When the pandemic arrived, San Antonio bars and restaurants were among the hardest hit businesses.
Shuttered or limited to bare-bones service for months, some, like downtown’s venerable Cadillac Bar and Mexican Manhattan Restaurant, succumbed.
Economist and researcher Steve Nivin’s second-quarter report for the City Council on the economic effects of the outbreak found 557 accommodation and food-service establishments permanently closed.
Almost all — 555 — were microbusinesses, but accounted for 14.5% of the accommodation and food-service industry, which mirrors the Texas Restaurant Association’s statewide estimate of 15% permanent coronavirus-related shutdowns by September. Pre-pandemic, Nivin’s 2018 study on the San Antonio culinary scene indicated eateries and food services alone represented 103,000 jobs, and nearly $3 million in labor income.
State orders closed pubs for months at a time, limited eating spots to curbside or delivery-only, and led to worker furloughs and layoffs. Even when food establishments were allowed to reopen, Texas regulations decreed dine-in seating capacity had to be kept low to prevent the spread of the disease.
The good news: business is coming back, if slowly, with slimmer menus and smaller staffs. And, even in these hard times, new restaurants continue to launch.
Cappy Lawton has been running well-loved eateries for 50-plus years, including Cappy’s Restaurant, the adjacent Cappyccino’s in Alamo Heights, and La Fonda on Main in the Monte Vista Historic District.
“At the start of the year we were on track for our busiest and best year ever, and then kaboom! We were closed,” Lawton said.
The economic impact proved severe.
“One hundred and seventy people furloughed. Life has been very uncertain since then. We’re at roughly 65% of where we were pre-COVID, and about 20% of that is curbside,” the entrepreneur said.
“Whether we’re open 50% or 75% isn’t that important – 6-foot social distancing has effectively cut the capacity of all restaurants in half. Virtually 80% of people want to sit outside, and while La Fonda has a lot of outdoor tables, we’re limited at Cappy’s. It’s an extremely hard time for the whole hospitality industry,” he said.
Lawton estimates about 70% of his personnel have returned.
“We’ve lost probably about 15% forever – some have shifted to other work or left the city. Another 15% or so have people at home they’re taking care of, they’re scared to come back in, or they have children they’re home schooling,” he said.
Lawton noted he’s still on track to reopen the iconic Mama’s Cafe at Nacogdoches Road and Loop 410 — a project years in the making. It, too, has been delayed by COVID-19.
“We pay well, but we can’t find the 80 to 100 good people we need,” he said, so its reboot has been postponed to early 2021.
Adam Lampinstein and his family are relatively new to San Antonio. They moved from El Paso, where he co-owned a restaurant for several years. His wife became a dual-language teacher in Alamo Heights Independent School District.
The restaurateur always wanted to run a deli with a Texas accent, he said, but never thought he’d do it in the midst of a crisis. His place, The Hayden, a “new-school deli” opened in mid-October with a full bar at Broadway and East Hildebrand Avenue.
“We started this a year and a half ago, when no one could imagine the pandemic was coming. But, when you sign a lease and put half a million (dollars) into a space, you keep going,” he said.
He’s reduced staff, trimmed menu items, and curtailed operating hours, he added, but business is steady.
Lampinstein credited his education and experience in advertising with helping get The Hayden successfully underway.
“We have really put a lot into social media, which is great. Most people who come in want to take pictures and post them, and that really helps get our marketing out,” he said.