Will they or won’t they? Austin restaurants split on when to open during coronavirus pandemic

Turnstile Coffee Beer and Spirits
Turnstile Coffee Beer and Spirits in North Austin decided to close its doors one day after opening because of a loss of revenue from the dine-in services ban. (Photo courtesy Turnstile Coffee Beer and Spirits)

Turnstile Coffee Beer and Spirits in North Austin decided to close its doors one day after opening because of a loss of revenue from the dine-in services ban. (Photo courtesy Turnstile Coffee Beer and Spirits)

In the days immediately following the March 17 mandate that all Travis County and city of Austin bars and restaurants cease dine-in services, scores of local businesses temporarily shuttered, opting to bunker down instead of operating with delivery and takeout options.

The earliest date restaurants may open their dining rooms to customers again is May 1, according to the March 17 order from Austin Mayor Steve Adler and acting Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

But for local business owners that had prepared to open their restaurants in late March or April, the date they will begin service is less clear. Some restaurants don’t know for sure when they will finally be ready to serve customers, while others told Community Impact Newspaper they will open at the first opportunity.

Dear Diary Coffeehouse is still planning to open in East Austin, co-owner Amalia Litsa said, but will initially have to change its business model from what was originally planned as a cafe and bar.

"We had the choice to either stop and shut down, turn off the lights and don't even try to open until after May, or go ahead and open and try to see what happens. We went with the latter,” Litsa said.


Litsa said Dear Diary Coffeehouse has a final inspection from the city scheduled March 31 and plans to open with curbside service immediately thereafter.

“We were going to have beer on tap. Now we're going to sell beer to go,” she added. “We're going to sell gallons of cold brew. We still have the espresso machine. We'll still make coffee to order."

Other local establishments have similar plans to open in lieu of the shelter-in-place orders placed for Travis and Williamson counties.

Austin-based chain JuiceLand has temporarily closed 19 of its 27 Austin area locations.

Regardless, founder Matt Shook in a statement said the juice and smoothie bar franchise will still open its upcoming location in the Whole Foods Market flagship store downtown on April 2.

“We look forward to providing nutrition for our community at that store, especially during this time,” Shook said in a statement.

SORRY, WE’RE CLOSED. PLEASE COME BACK LATER.

In North Austin, Turnstile Coffee Beer and Spirits opened March 20, three days after the city and county ordered dine-in services shuttered.

The craft beer, cafe and cocktail lounge tried to make their concept work under the new constraints, owner Mark Harris said, but state regulations prevent Turnstile from delivering beer and liquor without offering food, which the cafe does not serve.

One day after opening, Harris made the decision to close Turnstile until it can serve alcohol again.

“It couldn’t have been any worse timing,” Harris said. “Throughout this entire process I’ve experienced so many delays, whether it is with the city or the contractor. ... To have this happen, it is just another setback.”

Like many restaurants across the city, Turnstile still has to pay rent. Now, Harris said he will likely have to pursue more outside investors to inject more capital into Turnstile to replace the lost revenue through at least April.

In order to open when local officials deem it is safe to do so, Harris said he is working behind the scenes, looking at emergency loans and other funding options.

“The day we get the green light from the city, we're going to open up,” Harris said.

As part of the shelter-in-place order issued beginning on March 25, the city of Austin’s Development Services Department scaled back its operations to eliminate as much person-to-person contact as possible.

While the city is still performing inspections, the department is no longer accepting paper building permit applications, building plans, or site plan submittals.

Restaurant owners who are now in the process of preparing their business to open in or after May now tell Community Impact Newspaper it has become increasingly difficult to communicate with city staff.

Matt Roth, owner of the upcoming Smokin Beauty in North Austin, said he and a consultant he has hired to help open his kitchen have not heard back from city permitting officials over the past week.

“I’m trying to get a permit just to get a CO2 tank ... and I can’t even get a reply right now from the person that I’ve been emailing,” Roth said. “It sounds like the city isn’t really replying to anything.”

Smokin Beauty was originally scheduled to open in mid-April, Roth said, but that timeline has now been pushed back to at least May. Roth said he and his wife, Thao—the duo operate Ted’s Farm food truck in East Austin—are working to guarantee Smokin Beauty is ready to open when dine-in services are allowed, but the restaurant still has a handful of city approvals to acquire before it can legally open its doors.

The restaurant needs a final building inspection before installing a sound system, a CO2 tank system for the bar, new electrical components and lighting, according to Roth. Finally, Roth said Smokin Beauty has two health inspections to pass before it can open its doors.

That process can take months under normal circumstances, but it remains to be seen how the economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus pandemic will affect the pace of city permitting and inspections.

It is just another aspect of the current restaurant industry that remains under question for local business owners. Roth said he recently had to lay off his two full time employees at Ted’s Farm, as the food truck is now closed and only taking catering orders.

The restaurateur acknowledges the difficulties new and established restaurants are enduring right now, but Roth said he believes the community will come back stronger than ever after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the restaurant industry is going to be thriving once we get back to normal, but how long do we have to wait?” Roth commented. “I think this summer the Austin community is going to be coming out and supporting local restaurants. It’s going to be a strong summer—abnormally strong for Austin.”
By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.


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