There was some initial stress pivoting to online ordering and delivery early on in the pandemic followed by weeks of preparations to reopen.
Robinson and co-owner Mark Avalos installed dividers between tables and shields at the register, and SLAB is now offering tableside service to limit how much patrons move around the restaurant. Robinson said the goal was to make the restaurant as safe as possible while continuing to support the community.
But when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody May 25, Robinson said as a Black business owner, it added a different level of stress and a different set of emotions to reopening.
“It's been very stressful to say the least, and [with the Black Lives Matter protests] this month, it has added to that stress,” he said. “It's been more of an emotional stress, myself being a Black man. There's been so much pain and hurt around the things we've seen and witnessed. Having all of those wounds reopened and having things so front and center has been really hard.”
One day after reopening, Robinson said SLAB observed Blackout Tuesday, canceling previously scheduled promotions online to show support for the movement. He said participating in Blackout Tuesday was the “bare minimum,” but it did provide a moment to reflect on the pain he felt and had seen throughout the community.
However, Robinson said he was still searching for the right way to give SLAB a voice and for the right message, one that showed support and was sensitive, empathetic and reflective. That weekend, while attending a peaceful, prayer-based protest downtown, he said he found that message.
“As a person of faith, I felt like that was where I needed to be so I can really try to get some guidance and to find my voice and find the healing that I needed before I opened my mouth,” he said. “So during that prayer protest on Saturday we knelt in front of the state Capitol, and we prayed, and I sobbed ... and I was able to experience some of the healing I needed.”
Robinson said an image of him kneeling at the protest appeared on the news the following day. Once he saw it, he realized that was the message he wanted to share.
“We posted that photo as hopefully an encouragement to people that we need healing; we need unity; we need change and we need to stand up. We felt that picture said a lot,” he said.
While SLAB—which has a location at the Y at Oak Hill in South Austin and on Research Boulevard in North Austin—is now open for dine-in service, through the pandemic SLAB has been serving members of the community in need. Robinson said once SLAB received Paycheck Protection Program assistance in early April to help support his staff, he and his team decided they would work to take care of the community.
After reaching out to local churches and groups, Robinson decided SLAB would serve 100 refugee families free meals each week.
“We immediately identified that they’re a very vulnerable group,” he said. “We’ve got a great group of volunteers who show up every week to deliver them meals.”
He said as long as his business is able to provide, he will continue to support the community just as the Austin area has continued to show him support over the years.
“I'm so thankful to live in a city where our community has rallied and really supported us, SLAB, in the last few weeks,” Robinson said. “It has sparked a new drive in us for a bigger cause, that we aren't just a restaurant slinging barbecue; we're people in our community who have a voice and a responsibility to be the light and to help usher in change.”