Sep 22, 2022 - News

Austin's 24-hour diners meet match in COVID

Illustration of a clock with chef's knives for hands.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

In the long fallout from COVID, we've mourned that some Austin round-the-clock eateries — long among the most popular spots in town — have been shortening their hours … or closing down altogether.

Why it matters: Dining out is about community, and the 24-hour spots represented something vital about Austin, where students, musicians and cops could reliably break bread together — or at least in adjacent booths.

The big picture: Blame COVID, as people remain more likely to stay home than venture forth for a late-late-night meal out.

Exhibit A: Magnolia Cafe, which shuttered its Lake Austin Boulevard location in 2020 and has been operating its South Congress branch with limited, more conventional hours, from 8am to 10pm.

What they're saying: "There's not enough nightlife yet and it's hard to get staff," Magnolia owner Kent Cole tells Axios.

  • Fewer concertgoers at nearby night clubs mean fewer late-night customers — and also fewer musicians and bartenders searching for a 2am Magnolia cornmeal pancake. (Which are excellent, by the way.)
  • Jettisoning 24-hour operations has cut into the restaurant's "halo effect," Cole says, of drawing in customers who automatically knew they could get a bite at Magnolia at any time. (Its iconic neon sign — "Sorry, we're open" — no longer flickers in the dead of night.)

Between the lines: Open-late eateries have also suffered from what Cole calls the "twin threats" — grocery stores offering ready-to-eat meals and the proliferation of food delivery services.

Other casualties: Kerbey Lane Cafe also has straitened hours, and La Mexicana, the beloved Mexican bakery, shut down altogether earlier this year.

  • Even 24 Diner, the Central Austin eatery so named because it was open 24 hours per day, now operates a more hum-drum 7am to 11pm.

Yes, but: Bennu Coffee and Tyson's Tacos remain open 24 hours daily.

Zoom out: Texas restaurant operators report that 67% don't have enough staff to support existing demand; 86% are paying more for food and beverages; and 81% are paying more for their labor, per the Texas Restaurant Association.

  • "Restaurants have had to look for cost savings and efficiencies to survive the post-pandemic economic stressors of labor shortages and price spikes," Kelsey Erickson Streufert of the trade association tells Axios. "Reducing hours is one of the most efficient ways to control costs. I know many of these restaurants hate to do it, however."

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