The food court at the Shops at Rivercenter is mostly empty after COVID-19 changed the way Americans dine. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

When actually sitting inside a crowded restaurant became a thing of the pandemic-free past, giving way to curbside, delivery, and drive-thru-only options, the eating-out landscape in San Antonio began to change in ways no one expected.

Some popular restaurants turned their dining rooms into marketplaces that sold everything from eggs to toilet paper. Nearly half of those surveyed by the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) began selling cocktail kits, and beer and wine to go. Other restaurants jumped in to help put food on the table for laid-off food workers and others.

About 85 percent of surveyed restaurants converted their menus to takeout – a move that allowed them to keep some staff on board and maintain connections with customers.

But 12 percent of restaurants that were operating before the pandemic have closed permanently, according to the TRA, and that number could grow. In a recent TRA poll, 60 percent of restaurant operators said it is unlikely their restaurants will be profitable within the next six months.

On June 3, the company that owns the Luby’s chain of cafeterias announced it will sell its operating divisions and assets. Eight of the 10 Luby’s in San Antonio are already “temporarily closed.” Starbucks also has announced it will close up to 400 stores.

For those establishments that stick around, how will they change? Are buffets and family-style service a thing of the past? Will there be more chain restaurants or fewer? Will full-service dine-in as we know it return?

A study by market research firm AMC Global in early April found that COVID-19 is changing consumer behavior and will continue to have an influence even after coronavirus becomes less of a threat. While many survey respondents said many are now preparing more meals at home versus eating out, 38 percent of consumers said they will support local businesses more in the future, after the pandemic is considered over, and strive to eat healthier. Already, 45 percent of consumers said they are eating less fast food than before.

The Rivard Report polled a number of chefs, owners, and others in the San Antonio restaurant industry about which trends might have some staying power as the pandemic subsides and capacity limits go away. Their responses cover the gamut from eating local to employing technology solutions. Here they are, lightly edited for style and brevity:

Pete Cortez, chief operating officer, La Familia Cortez: “As difficult and devastating as this pandemic has been for our industry, it also pushed us to be more innovative and creative, all while not losing our cultural compass. As we approach the point of being able to reopen at 100 percent capacity, the hospitality industry won’t be the same for quite some time.  

“While we have many loyal local regulars, San Antonio’s restaurants are also very reliant on our large tourism and convention industry. Until that fully returns, we will have to continue to be resourceful and focus on promoting local restaurants while doing our part to regain guests’ confidence.”

Drew Glick, owner, Max & Louie’s New York Diner: “We reduced our huge menu when we were only open for takeout. Now that we have guests dining with us again, we have moved away from handheld menus to an all-digital QR code menu. We have also added two new domains, MLmenu.com and maxandlouiesmenu.com, that take visitors straight to the menu if they prefer that over the QR code. We also plan to provide the menu on a TV screen for those who don’t have a smartphone.”

Geronimo Lopez, chef, Botika: “We all had to take the blow and sit back and reimagine what the restaurant is going to be like when we go back to whatever normal is going to be. On the positive side, I think that people will appreciate more the experience of going out and enjoying friends – that’s what I miss the most – and also come to appreciate more that small, unique chain restaurant in the neighborhood.

“At Botika, we always encouraged family-style service and sharing plates, but we had to redesign the whole concept because obviously all of that is out the window. Buffets are gone. I don’t see how you can really survive in this environment with a buffet.”

Luciano Cioriari, owner of food wholesale business Food Related: “When COVID-19 forced restaurants to shut down, Food Related turned its business model upside down to help families having trouble finding the staples of milk, bread, and eggs. In early June, we launched a home delivery service for groceries.

“Safety has got to be a top priority and it has to be fully enforced diligently. I have seen some owners taking incredible measures to allow them to operate safely. Those will truly thrive. We have to build on that.”

Susan Rigg, owner, River Whey Creamery and vendor at Pearl Farmers Market: “My hope is that people can spend an extra minute or two during their meal to think through the connections of how their food arrived on their dinner plate. Our culture has promoted ‘cheap and convenient’ for a long time. But there is real value in understanding the critical links to our food supply chains and in teaching future generations about them.

“So many people in the local food supply chain are very passionate and thoughtful about making sustainable decisions – from chefs who choose bycatch fish, to ranchers and farmers raising Texas meats, poultry, and eggs, to farmers that grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and to cheesemakers or charcuterie specialists who learn true craftsmanship in creating the finest foods available. With today’s globalization of food supplies, we can still have these connections with your local chef, rancher, farmer, or cheesemaker.”

Andy Thiem, spokesman, Incredible Pizza Co., whose two locations in San Antonio will reopen June 12: “We have a 150-item food buffet, but that was not viable in the initial reopening stages, so we’ve switched most of our restaurants to a cafeteria-style buffet with servers putting food on plates. Our kitchen and our spaces are not designed for table service. But we’re also going to look at how others in the industry do buffets – Golden Corral is probably the biggest one – and determine how we go forward. We may eliminate our self-service beverage stations the way some fast-food restaurants are doing.”

Julia Rosenfeld, owner/operator, Food Chick Tours: “My business model is based on sharing food with strangers at a communal table, so fear is the driving force that has canceled my tours for now. I am hopeful that a vaccine will be created that reduces the fear of contracting the virus, bringing people back to those communal tables to share stories, laughs, and platters of food. Until then, I don’t see my tours taking place, masked or unmasked, whether restaurants are at full capacity or not.

“I have pivoted to offer a fine-dining-at-home option, which means I’ll pick up and deliver a wonderful four-course meal to San Antonio homes, hotels, and short-term rentals. While the food still represents some of our city’s top independent restaurants, just as my in-person tours do, the experience isn’t the same. But it will just have to wait.”

Jason Dady, chef and restaurateur: “I foresee a long, slow road to recovery. I predict 50 percent capacity for the foreseeable future, and even at that it will be a tough road to navigate. I hope for the small mom-and-pop locations, the single unit operators, to be able to hang on and survive during this tumultuous time. I fear a second shutdown. It will bury our industry.”

Loretta Ortiz, owner, Heavenly Gourmet: “We cater 900 weddings a year. While other caterers have said they’re not doing weddings anymore, we have developed a mantra, ‘keep calm and marry on.’ Our brides demanded that we still see them and we said, ‘Hey, we’re in the middle of a lockdown, we can’t.’ So we started delivering tasters to their homes and meeting with them virtually. That will continue for us. Even though we are back to doing tastings at our place, we can only allow two people in at a time instead of the entire family. Everyone understands.

“In 16 years, I’ve never seen such relentless communication and cohesiveness in the industry, as well as with the clients, because they’re like, ‘whatever it takes, whatever it takes.’ For the future, we see nothing but positives.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.