For a vacation town like Galveston, novel coronavirus’s March arrival was a double whammy. It meant the effective cancellation of spring break, which normally attracts millions of visitors to the city over the course of a couple weeks, and now restaurants on the Island are trying to avoid total devastation.
Even the legendary Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant, a family-owned establishment that’s been around for more than a century, is worried about the future. “Spring break is kind of the milestone for a lot of businesses here on the island,” owner Nick Gaido says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be hospitality because a lot of businesses, whether they’re in hospitality or not, revolve around the hospitality business.”
On March 17, City of Galveston officials issued an order requiring restaurants in the city to close their doors to stem the spread of coronavirus. A number of restaurants on the island refused to close their doors, staying open for St. Patrick’s Day revelers despite the order banning dine-in services. It may seem like a stupid move, especially considering what we know about the spread of coronavirus in crowds, but for a lot of owners, it was a last-ditch effort at survival.
“We basically go from doing wintertime business to carving out a week in July and put it in March. That’s pretty much what spring break is for us,” said Nick Gaido, the current owner of his family’s restaurant. “Business has slowed to, I’d say, 5% of what we normally do.” Like restaurants in Houston, Galveston eateries are limited to takeout and delivery only, which many say isn’t enough.
With beachfront dining rooms sitting empty and sales in a devastating slump, some of the restaurants that have decided to remain open are altering their business models to offer direct-to-consumer products because those products may be out of stock elsewhere due to panic buying. Jimmy’s on the Pier, a Southern comfort and seafood restaurant on the water, has transitioned to a grocery market of sorts in an effort to stay alive.
“We have supplies from the restaurant industry and we’re trying to get stuff like tissues, paper towels, eggs, and sell it to the public because they can’t get it in regular stores,” said executive chef Yarik Golobokov. The seaside restaurant, which normally employs around 50 people, was planning on hiring additional seasonal Galvestonians for the summer boom but has since reduced its staff to about four employees because they have no idea what the future may hold.
“As of last week, our fishing pier was open. Today, the fishing pier is closed because the city shut down, and I understand,” Golobokov said. “Maybe tomorrow they’re going to tell restaurants to close completely.”
James Clark, president of the Galveston Restaurant Association, is helping coordinate these changes for restaurants as they transition into small-scale grocery retailers. Even though it’s probably not a long-term fix, the transition can help restaurants pay their fixed costs, like rent and utilities, while they’re not able to fully be open for business. It’s also a way to help restaurant suppliers, who are struggling while dining rooms are shuttered, and boost the local economy.
“The suppliers have really stepped it up and approached us with different ideas and ways to change our types of operations and in turn it will keep them busy and keep the restaurants busy as well,” Clark said. “If we aren’t all busy then we’re all not doing well. It’s not just the restaurants — it’s the suppliers, it’s the delivery drivers, it’s everyone.”
Clark, who is also the director of operations and managing partner of both the Mosquito Cafe and PattyCakes Bakery in Galveston, has put the practice into place at his establishments, where customers can place orders for groceries online.
“We’re offering uncooked meats, eggs, fruits, vegetables, dry pastas, rices, salad kits, meal kits — pretty much anything that you could get at a grocery store within reason,” Clark said. “We’re trying to give opportunities to the community to be able to help support the restaurants but also go into a safer environment to pick up their groceries.”
While helping coordinate the altered business models Clark has also been in regular communication with the Galveston chapter’s parent organization, the Texas Restaurant Association, for other resources available that can help struggling businesses. It’s too early to tell what kind of permanent impact novel coronavirus will have on Galveston, but in the meantime, the Texas Restaurant Association is working to provide relief grants to help keep these restaurants alive.
“It will give them access to up to $5000 as a grant to help with any expenses that are being accrued,” Clark said. “They are keeping everyone very well informed and doing their best to come up with creative ways to approach our governor and get releases on certain restrictions that would allow businesses to still generate some kind of revenue during these tough times.”