The Latin term annus horribilis, meaning a year of disaster or misfortune, barely describes the year the San Antonio restaurant industry has endured.
First, on March 18 Mayor Ron Nirenberg ordered San Antonio restaurant dining rooms and bars to close in an effort to stave off the coronavirus pandemic descending on the city.
Then, in a statewide reopening May 1 that some worried might be too quick, restaurants were allowed to open their doors but at a reduced capacity of 25 percent, which many saw as unsustainable for an industry dependent on notoriously slim profit margins.
Next, federal aid in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) filtered forgivable loans to restaurants and other small businesses, but the program was a poorly designed match for the hospitality industry, allowing restaurant owners to keep employees working while reduced capacity mandates left them without enough customers to serve.
Now, after months of stymied negotiations, more federal help is set to arrive, this time with specific provisions aimed at helping the industry.
“It seems like things are going in the right direction, as far as a business standpoint. [There’s] maybe a light at the end of the tunnel here,” he said of a “very much-needed second round of PPP funding” and coronavirus vaccines on the near horizon.
However, a new tide of COVID-19 cases has prompted a return to 50 percent capacity from the 75 percent allowed previously, and the federal rollout of vaccines has proven too slow to make an immediate effect on consumer safety.
To help the situation, Culinaria will extend its annual Restaurant Week to the entire month of January, and the Breathe Puro campaign hopes to distribute air filtration units to its growing list of restaurants.
Asked to describe 2020, restaurateurs throw up their hands in a mixture of resignation, disgust, anxiety, fear, heartbreak, and hope that somehow things will turn around in time for their businesses to survive.
Flux is not unusual in the San Antonio restaurant landscape. In late 2018, Southtown stalwart El Mirador ended its more than 50-year run. Last year ended with the closure of Feast on South Alamo Street, and its building remains vacant.
This year began auspiciously with Magpie opening in the newly redeveloped Hackberry Market, the name of the East-West fusion restaurant conjuring a Korean symbol of good luck.
However, farther north a different kind of harbinger signaled the ongoing challenges faced by restaurateurs. In mid-January, a year after opening, the Eastside Kitchenette announced the surprise departure of co-founder Chef Jeff White. To the south, Bite closed soon after, ending its eight-year run on South Presa Street.
The Eastside Kitchenette kept going but, by late March, would become a symbol of industrywide struggles caused by the pandemic. The permanent loss of the well-regarded restaurant was announced quietly by a “For Lease” sign appearing on the building in May.
Humble House Foods had purveyed its signature sauces at the Pearl Farmers Market since it began in 2009. After 11 years its owners decided to jump into the restaurant business with Saint City Tacos in the Pearl Bottling Department food hall, opening Feb. 14. Thirty days later, the location shut down in what would become a permanent closure. Luckily, owner Luis Morales said, they had their sauce products business to fall back on.
Other restaurants lost to the pandemic include Mexican Mahattan, which closed in October after 62 years in business despite a customer pleading for patrons to support it. The Spaghetti Warehouse, which served Italian food at its location just east of downtown since 1978, closed in April. One node of another national chain, the Canyon Café at the Alamo Quarry Market, had served its customers for 25 years but closed next.
The sign on locally owned El Bosque Mexican Restaurant proudly announced that it was established in 1973, but the West Avenue “neighborhood institution” closed May 31. Bella on Houston filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy days earlier, and reports are that the location will remain closed permanently. The Leon Valley Café announced its closure Nov. 16 on Facebook.
Vegetarians and vegans mourn the recent losses of 5 Points Local, which first took a reprieve before closing permanently, and La Botanica, affectionately known as “La B,” closed Oct. 18. Owner Rebel Mariposa has said the restaurant, beloved among the LGBTQ+ community, might return at some point in a different form.
B&D Ice House on South Alamo Street had been shuttered since March and will not reopen, according to owner Chef Jason Dady. The decision to close permanently was spurred in part by facing what Dady anticipated would be long winter months ahead, making what would normally be pandemic-advantageous outdoor seating a disadvantage, given that the tiny interior space made indoor service nearly impossible.
Opening during a pandemic
Dady, however, is one of a growing trend of restaurateurs who’ve decided to open during the pandemic, despite anticipated hardships and uncertainty as to when things might return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normality.
In September, the well-known chef added the new Jardín restaurant at the San Antonio Botanical Garden to his family of restaurants, crediting their continuing success to quick reactions to the pandemic.
“We were very aggressive in our decision-making processes to stay ahead of the curve, and I think that definitely made a big impact,” Dady said.
In June, Truth Pizzeria joined Magpie in the Hackberry Market, and Scorpion joined them on the East Side to feature Peruvian tapas. Agave Azul opened in Tobin Hill. In December, Little Em’s Oyster Bar opened on South Alamo Street, and Hello Paradise opened in the former Shuck Shack on Grayson Street soon after. Southtown’s Mixtli opened a complementary spot in Olmos Park called Kumo. Cervecería 88 just announced it will take over the Eastside Kitchenette building.
The Cookhouse both closed and opened, announcing Dec. 8 that while the New Orleans cuisine-inspired restaurant would go out with a bang on New Year’s Eve, the same location would become the Golden Wat Noodle House, already familiar to those who’ve ordered the Cambodian-style takeout that served as the restaurant’s summertime pandemic pivot.
From all appearances, the restaurant business is booming at the Pearl. The Granary had shut down in late 2019 but the location found new ownership despite the pandemic when in November, Tenko Ramen owners Jennifer Dobbertin and Quealy Watson opened a new sit-down restaurant called Best Quality Daughter.
Nearby on the Pearl grounds, the Brasserie Mon Chou Chou opened soon after, courtesy of the Southerleigh Hospitality Group, and Chilaquil remains determined to move up from their food truck business, formerly located on the Broadway News lot, to a permanent location inside the Pearl food hall, alongside the new Mi Roti opened by the owners and chef of the popular West side Jerk Shack.
Bad luck, gritty determination
Opening a new business during a pandemic might be less foolhardy than necessary, according to Chad Carey of the Empty Stomach food group, which counts Barbaro, Hot Joy, and the new Extra Fine bakery among its seven businesses.
Mentioning The Hayden, a Jewish deli-style diner opened by a food industry colleague on Oct. 28, Carey said months of preparation and significant investment had already gone into the business. “So now,” Carey said of restaurateurs in similar positions, “they’ve got $100,000 to half-a-million dollars of capital tied up in this thing, and they’ve got to do something with it. They can’t not do anything. It’s a horrible spot to be in for those folks.”
Blade Haddock and Chef James Moore opened the Full Belly Café to fanfare on Feb. 11, before shutting down Mar. 16 with a heartfelt message on Facebook. The owners decided not to reopen May 1 and remained shut down until reopening Oct. 5. Moore will take over as president of the restaurant association starting Jan. 1.
Bandit BBQ announced in December 2019 that it would open on South Flores Street in early 2020. After several successful pop-ups, on March 14 Bandit announced its soft opening set for March 19. In between came Nirenberg’s shutdown order. The fledgling food spot shifted to curbside service as the state gradually began its reopening May 1, and its dining room formally reopened Sept. 19. The restaurant is currently hiring.
Carey said while focusing on the business aspect of the problem is understandable, “what gets lost in all this are the actual human beings. … That’s much more important than the business stuff,” he said.
“Somehow we forget that there’s a bunch of people, especially in the hospitality world, that have really been hung out to dry,” Carey said.
Many restaurant owners are pinning their fragile hopes on the new round of PPP included in the stimulus package signed into law on Sunday.
Subscribing to the Frank Lloyd Wright saying, “the truth is more important than the facts,” Carey said the truth for the restaurant industry right now is “f—ing ugly. … Business has sucked since March” for everyone in the industry, he said, with his own losses amounting to between $700,000 and $1 million for the year, he estimated.
“I think everybody is just used to it at this point,” he said of what he called the “razor’s edge” situation most restaurants find themselves in. “The thing that’s starting to become really fatiguing is the stress and anxiety that the people that work in the industry are having to carry around,” he said. “Every day, it’s like coming into a different sort of dumpster fire. It’s like, ‘OK, what bullshit are we dealing with today?’”
Recognizing the effect of “constant, looming” stress on his employees, he emphasized that “they’re doing it at a time where … they’re making a lot less money than they’re accustomed to,” particularly front-of-house staff that interact directly with customers and depend on tips for the bulk of their livelihoods.
Carey said while he has continued to pay his staff, he’d prefer to shut down completely for the month of January, in part to give them all a well-deserved break. While PPP offers some hope, uncertainty about the timing and delivery of the funds is a cause for concern, he said.
“Assuming things don’t get better,” Carey warned, “in January through mid-February you’re gonna see a lot of places just fold, because they just can’t hang on any longer.”