Restaurateurs...The heroes we didn't know we needed.

community Mar 27, 2020

By: Ashley Diamond Siegert 

One of the fastest growing communities in Texas, Bryan/ College Station is home to a wide range of independently owned restaurants ranging from farm-to-table, to artsy cafes to fine dining. Like every restaurateur across the country and many around the world, each of these entrepreneurs has had to pivot on a dime in an effort to keep their doors open, staff employed, and their communities fed. 

As I drove from one establishment to the next, these people, my friends, people I had photographed partying at a charity gala a mere 3 weeks earlier with 500 other people... were exhausted... but refused to be defeated. 
Each of these owners, now forced to close their dining rooms, unable to allow guests into the beautifully curated gathering spaces behind them, has had to find a new footing, with no warning and no road map. Clinging to their dreams, they are doing what they do best, problem solving. 
Kristy Petty, owner of The Village Cafe, a space often referred to as the living room of Bryan,Tx  said, "This virus has split us into 2 kinds of people. The ones who are working 20 hour days and making it happen, or the ones who are taking the opportunity for down time, a break, to re-evaluate. And I am raised from generations of farm people so I am digging in and working. I don't know anything different."
Here in Aggieland, the common solution these restaurants have found is takeout. Some spaces, already equipped with drive-through lanes and assembly lines for takeout were lucky enough to be able to pivot somewhat easier than restaurants whose main draw has been a seated dining experience. 
Places such as Howdy's Pizza sought to serve the homebound elderly community by creating a special delivered meal deal for 1 or 2 delivered to senior living facilities. Their dining room has transitioned into a pizza box building lab, boxes stacked high to the ceiling as they prepared for an all dine-out shift.
Owner Dave Fox of Blue Baker realized that though the grocery chains are having trouble keeping up with the demand of staples like milk, eggs, flour and toilet paper, he has access to a different supply chain through restaurant food distributors and put out a community order form for the public to order these items through his bakery restaurants. Drive through customers are picking up things like, a single lemon. "They want to complete a recipe at home but don't want to use a whole grocery trip to do it." 
While many places have had to lay off employees, grocery sales have allowed Fox to turn to hiring extra workers. "We have hired something like 6 more people this week. Mostly overqualified people from other restaurants to fulfil these kids of orders, but it's something. Where some employees were in tears last week anticipating job loss, they are now smiling and feeling better about weathering the storm."
Blue baker has also started offering "Baker Bonds," essentially an e-gift card that can be redeemed post-corona for an extra 10% above face value, or the interest can be paid in cookies. 
Lisa Ray of La familia Taqueria shared, "We haven't had to lay anyone off yet, mainly because we have a drive through, but the base of our clientele is out of work and many are leaving town, so I am not sure how long we can keep it up."
Chef Tai Lee structured family meal kits from his restaurants and has set up in the parking lot of a different centralized community spot each night with his food truck, Chef Tai's Mobile Bistro,  passing out trays of fresh amazing fare for a whole family.
The Village Cafe quickly realized, the only way to move forward is to have some new idea of monthly income numbers so as to be able to plan. In a matter of days, a family meal subscription service was designed, launched and can now be purchased on a monthly basis for 1, 2 or 3 meals a week picked up all at once. 
Global Event Group, a catering company mostly specializing on large events such as music festivals, also owns The Kyle House, a historic Downtown Bryan home turned event space and coffee/cocktail spot. Global has now pivoted to deliverable meals, transitioning recipes into beautifully packaged refrigerator meals at their new website: 
Amanda and Brian Light of Ronin Farm and Restaurant shared with me, "We have shifted the menu to mainly comfort food. Meatloaf is selling really well right now. People want to feel better."
Social media posts that days earlier read of fear and uncertainty, suddenly showed a glimmer of hope as restaurants pleaded for patience, as they were taking and completing orders as quickly as possible but "We only have one phone line!" 
Some rules have relaxed, such as alcohol sales. Restaurants in Texas are, for now, allowed to sell alcohol to-go with the purchase of food. (Many restrictions apply, see for specifics)
Local places like Burger Mojo are able to take advantage of this new policy, Andreas Dallis offering margaritas by the gallon in the drive through of his 2.5 month old establishment. "Between our 4 spaces, we usually have 30 registers ringing at any given time. We are down to 1. But we have that 1, and it has a drive through so we have somewhere to keep working, keep moving forward."
Wade and Mary Beckman, owners of Shipwreck Grill, Amico Nave, and 3rd on Main have taken to building tents outside of Shipwreck selling crawfish by the pound as spring is crawfish boil season. "We have a group of 50 independent restaurant owners all checking in with each other multiple times each day discussing what is working, how much each of us are making and ideas to do better. There is so much to know, so much to do, applying for grants, knowing what is allowed, we will only survive it together."
At each restaurant I drove by, as I stood my 6-8 feet from the owner as they poured their hearts out to me, cars stopped, rolled down their windows, and shouted affirmations to the owners. "We are here for you buddy! Keep fighting!" "Are you the owner? Thank you so much, you are doing great!"
As we move forward with no clear idea of when or how this madness will come to an end, or what the economic, and social forecast truly holds, there is one truth that runs deep. Restaurant people are made of something fierce. 
Another multi-restaurant owner friend, Ryan Perniece in Roswell, GA posted, "If I am going down it will be to something I can punch in the face."
I am saddened by the possibility that some of the spaces that give this community character may not be standing on the other side of this. I am, however, encouraged and inspired by the innovative souls who I am honored to fight alongside for the future of my business in Bryan/ College Station. 
Title image: Michael Lair of Stella Southern Cafe

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