Amid the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, restaurateur Pete Cortez found at least one positive. The popular downtown restaurant he manages, Mi Tierra, had closed only once since it was established in 1951 – and only for half a day – to allow staff to attend the 1984 funeral of its co-founder Pedro Cortez.

Following the citywide shutdown of all restaurant dining rooms on March 18, the Mi Tierra dining room formally closed for the first time. Though Cortez quickly pivoted to convert Mi Tierra into a mercado offering groceries and hygiene essentials, he also decided to take advantage of the time off to give the restaurant a thorough cleaning, and even a rethinking.

“We’ve never had an opportunity like this to be closed for this long,” Cortez said, “to be able to scrape everything off the walls, all the portraits, all the paintings, all the papel picado with the Christmas lights, and then clean everything and begin to slowly put things back.”

While some restaurants had reopened at the initial 25 percent capacity allowed in Gov. Greg Abbott’s May 1 “Open Texas” plan, others had waited until a second phase allowing 50 percent capacity. Even so, whether a restaurant can stay economically viable remains in question, given stringent safety protocols and a potentially reluctant customer base.

Promising Safety

Abbott announced Monday that the second phase would begin Friday. Some restaurateurs had expected the 50 percent capacity jump to occur the day of the announcement but saw additional time as a benefit.

“I’m going to take [reopening] Friday as a bit of a blessing. I think God knew we needed a couple of extra days anyway,” said Cortez, chief operating officer of La Familia Cortez restaurant group.

The extra time has allowed restaurateurs to train staff on safety and cleaning protocols, and to refit their restaurants according to social distancing guidelines set forth in documents released by the State of Texas, along with more detailed guidelines from the San Antonio economic reopening task force, of which Cortez was a member.

The bakery shelves are empty inside Mi Tierra as it is cleaned before reopening. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Guidelines include spacing tables at least 6 feet apart, parties of no more than six guests, hand sanitizer stations, frequent cleaning of all fixtures and surfaces, single-use condiments, and wearing of masks when appropriate. The state documents also include guidelines for restaurant customers, downloadable as a PDF from the Open Texas page.

La Familia Cortez has added its “La Familia Cortez Promise” to the Texas Restaurant Association Promise reopening guidelines, with an expanded set of safety practices for both customers and staff. The main feature is a mask requirement, not while eating but for restroom trips and interactions with staff, all of whom will be required to wear masks.

“We understand once you’re sitting down and eating and drinking, yes by all means take off your mask and enjoy your meal, enjoy the experience,” Cortez said. Beyond that, masks will be required to protect staff members.

“Because we want to take care of our employees,” he said. “They are not like our family; they are our family. … The only two things that our employees should take home every day are their tips and their paychecks. They shouldn’t take a virus home with them,” Cortez said, and wearing a mask is a “courtesy” to them.

La Familia Cortez reopened its newest restaurant, Mi Familia, at The Rim shopping center Wednesday at 25 percent. It plans to expand to 50 percent capacity on Friday, when Mi Tierra will finally reopen its dining room.

Staff Comfort = Customer Comfort

Chef Jason Dady, who operates several restaurants throughout the city, also said staff safety would guide his reopening process.

“More than anything, it really boils down to staff safety. At the end of the day, that’s my No. 1 concern,” Dady said. “If your staff is safe and comfortable, then your guests will be safe.”

Dady will open Two Bros. BBQ Market near the airport Thursday, and Tre Trattoria on the San Antonio Museum of Art campus will open for dinner service on Friday. Lunch service will follow when the museum reopens May 28.

The Good Kind in Southtown, owned by Chef Tim “the Girl” McDiarmid, is run out of a small building surrounded by a large garden. Essentially, McDiarmid said, there is no occupancy limit for outside seating, and the restaurant resumed business May 2 with curbside service and “takeout” meals that could be enjoyed in the garden area. Social distancing has not been an issue, she said, given the spacious patio and lawn seating areas.

During the shutdown, both Dady and McDiarmid shifted to helping serve food to those in need in the community. Dady focused on helping not only his 250 employees but all hospitality workers in San Antonio through his Jason Dady Catering business. He was able to keep a few workers on staff preparing free daily meals for any laid off or furloughed hospitality workers in the city.

When the shutdown began, 300 people were served per day, Dady said, including hotel housekeepers and maintenance people, bussers, dishwashers, line cooks, and managers. “We had people from every walk of life and from every type of restaurant, from a little hole in the wall [diner] to major chain [restaurants].”

After wrapping up the free meal service last week, Dady estimated 10,000 were fed.

Chef Jason Dady meets with his staff at Two Bros. BBQ Market to discuss the restaurant’s reopening. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

McDiarmid also used her established business practices to help feed needy San Antonio residents through Be the Good Kind, a collaboration among women-owned businesses, including her own Southtown restaurant.  

The effort started as a means to offer free meals to “frontline” health care workers and people at homeless shelters. Fifteen percent of purchases from any of the seven businesses, including Foundation Culinary, Sassy Chef, and others, pay for the food, with volunteers preparing the meals. As the project continued, a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan now pays her employees to prepare the free meals, she said.

Though she has worked constantly during the shutdown, the slight pause in business gave McDiarmid the opportunity to start the project. “This was something I had wanted to do for a really long time, but I just didn’t have the time,” she said.

Now that Be the Good Kind is up and running, “we plan to definitely keep that in perpetuity,” one small glimmer of hope amid the otherwise devastating crisis.

100 Percent Ready, 50 Percent Difficulty

With San Antonio’s tourism industry suffering an estimated decline in revenues of $53 million to $83 million, tourist-focused areas like the River Walk might be hardest-hit.

The Republic of Texas Restaurant is the second-oldest restaurant on the River Walk, having opened in 1974 by William Grinnan Jr., father of current owner William “Will” Grinnan III. “We’ve weathered a lot of storms, but this one’s different,” Grinnan said.

With nearly 90 percent of revenues coming from tourism and conventions, Grinnan is unsure when the restaurant might be able to reopen and even questions whether it might survive. He said he’s “100 percent ready” to reopen but cannot realistically operate at reduced capacity or without his usual customer base.

Federal relief programs are poorly designed for the restaurant industry in particular, he said, with employees able to make more money through unemployment compensation than they would at work if he used the PPP.

The uncertainty of the shutdown period also complicates the program’s stipulation that at least 75 percent of the loan be paid to employees within eight weeks. Though he applied for and received funds, Grinnan said, “we’re not going to spend a dollar of it until we understand what the government tells us on how we can spend it.”

He said the program’s stipulations make his situation impossible.

“It’s frustrating. And so we have to change legislation to help our industry out. Or, you know, this PPP money, it ain’t worth nothing for us. And so if we can’t spend it correctly, there’s no way in heck that I’m going to hold on to it, to take a loan from the government. I don’t trust the government.”

Grinnan described the River Walk as the top tourist destination in Texas and the “key to San Antonio.” Until “we can open that up and gain consumer confidence,” he said, “I think we really won’t be able to thrive as a community. … Going out and dining with your family and friends … to come together over food and drinks and laughter, that’s what brings back normality.”

Grinnan suggests that tourism bureau Visit San Antonio should undertake a “staycation” mentality to attract visitors from throughout the state of Texas, who are more apt to make a brief trip, and for the City of San Antonio to offer free parking downtown to help attract locals who might be otherwise hesitant to dine downtown.

With the advantages of spaciousness and locations throughout the city, the Los Barrios family of restaurants is particularly well-suited to reopening under social distancing guidelines, said owner Louis Barrios.

He said skeptics wondered a few years ago why he was bucking the small-restaurant trend and building large spaces with huge patios. Quoting Psalm 37, Barrios said “the Lord was ordering my steps, and here I am building these big spaces thinking that I was crazy. And now those big spaces are exactly what we need. We need sprawl.”

Viola’s Ventanas in Timber Ridge has a 9,000-square-foot patio, La Hacienda near Stone Oak has a 7,200-square-foot patio, and the La Hacienda Scenic Loop location has a 4,000-square-foot patio. “You can sprawl people, and guess what, they all want to be outside.” he said.

La Hacienda, with its 7,200 square-foot patio, is opening at up to 50 percent capacity on Friday. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

H-E-B has helped several chefs and restaurant owners weather the shutdown by selling their prepared and packaged restaurant-made meals through their grocery stores. Many said they plan to continue offering meals if the program continues beyond the pandemic.

For the moment, a combination of innovations like QR code no-touch menus, visible safety precautions, and willing customers will determine the fate of many restaurants, said Geoff Bezuidenhout, president of Picnikins Café and Catering and president of the San Antonio Restaurant Association.

Though he previously called the question of reopening “an impossible decision,” Bezuidenhout reopened Picnikins May 4 at 25 percent capacity, though “we weren’t even close” to attracting that many customers, he said. “We haven’t seen a whole lot of foot traffic in our establishment, but it’s been slowly gaining some traction. But this week, we definitely saw an uptick in the people that were willing to come out, for sure.”

He got a PPP loan but called it a “Band-Aid” and said, “There’s no way to stay in business at this rate. Even at 50 percent it’s gonna be really, really difficult.”

Bezuidenhout said association members are doing their best to make good decisions. “How to survive, how to change their business model to succeed in this post-pandemic era, it’ll be interesting to see. … They’re going to have to adapt and change to conform to what the new normal is gonna be, whatever that is.”

Cortez said San Antonio is “blessed” with good leaders who have made difficult but important decisions in keeping people safe. “I feel like we are moving in the right direction, and slowly but surely we have to start trying to get back to normal.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...