Will the San Antonio Food Scene Survive COVID-19?

Dining out as we knew it is gone. At the start of the year, one of my most profound joys that came from visiting a restaurant was when diners at an adjacent table would make casual conversation and leave my wife and I feeling like we’d made new friends while enjoying a leisurely meal. Now, we look at diners as potential virus carriers. Instead of intimately crowded dining rooms, we encounter intentionally spaced out tables. Servers wearing masks and gloves has become as standard as “Midnight City” is on the playlist of hipster hot spots.

“It’s not just affecting restaurants,” says Steve McHugh, chef/owner of Cured at Pearl. “Nothing in life seems like it should. Nothing seems normal. It feels weird.”

But what does that mean for a city that has increasingly touted its food scene as a crucial part of its identity? For starters, it means fewer restaurants.

The estimates of how many restaurants we’ll lose in the months to come range from 25 to 30 percent by the Texas Restaurant Association to as many as 75 percent, according to celebrity chef Tom Colicchio.

Even those that do survive won’t be back to their usual operations anytime soon. Peter Selig, longtime entrepreneur and president of the management companies of Biga on the Banks, Ácenar and Maverick Texas Brasserie, estimates that it will take anywhere from 18 to 36 months before many restaurants see sales return to pre-pandemic levels.

“Mom and pops that have low rent and low management overhead, fixed costs, and inexpensive ingredients, with a large fast-casual service/to-go (model) will survive and do well,” Selig says. “Those who have access to capital and have resilience and persistence with reasonable landlords will survive.”

In other words, the places with deep pockets, understanding landlords and many of the small, independent family-owned spots and taquerias that are at the heart of the city are well-positioned to survive.

Photo By Scott Martin, courtesy Cured at Pearl

“Hard work is going to be key,” McHugh says. “There are a lot of places—the neighborhood taquerias, they have been working their asses off and I think they’re going to survive. And that’s huge.”

Venues that offer a leisurely, sit-down experience with excellent wine service, expensive entrees, craft cocktails and superbly trained chefs are going to have a much tougher time.

The pandemic hit at a time when San Antonio’s restaurant scene already was at a plateau. Several local restaurants closed at the end of 2019 and start of 2020, not because they weren’t producing good food but because there’s only so much business to go around. Add to that a few months of closed dining rooms, tepid consumer spending even as lockdowns were lifted in late spring and the fact that many food lovers used their quarantine to rediscover the joys of cooking at home. Plus, the convention industry, which was a regular supplement to local traffic for places like Maverick, has ground to a halt, further impacting restaurants and other businesses that rely on visitors.

“Sadly, many very good restaurants will close,” Selig says. “It’s just hard to cover fixed costs.”

Yet, from this chaos is an opportunity for a new wave of creativity. Some chefs have found new revenue streams by creating meal and grocery kits. Traditional sit-down places that are able to reinvent themselves with some of that fast-casual model whether through continued takeout, delivery, drinks to-go or more outdoor seating—have a strong chance of emerging. Survival could also very well come from chefs creating totally new concepts or concepts that have worked in the past, like food trucks or food carts. Perhaps enterprising restauranteurs will bring echoes of the drive and initiative found in the historic chili stands that garnered San Antonio national fame more than a century ago.

“I believe that we will need to focus on bringing locals into our restaurants, and also making it easy for them to buy our food at a reasonable price when they want to eat at home,” says Johnny Hernandez, the chef and partner of the Grupo La Gloria restaurants.

Along with continuing to offer takeout after La Gloria reopened, Hernandez also became part of an H-E-B program that brought ready-to-heat local restaurant food into grocery stores and he introduced margarita trucks that brought food and drinks to locals at home. “As a city, we need to focus on each other. We need to continue to support local and to support each other.”


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