The future is unknown for restaurants everywhere that have closed dining rooms. Courtesy iStock / Jaaske

Coronavirus

Is the Dallas Restaurant Industry Holding Out for a Hero?

Unlike in other Texas cities, Dallas isn't leading a coalition of restaurateurs to lobby for much-needed government relief to salvage the desperate industry.

In 2019, a national magazine named Dallas the nation’s Restaurant City of the Year. But Dallas didn’t need fancy accolades to know its dining scene was blooming, diversifying, and growing. You know where this is going. Now almost exactly a year later, growth in the COVID era feels almost oxymoronic. “Surviving” is more accurate.

If the struggle for restaurants right now—especially small, independently run and owned—is a universal one, where is the collective action? Government relief is waning, from the seesaw nature of extra unemployment benefits to the not-so-forgiving promise of the Paycheck Protection Program. Help in the form of sweeping aid, it seems, is not on the way. As a national movement for industry change grows, you’re seeing prominent chefs in other Texas cities form coalitions to lobby lawmakers and coalesce public sentiment. Dallas seems quieter in its response.

From the outset of the pandemic, leaders in the industry needed to have a voice. The Independent Restaurant Coalition formed in March. It consists of chefs and restaurateurs across the country. The national organization has pushed for real relief for small businesses that are a large part of local economies. Per the IRC, independent restaurants directly employ 11 million workers and indirectly employ 5 million more up and down the food and hospitality supply chain. It’s a $760 billion industry that, rather than potentially forgivable loans, demands “Congress take urgent action to ensure that independent restaurants and workers are able to reopen our doors, reunite our communities, and reignite our economy as we come out of this crisis.” In less rigid parlance: restaurants need financial support that only the government can provide. If it doesn’t come, you’ll lose your favorite restaurant and their employees lose their jobs.

To that end, the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s nonpartisan RESTAURANTS Act of 2020 was introduced jointly to both the House and Senate (H.R. 7197 and S. 4012, respectively) in June. It quickly attracted more than 200 Democratic and Republican sponsors. In Texas, those included U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), Lizzie Fletcher (D-Houston), Colin Allred (D-Dallas), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston), Marc A.Veasey (D-Fort Worth), Al Green (D-Houston), Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

The RESTAURANTS Act, or the Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive Act, would establish a $120 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The grant, according to the IRC, would produce double the economic return. With representatives on recess, the proposed bills haven’t moved since they were introduced over a month ago.

In places like Houston, chef Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke Foundation is a crisis relief organization that provides emergency financial funds, guides on avoiding eviction and working with landlords, and mental health resources of industry workers. Meanwhile in Austin, Good Work Austin includes myriad industry issues under its umbrella: establishing a food bank, creating a road map for social justice and diversity, advocating on the local and state levels for better policies, providing a small business network, and more. Plenty of incredible Dallas groups have sprouted to help restaurant workers with small grants or free meals, but sadly it’s not going to save an industry.

A recent report from Yelp shows that 53 percent of overall restaurant closures since March are permanent. Across Dallas-Fort Worth, more than 3,200 restaurants closed for good through mid-June. Eater Dallas has accounted for many of the closures this year. The IRC’s dire forecast predicts 85 percent of restaurants will not survive through the end of the year.

A graphic of the U.S. with data about how restaurants have permanently in various major U.S. cities.
Side by side graphic of U.S. restaurant closures based on data from Yelp. Note the nearly 900 difference between restaurants closed in April and those still closed in June.
Yelp

The Texas Restaurant Association has pushed the state to allow restaurants to reopen with its suggested safety guidelines (paired with CDC recommendations) not long after the first shutdown. Its lobbying helped many restaurants and bars, too. (There have been wins like alcohol to-go.) But it’s not a cure-all. Without bigger intervention through restaurant owners building coalitions among themselves and relentlessly advocating for government action, the future of small, independently run restaurants remains bleak.

Diane-Justin-Fourton-Pecan-Lodge
Pulled Together: Diane and Justin Fourton launched The Dinner Bell Foundation to help feed frontline workers in need. Partners include Monica’s, Luscher’s, SkinnyFATS, and Maya’s Modern Mediterranean. So if you don’t like barbecue, you’re not out of luck. There’s just something wrong with you.
Elizabeth Lavin

Typically for Justin and Diane Fourton of Pecan Lodge and the Dinner Bell Foundation, the waning summer season means back to school, which has always been an influx of business for the couple’s lauded barbecue joint. Football games, holidays, fundraising events are prime catering opportunities. Without these, Justin says, “the outlook through the end of the year is pretty scary—this is going to be a much longer path to the other side than what we were originally thinking in the spring.” And that was before the smokehouse caught fire. (The restaurant has since reopened.)

For John Tesar of Knife, survival on an individual level became the only way to prepare or be ready when, or if, help comes. “Right now we have no money flowing and there’s no solution. So in those times, I’ve learned you have only yourself,” he says. “I’ve had restaurants close, I’ve gone broke. And I’ve learned that you have to help yourself.”

Nick Badovinus, another notable Dallas restaurateur behind Neighborhood Services and Town Hearth, stays optimistic yet employs a hunker-down mentality: “We are trying to keep our head down and manage the reality of the world as best we can…trying to take care of people and serve up a solid experience as of late.”

“Everyone’s hurting on their own certain level at this moment, and I don’t think they know how to turn together,” says Tesar. “We’ve shown a lack of unity in general, let alone during adversity. It’s just really hard to bring people together when everyone’s suffering.”

“My thought on why people aren’t doing more—lobbying in the state and federal government right now—is that [officials] haven’t really shown any willingness to step up and offer any kind of significant support,” says Justin. “I feel like we’d be a little bit further along in the recovery if the messaging has been clear from the beginning, and there wasn’t this whiplash of reopening and then closing back down and reopening again.”

Even with the political will, restaurateur Julian Barsotti is like many of his culinary comrades. He doesn’t know where to start. “I’m so inundated as it is. I’ve been trying to stay positive. I’ve definitely not given up in any sense. But I am so inundated with trying to gather information and figure out what I’m doing, that I don’t even know how I would go about that process [of organizing].”

Tesar notes that the Dallas scene could stand to be more collaborative.

“It’s always been a competitive market. Everybody fights. It’s a strange place. It’s a wonderful place, but it’s a bubble,” he says. “If anything there should be a support group, or a place where people can tell their stories. That’s going to help them figure out their individual problem or hurdle.”

Tesar would love to be part of one if there were one. Diane Fourton echoes his sentiment.

The prolific Ray Washburne, with his 20-plus Mi Cocinas and his recurring TV appearances on CNBC’s Squawk Box and Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, helms such a meeting of the minds. Over a year ago, he started a group of about 15 restaurant figures that convened monthly (first Tuesdays) to talk about their businesses—owners from Smoothie King, Katy Trail Ice House, Barsotti, and Badovinus. As soon as the pandemic hit, it often became a virtual Zoom meeting to “share war stories and best practices,” Washburne says.

But he doesn’t believe a mere meeting of the minds is the solution.

“I’m not into ‘Everyone, let’s go set a group up and talk about this.’ We all know what the problem is—the problem is we need to get open. I don’t need a group for that,” he says. “It’s just: get on TV and all the restaurant people who have a platform to do it, you gotta get on, you say, ‘Let’s get open, and let us adjust to the reality of what our business is.’”

While Tesar wants to join some sort of group, he also has a lot of skepticism about how much change celebrity chefs can muster. “We don’t have the political clout. Dallas hasn’t been included in that world,” he says. “Maybe Dean [Fearing] and myself and Stephan [Pyles] and Matt McCallister. But we don’t have the political clout that a Tom Colicchio has. Because they’ve had this platform with Food & Wine and all these platforms that they’ve maintained over the years.”

The unabashedly on-brand Tesar advice: “Get a megaphone. The government is not going to help restaurants in the next 12 months.”

Megaphone, social media platforms, TV segments—speaking your piece and keeping the conversation going is key. But so far, what purpose has it served? Can soapbox speeches save the industry, or better yet, improve upon what it was prior to a pandemic? As coronavirus case numbers decline from previous peaks earlier in the summer, food and agriculture workers make up 15 percent of all hospitalizations.

“Get a megaphone. The government is not going to help restaurants in the next 12 months.”

John Tesar, chef, Knife

And it’s workers that have shown they can rise to some of today’s challenges. People like Rosey Sullivan, GM at Armoury D.E., who started the Undocumented Workers Fund of Dallas in March to help the most vulnerable people in the restaurant and bar ecosystem. Staff Meal Dallas, a collaboration between El Centro college and culinary figures like Sharon Van Meter and Nick Walker, under the umbrella of FestEvents, immediately began helping its own, serving free meals to furloughed or in-need hospitality workers.

Pastry chef Diana Zamora folded her Project La Familia, which served meals to Dallas ISD students in need, into the work of The Harvest Project Food Rescue. In doing so, Zamora joined forces and used her clout as a strong liaison and resource in the community to get pop-up food boxes into the hands of those who need them.

Heard That Foundation, which has fed laid off hospitality workers since March, is only a year old. Britt Philyaw, cofounder of the organization, looks to efforts and organization in New Orleans, citing the work of the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance, which has worked to advocate for hospitality employees. She looks to Austin (“There’s so much going on in Austin,” she says), where she sees a foment for unionization and other structural changes that she doesn’t see in Dallas. Southern Smoke, the Houston nonprofit, she says, has deeper systemic aid–delivering roots: “They’ve been around for a while now and they’ve done amazing things. They just have more connections.”

Junior Borges, preparing to open his Brazilian-inflected Meridian, too, sees Austin’s efforts, citing Good Work Austin and its industry-wide approach, which includes advocating on the local and state level for better policies, among other initiatives.

That is in contrast to “the Restaurant Association, they’re really there for businesses” rather than the workers, Philyaw says. When restaurants were preparing to reopen for the first time, many furloughed employees were worried about losing unemployment status and getting sick in one fell swoop. The Texas Restaurant Association’s response was to put on a webinar for owners about how to report workers to the Texas Worker Commission for unemployment fraud.

Chef Junior Borges.

Heard That, as a 501(c)3, Philyaw feels, “can’t affect policy change: we’re not [going to] get involved politically.” But they can affect people. The foundation has applied for money through the CARES Act and is working on a program called Sidework, which would focus on mental health, ideally setting up group Zoom sessions for therapy. (For a model of this, she looks to Southern Smoke.)

“I think that there’s a willingness to come together in the food community in Dallas. For us, it just seems like there’s no one right now that seems to be stepping out with any clear answers…”

Diane Fourton, Dinner Bell Foundation and Pecan Lodge

“It’s happening. People are talking,” she says. “We just need to be a little more organized.”

Seth Brammer, a hospitality consultant and teacher, agrees. “We do need some sort of think-tank collaborative thing.” Borges imagines a group of chefs, journalists, politicians, city officials—people who could gather in a room and put together something they could all agree on. “I’ve been working hard trying to put those kinds of people together,” Brammer says. “But it’s really tricky in Dallas, you know, I think everybody’s really siloed and we all used to just work 700,000 hours a week, essentially.”

And perhaps siloed in many ways: geographically and psychologically. Can a city spliced by highways into its divided neighborhood nooks unite?

“I think it’s a function of the geography of Dallas. We’re separated by freeways. It’s so hard. You’d have to have a chapter in each neighborhood,” says Philyaw.

“We don’t have a lot of those things that bridge all of us together. We’re missing that. And I think we’ve been missing that for a while,” adds Borges. “Now, it’s more evident, because it could be a point of help.”

Geography aside—after all, Houston is vastly separated too, and sprawls ever further—it’s clear the Dallas restaurant industry wants to unify. “I think that there’s a willingness to come together in the food community in Dallas,” says Diane. “For us, it just seems like there’s no one right now that seems to be stepping out with any clear answers or offering any kind of direction or something that we can rally around. How do we start just trying to survive?”

The Fourtons wish they had more positive things to share, they say, laughing in that certain way one does to check that the mechanism still works—to make a sound that remembers comfort.

“I’m still optimistic,” offers Barsotti. “I mean, there’s no other way to be.”

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