To fend off COVID impact, restaurant owners rely on their ingenuity, employee loyalty and local customer support

While the pandemic’s impact has been brutal, it’s also strengthened the bonds between Austin eateries and their community

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Evie Barnard

McCallum parent and Allandale resident Nancy Mohn Barnard scans the Top Notch menu.“We ordered online and then me and my family went to the car hop and pressed the call button,” Barnard says. ”We told them we were there and they brought out our order. It all felt very safe and the food was great.”

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This is the rule the restaurant industry always lives by, but it’s been especially true during the days of COVID.

“We’re fighting for our life every day,” said Joel Fried, owner of Eldorado Cafe. “That may sound dramatic, but it’s a slippery slope. If you don’t handle things the right way, you’ll go out of business.”

Things have been tough, but not everything has been bad.

“It’s like making lemonade out of lemons,” said Suzanne Daniels, the owner of Brentwood Social House. “I’m just really trying to make the most of the situation and be appreciative for the positive things that have come out of it.”

One positive outcome is that businesses are finding ways to adapt.

Colorful chairs line the parking lot of El Dorado Cafe allowing for a contactless pickup. “Their curbside system is really well done,” sophomore Julia Husted said. “After ordering food, you can pull up and text the number on the sign. Then someone will come out and leave your food on the chair. It all feels very safe.” Photo by Evie Barnard.

“We closed for an entire month so that we could identify what needed to be done,” Fried says. “The first few months were really intense trying to figure out who we were. We fumbled our way through it. After about two or three weeks, we figured out a good system. We ended up getting signs at the parking spots for curbside pickup. We changed the menu to try to make things that are easier to go.”

Our team is closer than ever. We’ve been working together and pretty much only hang out with one another nowadays.”

— Brentwood Social House owner Suzanne Daniels

Fried said that it has helped him develop resiliency.

“If something doesn’t work, we don’t beat ourselves up. There’s so many things that are out of our control. We’ve had to learn to just accept it, deal with it, come up with a plan, and put our feelings down. To prioritize the things that are important.”

Something that is important to Daniels is her employees. She is thankful that COVID has given them an opportunity to bond.

“A byproduct of all of this is that our team is closer than ever. We’ve been working together and pretty much only hang out with one another nowadays.”

Suzanne also feels she has gotten closer to her community.

“They help us keep going and staying in the fight,” Daniels remarked. “I’ll get emails or notes from people saying ‘thank you for what you’re doing and all the work you’re putting in.’ It means a lot to us. I’m just so incredibly thankful that people support us and everything we do.”

Kelly Chappell, the co-owner of Top Notch and Galaxy Cafe, has had a similar experience.

Signs outside of El Dorado Cafe advertise that they are once again open for pickup. “When Covid first hit we closed for an entire month so that we could identify what changes needed to be made,” says owner Joel Fried. “Figuring out how to get food to customers was the hardest part. It was just trial and error to come up with a good system. And the thing is, there were so many errors.” Photo by Evie Barnard.

“We’ve really learned how many customers love us and [how] we’re a part of their lives,” Chappell said. ”That’s been a very positive thought process for me, just to learn there are quite a few people with genuine love for what we do and what we’ve created over all these years. That part makes me feel great. That’s how I sleep at night when I’m overwhelmed by everything I can’t do or support anymore because of COVID. That part’s really hard. So I get through it by knowing that the people who are in this with us truly care about our business.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve teared up in the parking lot. The neighborhood community has really stuck with us. Some people come in every week, and they let me know: ‘We’re here because we don’t want to see you close.’ And just that means so much to us.””

— El Dorado Cafe owner Joel Fried

Chappell’s restaurants have become more efficient than ever, something he thinks will reap benefits, even after COVID.

“As a business, we’ve learned to save money in ways that we never needed to before,” Chappell said. “But we’ve gotten very efficient at dealing with things that were expensive before and cutting down the cost.”

Mike Levigne, owner of Violet Crown Clubhouse has found his business adapting as well.

“We started selling things we didn’t before,” Levinge said. “Everything is pre-packaged, and we also started offering coffee, and now do private rentals of the building.”

Levigne is thankful for the business COVID has given him.

“COVID has brought attention to our business,” he said. “People are hungry to do something outside of their home but close by. Our zip code is fortunate in that it has always had a lower case rate since the beginning. So I think people feel more comfortable staying in the area.”

Fried has also noticed an increase in local business.

“Before we were seeing people from all over Austin,” Fried said. “Now what we’re seeing is mostly neighborhood stuff.”

But he is grateful for that.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve teared up in the parking lot,” Fried says. “The neighborhood community has really stuck with us. Some people come in every week, and they let me know: ‘We’re here because we don’t want to see you close.’ And just that means so much to us.”

Sophomore Julia Husted is part of that neighborhood community.

“El Dorado is one of our favorite restaurants,” Husted said. “We’ve been going there a lot to try and support them, and I know others have too. It’s incredible that even though we are seeing less people and hanging out and talking less we have silently formed a community to help out those who need it the most.”

Signs line the perimeter of the Brentwood Social House. Some remind customers to keep safe while others advertise their curbside pickup. “We went from in person dining to 100 percent online,” owner Suzanne Daniels said. “My background is in graphic design and so with those skills I was able to create a website within 24 hours. On March 17, we completely shut down everything inside and outside, and we’ve been like that ever since.” Photo by Evie Barnard.