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Slow Start: San Antonio Restaurants Are Reopening Their Dining Rooms. Without Financial Help, How Many Can Survive? 

click to enlarge Jean Francois Poujol says it will take at least a year for his restaurant to recover from the crisis. - SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
  • Jean Francois Poujol says it will take at least a year for his restaurant to recover from the crisis.
After weeks of inactivity, the familiar sounds of servers refilling water glasses and flatware clanking against plates are returning to the dining rooms of San Antonio restaurants.

On May 1, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott allowed eateries statewide to reopen their dining areas at 25% capacity, but restaurant owners and their employees are facing a struggle to survive, much less return to normal.

“We reopened now so we could stay in the game,” said Jean Francois Poujol, owner of SoHill Café in Beacon Hill. “If we closed everything and waited any longer, it would be even harder to restart. We’re just months into 2020, but it’s going to take at least a year for us to recover from all of this.”

Poujol recently reopened the Italian restaurant, permitting dining at five indoor tables. In keeping with state safety guidelines, he replaced laminated menus with disposable ones, added hand-sanitizer stations and implemented social distancing practices, such as spacing tables six feet apart.

Even after those moves, the bulk of SoHill’s business still comes from curbside, delivery and to-go orders. What’s more, the Italian eatery’s connected sister restaurant Julia’s Bistro remains closed.

“Following the regulations is easy. The hardest part is not knowing what happens next, not knowing how to welcome customers back,” Poujol said. “Some people are so scared to venture outside, which I understand. Others are excited, but it’s hard to tell and hard to make people feel really welcome with a mask on.”

When the stay-at-home order was announced in March, many local eateries simply shut down. Others pivoted to new business models, transforming into makeshift mercados or launching delivery and curbside services.

But every facet of industry felt the economic pinch from COVID-19, even the city’s most established restaurant groups. Los Barrios Enterprises, which operates busy San Antonio dining establishment, had to lay off 200 employees.

Los Barrios has received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, struck a deal to produce ready-to-eat meals for H-E-B grocery stores and hired back nearly 100 employees. Even so, CEO Louis Barrios said he’s worried about the future.

“If we can’t get our [trained] employees back, we’re not going to be able to serve the customers in a timely manner. If employees wait until their unemployment runs out to come back to work, then they might not have a restaurant to come back to,” he said. “There will be restaurants that go broke. Are the 200 we hire going to be our previous employees or someone who was smart and came back when the restaurants started to pick up? That’s where all the tension lies at this point.”

Local chefs and owners are looking to local, state and federal officials for help that extends beyond new safety regulations and PPP funds. Chef Lisa Astorga-Watel, who recently reopened Bistr09 in Alamo Heights for limited indoor and patio dining, worries that restaurants are facing a long and lonely road to economic recovery.

“There may need to be more financial support packages, as the PPP just passes on funds to workers and landlords but doesn’t do anything for the overhead of a small business by itself,” she said. “There’s nothing really available to those employees who don’t qualify for unemployment. All we can do is feed them.”

The Bistr09 staff is doing what it can to move forward, focusing on ambiance, safety and hospitality to maintain patrons’ dining experiences. But employees are working under a cloud of uncertainty. Will more people begin to show up for dinner? When will residents feel safe returning to dining rooms?

“It won’t matter if they increase the restaurant capacity to 50% if no one shows up,” Astorga-Watel said.

San Antonio’s COVID-19 Economic Transition Team recently shared its recommendations for safe business reopenings. Those include new marketing plans, a proposal for the city and county to help provide protective equipment for small businesses and the new “Greater. SAfer. Together.” campaign to inspire public confidence.

Still, many San Antonio restaurateurs caution that it’s not enough. The industry has long operated on razor-thin margins, and COVID-19 has exposed its unsustainability. Owners are now looking to San Antonio officials for additional financial relief options, business support and leadership.

“I would like to hear more from the city – not just what to do for now, but like a plan for businesses to get out of this,” SoHill’s Pujol said. “We’re all losing money, and businesses are going bankrupt. No one is getting out of this unscathed. What can we do to make sure that our businesses can survive? Time is an issue here. I still haven’t received my disaster loan. At first, they said it would arrive in a few days, now it’s been weeks. Every day makes a difference.”

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