Ask anyone in Austin when they knew the COVID pandemic would drastically change the city, and they’ll likely point to the cancellation of the city’s biggest festival, South by Southwest (SXSW), in 2020. This move by the city of Austin – announced just a week before the festival’s scheduled date – became the opening salvo of the ongoing pandemic that has closed more than 90,000 restaurants across the country.
With the rise of the omicron variant in November resulting in a spike in cases across the United States in December and January, many held their breath and openly wondered about the state of SXSW for 2022. And as the festival is on Set to return with a hybrid in-person and virtual format this week, Austin’s restaurants, venues and food workers look to the events of the coming weeks with a healthy mix of optimism and uncertainty.
“It looks like we’re becoming a recurring illness like the flu,” says Miguel Cabos, co-owner of Mexican restaurant Vaquero Taquero, which opened a restaurant downtown during the pandemic. The restaurant will still follow the guidelines in place, “but we have no control over the masses who show up.”
Even two years into a pandemic, there are many unanswered COVID questions. In early March, Austin and Travis County moved past omicron’s push and moved into Stage 2 of its coronavirus risk-based guidelines. But while Austin Public Health continues to offer separate recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, both sets still recommend masking in travel situations. Although SXSW requires attendees to vaccinate or test to keep their badges, Texas state law still prevents local agencies from instituting formal COVID rules, leaving the companies that will serve this massive international event to operate in the cloud. of uncertainty. At the same time, public demand for COVID protections has declined in recent months. This makes SXSW the last wrinkle in an ever-changing business environment in the era of the pandemic.
“The reality is that there is inherent risk in what we do, period,” admits Eric Silverstein, the founder of South Asian restaurant and foodservice company Peached Tortilla. “The best thing we can do as a company is to protect our people,” he says, stressing that health care and access to vaccines are the best line of defense. Shawn Cirkiel of the downtown Parkside New American restaurant also stressed the importance of his team’s internal efforts, including following safety rules and providing health care. “I think at the end of the day this is really our best opportunity” to stay safe, he says.
The unpredictability of COVID-19 introduces new challenges for the city’s restaurants and bars, many of which benefit from large corporate contracts associated with the festival, which is usually a big source of revenue. According to SXSW, there was an indirect impact of $62.3 million for the city, which included restoration efforts. Brooke Greer, owner of Contigo Catering, which recently parted ways with the now-closed Contigo restaurant, believes all of this uncertainty has resulted in a lot more last-minute deals in 2022, even by SXSW standards. She shared that many large companies canceled SXSW plans in December and early January during the omicron surge. And now, “a bunch of companies have decided, ‘Okay, we’re going to host something, we’re going to launch it together.'”
In light of this, Greer and his team have set high minimums for potential contracts and are waiting for the biggest events to make the festival worthwhile. “It’s a bit unforgiving,” she admitted. Contigo Catering had 10 events pending at the end of February.
The same goes for the peach tortilla. The omicron variant has had a huge impact on the business, Silverstein says, adding that the restaurant’s food services are back to 70% of business as usual. Silverstein sees reputation as an important factor in navigating COVID. While there is an inherent risk in hosting any event during the pandemic, restaurant owners such as Silverstein are also concerned about their public perception. Companies like Peached Tortilla, he says, are asking, “What does it look like? What is our level of corporate responsibility for holding this [event]?’”
And while public health and safety are the biggest pieces of the COVID puzzle, the pandemic has exposed fundamental issues in supply chain and labor policies around the world. Over the past two years, many workers have chosen to walk away from the risks associated with frontline exposure, and no local business has been immune to personnel issues. The success with which each site weathers the storm often comes down to the relationships they maintained throughout the dark times of 2020 and 2021.
The bar and venue East Austin Hotel Vegas has managed to maintain its staff. “We’re really lucky to have a team of veterans who came back when we got back,” says co-owner Christian Moses, adding that team members include people who “come from all over” just to work during the festival. . The same can be said for the East Austin Tex-Mex restaurant Tamale House East, which saw staff move away to care for family members during the height of the pandemic. “We’re very, very lucky they’re back,” says co-owner Carmen Valera, “and they’re ready to work and ready to go.”
For others, this SXSW will be an exercise in restraint. Catering has traditionally been an important part of the festival experience for Asian-Mexican fusion chain Chi’Lantro: before the pandemic hit, on-site food trucks for events and marquee parties typically required hires temporary. For this year’s festival, owner Jae Kim and his team will work with his existing team and focus on serving prepackaged meals. “We prefer to do some things really well,” Kim says. “That’s our approach this year.”
But despite all the ambiguity – public safety concerns, personnel issues, etc. – there’s also a real sense of hope with this year’s festival. SXSW always brings both dollars and exposure to Austin, where companies old and new benefit from the process. Birdie’s, a bustling new wine restaurant in East Austin specializing in New American cuisine, opened during the pandemic; this will be the first SXSW for co-owners Arjav Ezekiel and Tracy Malechek, and they are excited to share their menu with new faces from around the world. “I think of Austin as a great food city, not just of the country, but of the world,” says Ezekiel. “It’s a great opportunity for us to show ourselves.”
For many in the services industry, there is a sense of optimism that SXSW will be a turning point or even a fresh start for companies looking to bounce back from two years of tight belts. Valera remembers participating in a panel discussion the day after 2020 was canceled and seeing nothing but fear on the faces of the audience. Now there is at least a little light at the end of the tunnel. “After feeling anxiety and fear and then just pushing through, it feels like a bit of hope,” she admits.
And for smaller venues that have beaten all odds and survived the past two years, SXSW is a welcome reminder that there’s still a lot of fighting to do in family businesses. “We didn’t have the resources to have good accountants and lawyers to get all the Paycheck Protection Program loans,” adds Cabos. “We’re all sweat and tears, and now we’re an official SXSW concert venue. It’s up to us to throw the punches.