To weather coronavirus, local restaurants turn to creativity, collaboration

MARFA — Stephen Treviño was worried about El Camino. After starting the casual eatery last year, he had recently moved his kitchen from a building near Dollar General into the back of the Lost Horse Saloon. He knew not having a storefront was a big drawback, but he figured he could rely on a steady stream of drunk and hungry drinkers. And then coronavirus concerns hit the region, prompting emergency orders and disruptions to daily life.

Lost Horse soon temporarily closed to comply with local orders. Treviño tried to keep his restaurant going out of a nondescript door in the back — but sales took a nosedive.

Treviño was standing outside El Camino one day, brainstorming ways to save his business, when an idea hit him: What if he tried making Chinese food?

“It was a spur-of-the-moment ‘Hail Mary’ when orders were at their lowest,” he said.

For Treviño, cooking American-Chinese food wasn’t exactly a new idea. “I grew up with a lot of ginger and soy,” said Treviño, who’s part Filipino on his mother’s side. When the Marfa resident was setting up his restaurant last year, Chinese-American food was “a huge contender for what the prevailing concept would be.” But he decided to go with American diner grub instead.

He’d always loved what he calls “mall Chinese,” that distinctly American cuisine that leans heavily on sweet and fried flavors. And sure enough, Marfa loved it too.

When Treviño did the first Chinese food special last month, he could barely keep up with the orders.

“It was a nice surprise,” he said. “It was really kind of this ‘oasis in the desert’ moment.”

It’s no surprise that restaurants are hurting right now, in Marfa and across the country. As emergency orders have reduced restaurants to takeout-only and worried would-be diners have sheltered at home, tens of thousands of restaurants across the United States have already permanently closed, according to the National Restaurant Association. UBS, an investment bank, has predicted that one in five restaurants could close permanently by the time the coronavirus pandemic is over.

But amidst the pain, there are glimmers of hope, as Marfa restaurants carve out redemption stories in the face of an international health crisis. Long-standing restaurants are finding ways to adapt, whether through online ordering or revamped menus. And with a new collaboration, “A Taste of Normal,” local restaurants and food businesses are working together to serve free meals to struggling community members.

As local restaurateurs have adapted to the coronavirus, not all have gone as far as Treviño in offering whole new genres of food. But almost all of the still-open Marfa eateries are making changes.

Convenience West, the beloved local barbeque joint, has set up an online storefront. Fans might not be able to stop in for a tray of brisket and pickles, but they can place bulk orders of both online.

Bad Hombres, a popular spot for burgers and beers, has set up an online ordering system after years of resisting the trend to go digital, said owner David Beebe.

The coronavirus “pushed us to make something we should have already had: an online system for orders,” he said. “We didn’t have that. Now we do.”

At Aster, the popular lunch and brunch eatery, owner Sabine Blaese is thinking about pared-down menus and simpler dishes as she navigates a reopening with limited staff.

“The röstis might be a casualty for the time being,” she said. “They require a lot of prep.”

Marfa restaurateurs interviewed for this story agreed that the Marfa service industry runs on tourists. Even with adaptations and outpourings of local support, the business from Marfa residents isn’t always enough to sustain operations.

That was the situation Sabine Blaese found herself in during the start of the coronavirus scare last month. She tried pick-up and delivery for a week or so, but there weren’t enough customers. Aster closed.

Blaese worried about her staff. “I think they’re holding up okay,” she said. “They’re not great. They’re out of work.” She checked in on them, in part to “make sure they’re getting their unemployment checks, which they are.”

Even if she could start hiring workers again, not all would be able to work right now, she said.

“We don’t even know when the schools are going to reopen,” she said. “They’re 24/7 parenting.”

Marfa coffee shop Frama and its sister store Plaine in Alpine have switched to an “online ordering system that allows customizable drinks and everything,” said owner Daniel Browning. But as Browning grappled with changes at his own businesses, he also worried about all the other people in Marfa who were hurting and wanted to do something more to help.

“Obviously, any one business makes a powerful statement when they help out,” Browning said. But he was thinking bigger than Frama or Plaine. He wanted local restaurants to “stand arm-in-arm and say, ‘We’re here for you.’”

Browning started talking to friends in the restaurant world about the idea, including Bad Hombres owner David Beebe. Beebe loved the idea and thought it spoke to Marfa’s collaborative ethos.

“It’s cool to have a few restaurants band together and do this thing,” Beebe said. “We’re not in competition.”

Like that, “A Taste of Normal” was born. So far, at least seven local restaurants have joined in: Aster, Bad Hombres, Convenience West, Frama, Para Llevar, Plaine and The Waterstop.

Under the initiative, participating restaurants have agreed to donate $1,000 in food to locals in need through gift certificates. The Big Bend Coffee Roasters and The Get Go are donating food and money to help offset the costs.

Aster has reopened to serve BLTs and other specials for the initiative. The Get Go is donating fruit to the restaurant, which Aster is turning into pies.

Joe Williams, owner of Big Bend Coffee Roasters, said he contributed $1,000 to “A Taste of Normal.”

“It was the right thing to do,” he said. “That’s all I’ll say.”

When The Big Bend Sentinel interviewed restaurant owners for this story this past week, Marfa still seemed in a more-or-less indefinite limbo. But the situation changed dramatically on Monday.

In a news conference that day, Governor Greg Abbott said he would let his emergency orders “expire as scheduled” on Thursday night. Businesses like restaurants will be able open at 25 percent capacity, though the rules are even more lax in rural counties with less than five cases — like the tri-county — where businesses can serve up to 50 percent capacity if they file the right paperwork.

Tomorrow, restaurants and bars in the area will have to decide how they will respond to the new rules. In his news conference, Abbott stressed his order was “permission to open — not a requirement.” But the more the tri-county opens back up, the tougher it may seem for some small businesses to stay closed. If no one else is taking precautions, some struggling small business owners might wonder, then why should I?

By Tuesday, restaurateurs in Marfa were reacting to the news — with many saying they would continue to remain closed to dine-in service.

In a follow-up interview, Treviño said Lost Horse would not reopen. El Camino would continue serving to-go orders, he said.

In an Instagram post, Convenience West said it was making the “tuff decision” not to reopen service at its restaurant.

“We can’t wait to have you dine in with us again,” the company wrote. “When that day comes it will be the BEST DAY EVER!”

In the same post, Bad Hombres owner David Beebe said he made the same decision.

“The right call,” he wrote. “Hombres right there with you.”

Sabine Blaese, owner of Aster, likewise said she will not reopen to dining-in service — calling it “way too soon.” But Aster will keep cooking “A Taste of Normal” meals on Saturdays and Sundays, she said.

For Blaese — like restaurateurs across the city and country — keeping her restaurant doors closed for weeks and into the future is a heartbreaking decision.

“We’re strange people,” she said of culinary workers in an interview on Monday, before Abbott’s new rules were announced. “We just want to feed people. If we aren’t allowed to do that, that’s pretty harsh.”

As Blaese changes up her menu and remodels her restaurant, she’s thrilled about reopening Aster’s doors someday. She will be looking to hotels, she said, as a barometer for whether life is normal again. She hopes visitors will start returning by mid-May or so, but “if there’s a stampede of people coming out of the cities, that’s not going to be good, either.” She hopes for a perfect visitor count: not too many and not too few.