La Barbecue in Austin changed its point-of-sale (POS) system a few weeks before the COVID-19 emergency hit. That might not sound all that significant, but Ali Clem, who co-owns the restaurant with her partner, LeAnn Mueller, said the change helped them more easily deal with the new requirements that have shut down all dining rooms. The Toast platform allowed them to create an easy system for online orders. A takeout window already installed on the side of their building made it easy for them to quickly switch to a takeout-only model. Still, their revenue has been cut in half.
They’re offering whole, frozen briskets for sale, as well as whole smoked pork shoulders. Smoked turkey has been the surprise big seller. Most of the rest of the menu has remained unchanged, besides the nachos, which don’t make for great takeout food. The beef ribs are gone for now too. “They’re really expensive for us, and they’re really expensive for customers,” Clem says, adding, “If we don’t sell them, we’re screwed.” They’ve also ceased call-in orders after some phone customers failed to show up to complete the purchase. “It happens more than you would ever think,” Clem says. Customers are still calling the restaurant, but they’re immediately referred to the website where payment is required when the order is placed.
Down in South Austin, Valentina’s uses the same online ordering system. Co-owner Miguel Vidal said they’ve had to streamline the menu and take an additional day off. His food supplier stopped delivering on Saturdays, and they don’t have the room to store enough food to serve barbecue on Monday and Tuesday. Vidal said they’re also focusing on barbecue packages rather than building individual tacos. The place is called Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, so their family packs come in both Tex and Mex varieties. The “Tex Pack” comes with sliced brisket, pulled pork, sausage, buns, pickles, onions, and barbecue sauce. The “Mex Pack” includes fajitas, carnitas, chopped brisket, tortillas, guacamole, and salsa.
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The place is also well known for breakfast tacos, so Vidal is selling customizable, deconstructed versions. The popular Holyfield taco usually comes with a runny fried egg on top, so that package comes with a few raw eggs to fry at home. For safety of both customers and staff, they stopped accepting physical payment like cash and credit cards. There’s a table set up for folks who have placed preorders to check in. If a customer hasn’t placed an order, they’re directed to the website to make the purchase, and the order is filled right away. (Our Dining Guide contributors write more about the experience here.)
“Our numbers are down, but we’re still making a profit, and I’m still able to keep everyone that I have,” Vidal says, adding, “we were understaffed to begin with.” He estimates they’ve lost about 35 percent of their revenue. Another financial challenge is the new trailer Vidal just invested in. The financing was all done, or so he thought until the bank called and said they weren’t processing the loan, which they deemed too risky given the current situation. They figured out a way to finance it themselves.
Aaron and Stacy Franklin just made the first payment on the building that houses Franklin Barbecue in Austin on April Fools’ Day. “We just bought the building a month ago, so our monthly costs just went up by six times,” Aaron tells me. They’d been leasing the building up until now. Then there’s the expense of the Franklin BBQ Pits business they just kicked off last month, but Aaron assures me, “It’s still chugging along.” So is his other restaurant, Loro, in South Austin, with a slimmed-down menu. As for the most famous barbecue joint in Texas, it’s got brisket six days a week, just without the famous Franklin Barbecue line.
Franklin is now taking online orders only. Preorders can be placed up to three days out, and same-day orders open up promptly at 10:30 in the morning, with the first orders being fulfilled curbside at 11. Franklin explains, “We don’t accept payment in person. We don’t have contact with anyone.” Sadly, there can be no Obama fist bumps today, and don’t stop by expecting to skip the preorder line.
Brisket is still plenty popular at Franklin. Aaron says they’re smoking 64 briskets per day, but last month 110-120 briskets was a normal day’s worth. “I think that’s the minimum amount of briskets that we can cook per day to break even,” Aaron admits. As at La Barbecue, smoked turkey has been surprisingly popular. You can buy a whole chilled turkey breast ($57), chilled sausage links, or a whole chilled brisket ($123.75) through the online system. They’re not offering many grocery items, but they’ve got tortillas, bread, beer, coffee, oat milk, and ice cream available.
Aaron explains how hard it is to turn a profit, even if they’re still cranking out lots of barbecue. They’re running at about 50 percent of their expected revenue. “If you’re selling straight pounds of meat with no T-shirts and no extra stuff going out with it, your food costs are through the roof.” He estimates that it takes $5,500 worth of raw meat to make $10,000 in revenue; then he has to cover labor costs and overhead from the rest. Aaron and Stacy have let some part-time staff go, but are retaining their full-time staff for now. “They’re like family,” he says; he also needs the expertise now more than ever as he’s spending less time at the restaurant and more caring for his daughter now that school is closed. Stacy is too busy in the restaurant’s office trying to keep the business afloat. It’s crazy to think that anyone is immune to the economic forces we’re all dealing with, but Franklin Barbecue is an institution that almost seems too big to fail. When I asked Aaron about that assumption, without pausing, he says, “It is possible for a place like us to fail.”
I also asked Miguel Vidal about the possibility of closing Valentina’s, and he said he hasn’t had to face the prospect yet. “I feel pretty fortunate in an unfortunate situation,” he said. Ali Clem cut me off before I could even get the question out, saying, “That’s not even in our vocabulary right now.”