On this week's episode of "What's Eric Eating," chef Austin Simmons joins CultureMap food editor Eric Sandler to discuss the various steps he's taken at his two restaurants in The Woodlands, Tris and The Kitchen, to shift service in response to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. Simmons says he understood quickly that signature Tris dishes like kimchi pancake with poached crab or roasted duck breast wouldn't work in a to-go environment, so he switched to family meals like chicken parmesan and meatloaf that would travel well and offer value.
So far, the shift has been working. Tris has captured enough business that Simmons says he was able to rehire most of his hourly cooks and keep the restaurant's management team on the payroll.
Simmons has been thinking about how Tris will operate once dining rooms are allowed to reopen. He's purchased masks and gloves for servers to wear, and he anticipates using the restaurant's private dining rooms for regular seating to allow tables to be spaced farther apart. The restaurant's to-go meals will likely remain on the menu for some time as an acknowledgement that some people won't feel comfortable in public settings for awhile. Despite all of these challenges, he's feeling optimistic about the future.
"I think there's a lot of opportunity in the restaurant business going forward. You've got to weather the storm. Right now, it's just about survival, get through until they pull social distancing from us," Simmons says. "Really and truly, Eric, it will come back. I'm not sitting here saying restaurants are over and my chef career is done. Everybody eats. That's always going to hold true, and people are going to want the dining experience again."
Prior to the interview with Simmons, Avondale Food & Wine owner Mary Clarkson joins Sandler to discuss the news of the week. Clarkson offers an update on how Avondale has changed its business by focusing on retail wine sales and selling grocery boxes. Their other topics include the challenges of the Payroll Protection Program for small restaurants, restaurants reopening for to-go service, and Ostia, a new restaurant that will open in Montrose this summer.
In the restaurants of the week segment, they discuss where they've been ordering food to go. Clarkson mentions The Pit Room, Cuchara, Squable, and others, while Sandler mentions Kokoro, Backstreet Cafe, burger-chan, and others.