Winter storm closures deepen financial woes for Austin’s pandemic-battered restaurant scene

Winter Storm Uri ice
Winter Storm Uri caused restaurants across Austin to close due to power outages and unsafe road conditions. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Winter Storm Uri caused restaurants across Austin to close due to power outages and unsafe road conditions. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

After slogging through pandemic conditions that have closed dining rooms and gashed collected revenues, restaurants in Austin again took a beating after Winter Storm Uri led to power outages that spoiled product and forced temporary closures during one of the most profitable weekends of the year.

Beginning on Valentine’s Day weekend, restaurants across Northwest Austin reported closures as they lost power. In some cases, restaurant owners deemed road conditions too dangerous to drive for their employees.

Some restaurants that spoke about their experiences with Community Impact Newspaper said the storm ultimately cost them dozens of thousands of dollars in lost business, spoiled product and repairs.

“It is certainly a challenge, this ice storm put on top of COVID. We’re already struggling to pay rent and employees, but we’re getting by. It was the cherry on top of this year,” said Mike Roth, owner of North Austin Vietnamese barbecue fusion spot Smokin Beauty.

At Smokin Beauty, the storm cost the restaurant four days of business after it closed early Feb. 11. The restaurant remained shuttered through that weekend and did not reopen until Feb. 19, Roth said. Altogether, Roth estimates Smokin Beauty lost approximately $15,000 in potential sales due to the storm.

Local Korean fusion restaurant chain Chi’Lantro had half of its operating locations lose electricity during Winter Storm Uri, according to Arnae Jinnette, catering sales manager for the restaurant group.

At those three locations, Jinnette said the restaurant had to dump all of its product from its walk-in fridges and restock entirely.

“It wiped out our entire supply. ... We had to get all the ingredients to start all of our sauces from scratch,” Jinnette said.

Because restaurants across the state, from Dallas to Houston, similarly lost product due to prolonged power outages, Jinnette said supply chains were backed up, making restocking a difficult effort. In the end, the Chi’Lantro restaurants that lost power during the storm took about a full week to restock.

“Getting three restaurants starting from scratch was the difficult part [of the storm] for us,” Jinnette said.

Heartbreak on Valentine's Day

Restaurateurs told Community Impact Newspaper that this storm hit at possibly the worst possible moment, as Valentine’s Day typically represents one of the most profitable days of business for local restaurants.

According to OpenTable, a service that books and tracks reservations for restaurants across the country, Winter Storm Uri had a profoundly negative effect on eateries across Texas.

Data from the company shows the percentage of seated tables at Austin restaurants from Feb. 12-14 dropped an average of 60% compared to the same time period the year before. The rate of open seats at Austin restaurants was more than double the nationwide rate of year-over-year decline, according to OpenTable numbers.

Ann Baker, owner of the decades-old North Austin Italian eatery Andiamo Ristorante, said her establishment had some cancellations for its Valentine’s Day weekend. Though the restaurant sat at 50%-75% capacity of what was expected for the weekend, Baker commented that Andiamo’s takeout sales boosted the revenue stream.

“We took a hit, but it was a reasonable amount of revenue for the weekend,” Baker said. “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”

Like restaurants across the city, Andiamo lost power for a few days during the winter storm. The restaurant lost four days of operation, which Baker estimates resulted in a $5,000 loss in sales.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but [it is] when you're small business to begin with,” Baker said. “I think we will survive this, but it’s not a comfortable situation at all.”

The loss of revenue on Valentine’s Day, which Baker states is a top-three day of business for her restaurant alongside New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day, is compounded by a year of limited business for restaurants across the state.

According to a coronavirus impact report from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, the contribution of the accommodation and food services industry to the state’s gross domestic product dropped 26.8% from the second quarter of 2020 compared to the first quarter of 2020. The same report found spending at restaurants and hotels was down 11.8% for the week ending Dec. 6, 2020, compared to January 2020.

Community efforts

Despite the conditions, scores of local restaurants and businesses opened to provide emergency services to residents in need across the city.

After the city of Austin issued a boil water notice for hundreds of thousands of homes across the city, breweries utilized their in-house equipment to distribute free potable drinking water.

“While many craft breweries across the state are not yet safely able to reopen until road conditions improve, utilities are restored and facility repairs can be assessed, an increasing number of brewers are opening to provide potable water and a warm place to rest and recharge for their neighbors and community members,” said Caroline Wallace, deputy director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, in a Feb. 18 email to Community Impact Newspaper.

In the midst of the storm, Chi’Lantro began utilizing the kitchens of its locations that could still turn the lights on to dish out meals to the community. On the morning of Feb. 16, the day after Austinites began experiencing prolonged periods of power outages, Jinnette said she received a call from the Chi’Lantro executive team that the restaurant was looking to participate in meal giveaways.

“They got together very quickly. We were able to start serving people by that Wednesday or Thursday,” Jinnette recalled.

Chi’Lantro partnered with nonprofit organization World Central Kitchen out of the gates and eventually coordinated with it to distribute 7,000 free meals in Austin. From Feb. 17-24, Jinnette said Chi’Lantro distributed close to 12,000 free meals, including donations to local hospitals.

Lauren Donoho, creative director of Lianis Creative Co. and public relations representative of Garbo’s, said the North Austin seafood spot never lost power throughout the winter storm. While the restaurant remained closed to the public due to road conditions, the team at Garbo’s began cooking warm meals for residents who lost power to pick up, free of charge.

“They had products they didn’t want to go bad, and they saw a need. ... Local restaurants stepped up, and that was pretty amazing,” Donoho said. “The Garbo’s team is very resilient. Even when it wasn’t safe to drive, they would walk to the restaurant, and they were happy to whip up food.”

Garbo’s was able to make macaroni and cheese, burgers and soups for distribution with groups such as Whole Foods, Good Work Austin, and the Austin Food and Wine Alliance. In total, Donoho said Garbo’s served more than 1,200 free meals to residents in need.

On Feb. 16, the Austin Winter Storm Relief fund was created by A Taste of Koko, 365 Things Austin MYLK Collective and Cara Caulkins Communications to raise money in order to support restaurants. The campaign raised funds to purchase warm meals from restaurants to distribute throughout the city and as of March 2 has raised more than $157,000.

According to the GoFundMe page set up for the relief fund, the Austin Winter Storm Relief fund is still taking donations to go to Austin restaurants.
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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