The new coronavirus has not yet made any serious inroads in Texas, but restaurants are already on high alert. Primarily they want to keep their customers and workers from getting sick. Just as importantly, they want to protect themselves from financial loss. But how concerned they are, and about what, depends somewhat on where they’re located.
One of the cities most on edge is Austin, which is still planning to host the massive South by Southwest music, film, and interactive media festival from March 13 to 22. Despite growing public pressure to cancel it, city officials announced Wednesday that it would go on for now, and the festival this week continues to add big-name attendees like Hillary Clinton, Chris Evans, and Kumail Nanjiani. However, on Wednesday, Apple and Netflix announced they were backing out, joining other high-profile companies including Twitter, Facebook, Intel, Amazon Studios, and Mashable, to name a few. With so many cancellations, SXSW will undoubtedly host far fewer than the 417,000 attendees who showed up from around the world last year.
The specter of lower attendance has the restaurant community on edge. “For some businesses, not just hotels and restaurants, South By is bigger than Christmas,” says Shawn Cirkiel, chef-owner of twelve-year-old Parkside, among other restaurants. Parkside is located on Austin’s East Sixth Street, in the heart of SXSW madness. “Restaurants like ours make decisions for the whole year based on this month—how we order and train, renting banquet space, even buying tables in December because we’re going to rent them in March.”
This year, Cirkiel is playing it safe. “We are holding off on temporary staffing, taking a wait-and-see approach,” he says. “On a lot of our food and wine and beverages, we are going to postpone [ordering], so that we can wait until the last minute and not get stuck.”
At another downtown restaurant, Comedor, it’s a bit of a different story. The place, which has received a lot of attention (including from this magazine) for its modern Mexican cuisine, is less than a year old and thus has not weathered a SXSW onslaught or the bump in business it brings. Philip Speer, chef and co-owner of Comedor, and his business partner, developer William Ball, are concentrating on health concerns.
“About six weeks ago, we began ordering sanitizer, gloves, masks, etcetera,” Speer said during a phone interview. “We had a staff meeting Wednesday to activate new cleaning SOPs [standard operating procedures] for hygiene and the handling of food deliveries.” Speer feels fortunate that Comedor has company health insurance, which will allow workers to stay home if the virus does spread. (As noted in a New York Times story this week, the restaurant adds a surcharge of 1.5 percent of the cost of the meal to each customer’s bill in order to pay for employee health care.)
Down the road in San Antonio, panic focused not on a massive festival but on one individual. On February 29, a person with undetected COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, spent two hours in the city’s huge North Star Mall, potentially exposing others, after being quarantined at the city’s Lackland Air Force Base upon return from Wuhan, China, ground zero for the outbreak. (The person was asymptomatic when released but turned out to have tested weakly positive for the virus.) The public outcry was swift, and the mayor of San Antonio and Bexar County officials declared a public health emergency. North Star Mall was temporarily closed for a thorough cleaning. Despite concerns, the largest annual literary conference in the country, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference (AWP), is still taking place in San Antonio this week, but about 40 percent of the expected 10,000 attendees canceled, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Alamo City restaurateurs haven’t seen a slowdown yet, but some feel that it’s just a matter of time. “I think it’s there on the outskirts,” said Jason Dady, who owns the Range steakhouse downtown and other restaurants in San Antonio and Austin. “We haven’t seen a dip in business just yet, but we’re training and retraining staff on hand washing and sanitizer. From the business side, we have a hold on new hires. We don’t want to be overstaffed if there’s a quick dip in revenue.”
Others are annoyed by the virus’s constant presence in the news. “There has been a lot of media focus around the disease that has caused panic. We’re remaining calm and taking our cue from the CDC,” said Megann Pettit, the PR and marketing director for La Familia Cortez Restaurants, which owns the iconic Mi Tierra Café y Panadería, open 24 hours in the city’s Market Square.
“The whole thing has been blown out of proportion,” agreed Johnny Hernandez, who owns nine restaurants, including the La Gloria Mexican food joints and Burgerteca. “Our places are doing great.”
In Houston, there are two completely distinct reactions: within the city’s massive Asian business community and outside it. The former are being hit hard.
Jacklyn Pham, the owner of the popular Saigon Pagolac Vietnamese restaurant, said, “I used to do seventy or eighty tables on a Friday night. Now I’m down to thirty or forty.” Pham’s business is suffering from the ripple effects of a false rumor that blasted through Houston social media at the end of January, claiming that a large Asian supermarket had been shut down by health authorities because of the coronavirus. Business at the store immediately dropped from four thousand to one thousand customers a day. The rumor had a similar effect on other area restaurants, as well as bakeries, coffee shops, and boba shops.
Said Pham, “Everyone is afraid. It’s terrible. Our Asian community, our elders, they listen to each other and their friends. There’s a lot of word of mouth. My waitstaff is counting on tip money. We are just hoping this is a phase and that things will get better. I don’t know when, but hopefully soon.”
Outside the Asian areas, it’s business as usual. “We haven’t seen a downturn in customers or an uptick in to-go orders, but we are increasing hand sanitizer placement in all concepts,” says Chris Shepherd, the James Beard Award–winning chef-owner of Underbelly Hospitality (UB Preserv, One Fifth Gulf Coast, and Georgia James). “But,” he adds cautiously, “it may still be too early yet.”
The situation is much the same in Dallas. Businesses are not hurting so far. June Chow, owner of Hello Dumpling, a Chinese restaurant in the city, hasn’t seen a dip in sales, nor has her business been the target of overt prejudice. But she did report a different kind of financial hit. Certain imported Asian products have become exorbitantly expensive. “This is the fallout,” she says. “It’s outrageous, and it can affect anybody.”
This story includes additional reporting from Patricia Sharpe.