringing innovative products to consumers, adapting where they need to still be able to offer a really incredible product that makes New Braunfels really special.”

According to Hines, the economic growth of the hospitality industry—including restaurants in New Braunfels—has grown by 85% over the past decade.

“It seems like the whole restaurant industry in this town is just booming,” Campion said. “You know, whenever I get to go eat out, it seems like every restaurant is incredibly busy. So it’s been great with how busy the growth here is in New Braunfels.”