Most San Antonio restaurants and bars are open for business – and owners hope it stays that way – even as government leaders urge people to avoid crowds to slow the spread of coronavirus.
But on Tuesday, the City of Austin joined other states and cities across the country in ordering bars and restaurants to close their dining rooms. Dallas, Houston, and Waco also closed theirs. Only drive-thru, carryout, and delivery are permitted.
Even New York City has shuttered its bars and restaurants in an attempt to limit social gatherings, and the mayor of San Francisco has told residents to go out only for groceries and gas.
As San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced Monday a ban on gatherings larger than 50 people, most bars and restaurants remain open to the public but many were reducing hours and staff in response to having fewer customers.
“Social distancing” is keeping many diners at home.
“We’re all a little bit nervous – actually not nervous – we’re pretty terrified,” said Geoff Bezuidenhout, who is president of Picnikins Cafe & Catering with two Northside locations. “Some of these places have a tremendous amount of people” on staff.
Data from the reservation service OpenTable showed the number of seated diners over the weekend at San Antonio restaurants was down 39 to 45 percent in the last two weeks compared to a year ago at this time.
Bezuidenhout, who is president of the San Antonio Restaurant Association (SARA), confirmed those numbers but said some area restaurants are seeing up to 70 percent fewer customers, especially on the River Walk.
There are over 3,000 restaurants in San Antonio, most of them independently owned, he said, and the restaurant industry is the second leading employer in the country. “So if you look at it from that perspective, you’re thinking, ‘holy smokes.’”
Bezuidenhout said his restaurant has lost most of its catering contracts, which is 33 percent of his business, and his dine-in business is down another 33 percent. The restaurant is now promoting weekly meal plans for takeout or delivery, and Bezuidenhout is meeting with his suppliers to introduce grocery delivery.
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“It’s really the only thing that we can do as a company to try and weather the storm,” he said. “We’ve been in business for a little over 30 years and we are a mainstay in this town but we’re not extremely profitable.”
A major local restaurant supplier who asked not to be named said restaurant business has declined among a customer base of 6,000, though some have managed to stay busy. “It’s just kind of hit or miss, there’s no real specific pattern to it,” the supplier said.
But they are all concerned, especially if restrictions force them to close dining rooms and convert to carryout only, the supplier said, though some already have done so.
Some restaurants can easily shuffle employees from the kitchen and dining room to delivery and takeout counters, while others are shifting employees to its other locations.
“One of the best traits of our industry is that we are very nimble and can react quickly to any circumstance, positive or negative,” said Robert Thrailkill, vice president of operations for Zachry Hospitality, which operates four hotels in San Antonio.
“We have implemented our cost containment plan, which calls for only essential areas to remain operating. In our case, we have several bars, so we chose to shutter Tex’s Sports Bar and keep open Durty Nelly’s [Irish Pub], albeit at modified hours.”
The River’s Edge restaurant will remain open, he said. “As for our team members, at this time, we are all going to modified shifts. In times like this, everyone will be asked to sacrifice, some more than others.”
A number of local restaurants are aggressively promoting takeout and delivery via their social media platforms and websites.
On Monday, the restaurant-promoting nonprofit, Culinaria, launched “Restaurant Week to Go.” In a program that will run indefinitely, dozens of local restaurants are featuring three-course specials for takeout.
Also on Monday, the delivery service Uber Eats announced it was waiving delivery fees on all Uber Eats orders from independent restaurants.
However, some restaurants aren’t staffed or positioned to handle takeout and delivery service, and many restaurant customers are senior citizens not as easily able or inclined to order takeout.
Mixtli Restaurant, which was fully booked with reservations during March, sent an email to its customers saying that it is closing for the month due to health concerns.
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“At the restaurant, we have a very small table, and everybody sits together,” said co-owner and chef Diego Galicia. “The ventilation is terrible. So it was going to maybe be a time bomb.”
Customers have not asked for refunds, however, which he said allows them to keep paying their small staff and funding their health insurance plans. Otherwise, it would be a very different picture for the small, award-winning restaurant.
“If you have a restaurant now and you don’t have people coming in, it’s going to be very difficult for someone to recover from this,” Galicia said. “This virus is going to leave more people broke than dead. But I can’t quantify the idea of exposing my team to somebody [who has the virus] or getting somebody sick. That would be very selfish.”
On Monday, River Walk restaurants were unusually quiet, especially for spring break. Only a few families dined at The Republic of Texas.
“We’ve been family owned and operated for almost five decades now … since the beginning, in the ’70s and in the early ’80s [when] there was nobody down here,” said owner Will Grinnan. “But this one’s different, and it’s different because of the fear. There’s no blueprint for this.”
When there are few tourists or workers downtown, delivery and carryout aren’t realistic options for many restaurants such as his. Grinnan is cutting back on supply orders, inventory – especially alcohol – and the number of hours his staff works.
“What hurts the most for us as business owners, what hurts the worst for me, is my employees,” he said. “They’re our family. If the bottom falls out, it does for them, too.”
While the restaurant remains open, its staff will continue to practice social distancing by spacing the tables and keeping up with sanitation, a task restaurants have always practiced, Grinnan said.
Some restaurants have taken further steps. At the Quarry, Ida Claire has switched from its book-like menus to paper menus that can be tossed at the end of the day.
But bars and lounges may be forced to close altogether. Unlike in other states where customers can buy a six-pack at the bar, Texas law prohibits bars from serving drinks to go.
“[Liquor stores] are fine – [people] can go buy liquor and go home,” said the restaurant supplier. “But a bar is literally shut down. They can’t do anything.”
The cancellation of major sporting events also plays a part at bars where the televised events help attract customers. For this reason, Tex’s Sports Bar was a logical choice among its establishments for Zachry to close, Thrailkill said.
Music performances are a big draw at Sam’s Burger Joint, but due to the ban on gatherings of more than 50 people announced Monday, the restaurant has had to suspend shows until at least April 1.
Congress is expected to pass a bill this week that will provide federal support for businesses and workers hurt by the pandemic in this country. However, the relief would come in the form of tax credits, forcing business owners to rely on current cash flow.
“A lot of people are saying I can’t afford to keep all these people on staff,” the restaurant supply manager said. “So the government gives you a tax credit. … Well, that doesn’t pay rent this month. That doesn’t pay my payroll this month.”
Restaurant owners tell the supplier they can’t afford to lay off wait staff because then they would be forced to pay unemployment. “I’m still out either way,” the supplier said customers are saying. “In the meantime, what’s that going to do to my overall business? Am I going to keep my doors open?”
It is still possible San Antonio bars and restaurants could be forced to close their dining rooms. But Bezuidenhout said the mayor has been meeting with restaurant association leaders and “will reach out to us before an announcement goes out.”
“We’re subject to mandates and also what’s good for the people of this city,” Bezuidenhout said. “We have to follow the guidelines that are put out. [But] we’re in the hospitality industry – we’re not in the social distancing business. It’s actually the exact opposite of what we are.”
The crisis is unlike anything the industry has withstood, with the closest thing being 9/11, he added. “This is something that we haven’t seen and I don’t know if we will see again.”