How Classic Texas Restaurant Jack Allen’s Kitchen Adapted to COVID-19
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Eater has checked in with Austin’s restaurants about how the pandemic has affected business, service models, and more. Next up in this row: Jack Gilmore, chef and co-owner of the farm-to-table mini chain Jack Allen’s kitchen.
Eater Austin: How is the COVID-19 pandemic currently affecting business?
Jack Gilmore: As of now in 2021, things are roughly the same as they were in the fall of 2020. The new 50 percent capacity mandate didn’t help or hurt either Jack Allen or our sister restaurant Salt Trader’s, as our maximum capacity is 50 percent at the six foot distancing rule.
I’ll be honest: it’s weird walking around the dining room these days. One of the main reasons I got into the restaurant business was for the community and our guests. I enjoy the hospitality aspect of everything and that has definitely changed. You can’t greet people with a smile right now. I am trying to express through my eyes that we as a human race can get through this by devoting ourselves to our community, and we take this responsibility very seriously. I can’t tell you what it means to me to walk through a semi-busy dining room because I know these people trust you with their safety. I don’t take any of this for granted.
What is the current service model?
In the past 10 months we’ve tried almost everything. In addition to the dine-in service with limited capacity, we currently offer curb, call-in and online orders, which are noticeable when there are tighter blocks. Dinner is now shorter than it used to be. We offer a location-based lunch service if the demand from employees and guests increases. It’s an act of juggling from shift to shift. As with everyone else, the goal is to break even and build from there. Tom [Kamm, co-owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen] and I’m on the same page about staff wellbeing and guest safety – it’s our number one priority.
Do you have any changes planned?
We all realized that we were not financially prepared for something on this scale. Most importantly, we weren’t ready to take advantage of all the IT crap – online ordering, EZ payment, QR codes, etc. – that we didn’t use before the pandemic. We’ll soon be hiring an IT person to make some final improvements to our systems and provide a seamless experience for our guests. We feel that half evaluating our systems leaves a chance on the table.
What measures are you currently taking to prevent the spread of COVID?
Chefs create and follow their own recipes – we know how to make new things. But when it comes to COVID, we’ve realized that we need to rely on others’ knowledge of protocols. Now we are implementing the best protocols and can quickly change them if necessary. We communicate excessively with all employees and require security first. We still have the occasional idiot trying to come in without a mask and a 20 year old hostess has to be the one to get them in place. Our employees understand that we trust their judgment and that we as managers have their backs. We spend a lot of money that we don’t have on safety: gloves, disinfectants, disinfection services, etc. Restaurants have always done a good job with safety. We take this for granted, it is simply extremely expensive for COVID.
How has business been so far?
Our sales have had great success, but we know there will be an end. But when does who know? We have learned so much about our business and gained a lot of knowledge – and even more respect for all the raw materials we count on [from farmers].
What else should we know?
I found out the hard way that closing a connection is much easier than opening it again, largely due to the broken food chain and all providers. We work with some of the best suppliers and farmers. They are nimble and do what they can to take care of us. At the beginning of the reopening, we called our suppliers for the first time to get them on the same page. Then they ask us how much we want. We stumble and honestly say “shit I don’t know” so we commit and execute. Then a server comes back or a bartender asks, “How much can we make with tips?” and we say, “shit, I don’t know.” Trust and loyalty to our employees and guests come first. Always was and always will be. Fortunately, it works so far. We humbly learn and respond as we walk.
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