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Food, glorious food

RIP, Luby’s

The end of an era.

Looks like the days of LuAnn platters are coming to an end. Luby’s board of directors has “approved and adopted a plan of liquidation and dissolution,” the company announced.

The plan will need to be approved by the company’s shareholders. A date for that vote was not included in today’s announcement.

Previously, Luby’s stated it would seek a sale of its assets that would pay off its debts and generate money for its stockholders. Following the liquidation plan will generate between $92 million and $123 million, according to the company’s estimates. That represents between $3 and $4 per share of its stock (approximately 30.7 million shares outstanding).

“This plan of liquidation is the next logical step in the company’s previously announced plan to maximize value of the company through the sale of its operations and assets,” Gerald Bodzy and Randolph Read, co-chairmen of the special committee responsible for the decision, said in a statement. “Our stockholders have expressed their support for seeking alternatives to continuing to operate the company’s restaurants in their current form, and we believe the plan of liquidation will allow the company to accomplish that task in the most efficient manner.”

Ultimately, the company intends to converts all of its assets into cash, resolve its debts, and then file a certificate of dissolution. Its stock (NYSE: LUB) would be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange at that point or possibly sooner according to the exchange’s rules.

While a slim possibility exists that a buyer could be found that would keep the Houston-based cafeteria chain whole — Luby’s also owns Fuddrucker’s — the more likely plan seems to be that the restaurants will close and the company’s real estate holdings and other assets will be sold. Still, the company argues that a buyer who might preserve the restaurants is possible.

I assume Fuddrucker’s will continue as an entity, just owned by some other conglomerate. As for Luby’s, well, as someone said, tastes changed but Luby’s didn’t. Life is like that sometimes, unfortunately. I don’t have the emotional attachment to the place that natives do, but I sure do know some folks that are broken up about this. Texas Monthly, Houstonia, and the Chron have more.

Food trucks and bars

I approve of this.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission approved rules Tuesday intended to make it easier for bars to legally operate as restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state agency greatly expanded rules that had already offered a limited lifeline for some bars to temporarily reclassify themselves and generate a sliver of sales during the coronavirus crisis. The goal is to provide more ways for businesses to qualify as restaurants under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order GA-28, which prohibits bars from reopening but allows restaurants to remain open at 50% capacity.

TABC’s amendments to Rule 33.5, which deals with food and beverage certificates, go into effect immediately.

The amended rules mean that bars can now reopen whether or not they have commercial-grade kitchens. Off-site food will also be allowed to be sold at the bars. This would include packaged items.

Additionally, bars will be able to more easily partner with food trucks. Sales from these food orders will be able to count toward the TABC’s rule that alcohol must account for less than 51% of the establishment’s gross revenue in order for it to open as a restaurant.

As we have discussed before, the 51% rule is more than a little arbitrary, and bars have deserved more flexibility to operate. I don’t want to downplay the risks here – you are still much better off avoiding indoor spaces and taking any food or drink to go if there isn’t an outdoor seating arrangement. If they comply with the limited capacity rules that apply to restaurants, then I favor approaches like this that let more bars be classified as restaurants, because they need the help. In the absence of federal help, this is the best we can do at this time. (To be fair, not all bar owners agree with this approach. A more serious review of the TABC’s 51% formula is still needed.) Reform Austin, the Dallas Observer, and the Current have more.

It’s still hard out here on bars and restaurants

I continue to worry about our once-thriving hospitality industry.

Hundreds of Texas bars and restaurants are scrambling to change how they operate, maneuvering through loopholes that will allow them to reopen after being closed by Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest shutdown targeting bars.

Abbott has shut bars down twice since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in Texas. The first time bars were swept up in a total lockdown of statewide businesses. But the second time, on June 26, Abbott singled bars out while allowing virtually every other kind of business in Texas to stay open.

But other operations such as restaurants that sell a lot of booze, wineries and breweries were ensnared in the same order and also forced to close because alcohol sales exceeded 51% of total revenue, meaning they were classified as bars.

“Generally everyone has a common sense understanding: ‘What is a bar? And what is a restaurant?’ I think that 51% rule is so broad that it actually picks up or encompasses businesses that we would normally think of as really being restaurants,” said State Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, one of more than 65 lawmakers who signed a letter asking Abbott to update his order’s definition of a restaurant.

Wray gave the example of a burger restaurant, where a patron might buy a burger and two beers. Oftentimes, the beer will cost more than the food, but that doesn’t make the restaurant a bar, he said.

Emily Williams Knight, Texas Restaurant Association president, estimates that about 1,500 restaurants ranging from steak houses to coffee shops that sell wine were “inadvertently” forced to close when Abbott shut down bars, translating to about 35,000 lost jobs in the state.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission responded to outcry from the service industry with new guidance in a July 30 notice allowing businesses to either demonstrate that they recently had less than 51% alcohol sales or use alcohol sales projections and apply for a Food and Beverage Certificate, documentation that allows them to reopen as a restaurant.

The certificate workaround requires the business to have a permanent kitchen. It allows bars and restaurants to use projected sales numbers instead of requiring past sales to determine if alcohol sales exceed food sales.

The TABC received more than 600 requests from existing businesses for Food and Beverage Certificates since Abbott’s order took place and granted about 300, according to commission spokesperson Chris Porter. Almost 90 businesses have also requested to update their alcohol sales numbers in an effort to reopen.

The Texas restaurant industry is already struggling, with Knight projecting that up to 30% of restaurants in the state could go out of business.

For those forced to shut down due to the bar order, it can be a death sentence and business owners see these changes as their last hope.

[…]

Breweries also found themselves forced to shut down by Abbott’s order, with two-thirds of Texas craft brewery owners predicting that their businesses could close permanently by the end of the year under the current closures, according to a July survey by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.

Hopsquad Brewing Co., an Austin brewery, reopened as a restaurant using a Food and Beverage Certificate with an onsite food truck serving as its kitchen, General Manager Greg Henny said.

He was lucky, because the brewery already had a food truck on site, Henry said. But he thinks breweries and wineries should have their own classification separate from bars, because they operate differently.

Henny said the guidance from the TABC has been confusing and harmful to breweries. To help other businesses survive the pandemic, the agency allowed “retail and manufacturing businesses” to serve and sell alcohol in a patio or outdoor area that wasn’t part of its original designated premises, which some brewery owners took as being able to reopen.

However, the TABC later released a clarification saying that businesses with more than 51% alcohol sales were not eligible.

“The circumstances are constantly changing as a result of which way the winds are blowing with [the TABC],” he said. “It makes us feel frustrated. We’re fighting tooth and nail just to stay open, and we’ve shown time and time again that we can operate safely,” he said.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Texas Legislative Tourism Caucus chairman led the efforts behind the letter sent to Abbott asking for an updated restaurant definition.

“You’ve got a lot of these establishments — these restaurants — that are kind of in limbo just because of how much alcohol they sell,” he said. “Restaurants that have already been decimated by the first initial shutdowns with the pandemic [and] by some people’s reluctance to want to come in and eat.”

I’ve beaten this drum before, and I continue to believe that to-go food and drink rules should be as liberal as possible, the 51% rule should be greatly relaxed, all avenues for outdoor seating should be explored, craft breweries and wineries and distilleries should get a break. But let’s be real, the problem won’t be truly solved until we get the damn virus under control, and that means taking mask wearing and social distancing seriously. It would be nice if we had a functional, non-evil federal government that tried to do something to help, but that ain’t happening till January, and we don’t have that kind of time. It would also be nice to get a rescue bill for bars and restaurants passed – there are some bipartisan proposals out there – but, well, see the previous point. We have to hold on for now.

And lord knows, that ain’t easy.

Bars that offer food service are scraping by with booze to-go operations. Their counterparts without kitchens, bound by state rules, can do little but watch their coffers wither.

“We’re all looking at our bank accounts like you would at the life bar in a video game,” said Michael Neff, owner of the Cottonmouth Club downtown. “All of us are just watching that life bar everyday trying to predict how long we have until it disappears.”

The industry had barely got its legs back following the limited reopening that went into effect on May 22 when on June 26 Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the state’s roughly 5,500 bars closed indefinitely. Bar owners, feeling they have been targeted, have decried what they describe as a lack of support from leaders as they square off with the coronavirus. Some have gone as far as filing suit against Abbott seeking to have the closure order overturned.

“Financially it’s just the worst you can imagine,” said Scott Repass, owner of Poison Girl in Montrose.

To be clear, Repass said, he agrees that people should not be drinking in bars right now. But he said there’s little difference between what would be happening at bars if they were open and what continues to happen at cafes and restaurants.

“If you shut down a bar, people are just going to go to a restaurant with a bar,” he said. “There’s just no logic to it, that that is safer than a bar operating at 25 percent capacity. We feel like we were scapegoated.”

I don’t agree with that. Clearly, many more people can be packed into a bar than a restaurant. Again, I’m up for drinks to go and outdoor seating, and maybe bars at 25% capacity with social distancing once we’ve got the numbers down some more, but the bars needed to be closed. Maybe if we’d stayed closed a little longer we wouldn’t have had to close them again, but it was right to close them. All that said, I do agree with this:

Lindsay Rae Burleson, who opened Two Headed Dog with her business partner before the pandemic hit, has been working since March at a Houston distillery making hand sanitizer to make ends meet.

The bar’s fate is uncertain, she said. Government-backed loans have run out, and she decided not to renew her insurance, which would require a substantial downpayment on Aug. 1.

Losing the bar for good would strap her with a debt so large, “it doesn’t even feel like a real number.”

“I worked nine years to get this bar,” the longtime bartender said. “I put everything I had in. I haven’t got a cent of salary, yet.”

Artisan bars and neighborhood ice boxes are part of Houston’s fabric, she said. But now the city is barreling toward a reality in which only the chains may survive.

“That’s not a city I want to live in,” she said. “That’s not a city I want to be a tourist at.”

We’ve gotta beat the virus. We can’t have our nice things until we do. Tell the Senate to pass that $3 trillion bill the House passed back in May to ease people’s financial burden until then, and then work on a bill specifically to help bars and restaurants. It’s a whole lot easier if we let it be.

How Nuro is doing in the pandemic

An interesting update on the little driverless grocery (and other things) delivery serives.

As recently as last fall, Nuro appeared to be years away from widespread adoption. The company, which operated in Arizona and California, arrived in Houston in 2018 to test its vehicles on a city known for its diversity, with a wide range of neighborhoods and types of customers. Though the cars were overseen by two human employees in the front seat, the goal was to develop the world’s preeminent fully autonomous delivery service. The robotically piloted Toyota Priuses, equipped with remote sensing equipment on top, became a fairly common sight in central Houston neighborhoods. But before the pandemic, most people didn’t pay them much attention.

Last fall, only 3 percent of the nation’s households were placing frequent online orders for grocery delivery. The low rate was attributed to shoppers’ concerns about higher prices online and delivery drivers showing up late. In May of this year, however, that number had skyrocketed to 33 percent, a stunning increase that—in even the best case scenarios—was expected to take many years to reach, not months. In Houston alone, Nuro has seen its deliveries triple into the thousands since the pandemic turned in-person shopping into risky activity. Suddenly, Nuro was no longer a novelty, but an important aid for many Houstonians sheltering in place.

[…]

In addition to partnering with Kroger, the nation’s largest operator of traditional supermarkets, Nuro delivers Domino’s pizza and prescriptions from CVS. The company expects much of its new customer base to remain after the pandemic, believing that quarantine has only amplified an existing trend toward on-demand grocery delivery. Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber, cites high customer appreciation scores as evidence that new users will remain loyal to the brand.

When I spoke to Lawal, I asked him what he would have thought if someone had shown him those heightened delivery numbers last fall.

“I’m not sure what I would’ve thought,” he said. “I just know I would’ve been very confused.”

The pandemic hasn’t just rapidly expanded the company’s customer base and delivery volume, it’s also forced them to adapt. The company still relies on Nuro employees to oversee the autonomous vehicles, collect valuable information about how they perform on the road, and unload groceries gathered by workers at Kroger. Last fall, when driverless vehicles arrived at a home with groceries in tow, a human operator sitting in the passenger seat would hand the goods over to customers or deliver them to the front door. In Houston, some families had a habit of meeting the vehicles at the curb with a red wagon. “It was like a mini family celebration,” Lawal explained.

With person-to-person interaction no longer safe, Nuro’s engineers rushed to develop a new system that would allow customers to open a delivery vehicle’s doors by flashing a thumbs-up sign or using a setting on their mobile phone. (Both the hand gesture and smartphone features are available only on vehicles in California for now.)

“Creating contact-less delivery was a long-term goal that got sped up when it became clear that, yeah, we need to be able to do this now!” Lawal said.

That was specifically one of the things I wondered about when Nuro expanded its service a couple of months ago. I still think there will be demand for having a human person bring the groceries to your door, but perhaps the demand for contactless delivery will be greater than I might have thought. We still mostly go to the store ourselves – early mornings are fairly uncrowded, and it’s the only way to be sure you’re getting exactly what you want, including when what you originally wanted isn’t available – but the allure of delivery is easy to see. Have any of you tried this service?

Restaurants may get to use parking lot space for dining

I like this idea.

Restaurants in Houston, currently limited by 50% indoor capacity limits, may soon be able to serve diners in parking lots to accommodate more guests.

Pending a vote by the Houston City Council, a “More Spaces” plan developed by Houston’s Chief Transportation Officer David Fields would allow restaurants to convert 50% of off-street parking spots to dining spaces.

The ability to make such conversions would allow restaurants to serve more guests in an open-air environment that limits the spread of the coronavirus more effectively than dining indoors, according to Centers for Disease Control guidance. The efforts mirror that of other cities, such as Austin and Atlanta.

Restaurant owners would not need to apply for the authority to do so; instead, they would file a notification with the city so that the planning department can track restaurants’ compliance with the new protocols. The proposal prohibits music in the adapted outdoor dining areas and limits closing hours to no later than midnight. Participating restaurants must also ensure that ADA-accessible parking spaces remain available.

If enacted, the policy will only remain in place under coronavirus emergency orders, but it could serve as a test period for future efforts.

“I think we could learn a lot from this pilot in the immediate term and go back out to the industry and the community and show what we have learned,” Fields said.

I know, eating outdoors on a concrete or asphalt surface in July and August may not sound appealing, but fall is coming, plenty of dining hours are as or after the sun goes down, and I’m sure the restaurants themselves can figure out what will work for them. The point here is that outdoor is safer than indoor, and this will add capacity to restaurants that are currently limited to fifty percent of their indoor capacity. Their parking lots are already underutilized, so why not give them some options? It can’t hurt to try.

Beer gardens get jerked around

First, we had this.

Saint Arnold Brewing announced Monday that it will temporarily close its beer garden and restaurant. The reason? Gov. Greg Abbott’s office ruled it is a bar, not a restaurant, and therefore should close according to the latest coronavirus shutdown guidelines.

As a response to the surge in virus cases in Texas, the governor backtracked on his reopening plan, ordering bars to close again on June 29. As most restaurants sell alcohol and most bars sell food, the state’s delineation between the two is a “51 percent rule”: if a venue’s alcohol sales make up 51 percent or more of its total revenue, it is considered a bar.

Brock Wagner, Saint Arnold’s founder and brewer, got a call from a local Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) agent on Friday, saying they had received a complaint that Saint Arnold had reopened in violation of the current pandemic orders. When calculating the brewery’s sales breakdown, the governor’s office took into account the beer Saint Arnold sells to its distributors. In addition to its on-premise operations, the Houston brewery has a solid retail presence across Texas and in Louisiana, producing about 70,000 barrels of beer last year.

“According to that, we are the world’s biggest bar,” said Wagner. He believes this ruling defies common sense, as it does not distinguish beer sold to distributors for retail purposes from a beer sold at the restaurant to a customer.

Wagner tried to appeal the decision and contact the governor’s team over the weekend, but was unsuccessful. The brewery announced the closure on Monday. (The governor’s office did not return a request for comment by press time.)

Saint Arnold is back to doing curbside and drive-through sales only; the shutdown of dine-in operations will result in lost jobs.

“They claim that they want to be opening Texas and keeping people at work,” said Wagner. “Instead there’s decisions like this, which are going to eliminate 75 jobs if we don’t get this reversed.”

That story was from July 13. We’re familiar with the plight of the bars that serve food but not enough food for them to be classified as restaurants. This is an arbitrary distinction, one that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s having a bad effect on a lot of craft breweries. But then it looked like there was a breakthrough last week:

You still may not sit down in a bar for a drink, but you may be able to get served at a Texas brewery or other retail alcohol establishment and then sit down at an outdoor patio to enjoy your drink, provided social distancing is followed.

In a decision issued with little fanfare late last week, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission began allowing retail and the manufacturers of alcohol beverages, like breweries, to reopen their outdoor patios to service again.

Community Impact Newspaper in Houston reported that TABC’s decision follows a direct appeal from St. Arnold’s Brewery, which had been forced to close its beer garden under Gov. Greg Abbott’s late June order that shut down all bars that generate more than 51% of their profits from alcohol sales.

TABC did not notify the news media of the change or make a public announcement about the new order. It has apparently also not been available to answer questions from owners who are confused about qualifying for change.

Still not a reprieve for the bars that had to close their dining rooms, but something. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

Late Wednesday night, the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission reversed a recent guideline change that would have let the state’s breweries reopen their patios for service.

The move is an abrupt about-face from last week, when the TABC signaled that brewers could pour product for patrons, so long as they quaffed their beers outside. Under that rule, breweries would have been clear to temporarily modify their licenses to exclude patios and beer gardens from their on-site premises, the Houston Chronicle reports.

However, in the latest turn, the TABC amended its guideline to say that modifying a business premises as unlicensed doesn’t exempt it from Gov. Greg Abbott’s June 26 executive order closing bars and other drinking establishments.

This is ridiculous. If we’ve decided that it’s safe for restaurants to operate at limited capacity, then it surely makes sense for outdoor patio restaurants, which is what these beer gardens are, to do so. Making a certain amount of revenue from alcohol sales should not prevent a restaurant from being treated like any other restaurant. We’re so in thrall to these ridiculous ancient laws and the all-powerful lobbies that keep them on the books that we’ve lost the plot. It just makes no sense at all. Like many businesses in Texas right now, craft breweries are having a rough time. Let’s not go out of our way to make it rougher.

UPDATE: And the pendulum has swung back in favor of beer gardens, though there are still issues with the 51% rule and the overall ability of small brewers to do their business. But it’s at least something.

Wineries and distilleries

I’m happy to keep beating this drum, but I’d really rather not have to.

The owners and patrons of Ironroot Republic Distillery in Denison hardly consider the business to be a bar in the traditional sense.

There’s no loud music or dancing. The doors closed at 5:30 p.m. most nights before the pandemic. On Saturdays, they closed at 3 p.m. Most of its business came from out-of-towners booking tours who wanted to sip the “World’s Best Bourbon,” as designated by the World Whiskies Awards.

Nonetheless, Ironroot Republic Distillery was shut down late last month with the rest of the bars in the state under Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order. Meanwhile, other businesses like restaurants, theme parks and bowling alleys are still open with limited occupancy. Abbott’s order required any business that gets 51% or more of its revenue from alcohol sales to close.

“We’re tourism industry businesses, we’re not bars. So they shouldn’t treat us like bars,” said Dan Garrison, owner of another tasting room, Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, a community in the Texas Hill Country.

Distillery, winery and even some restaurant owners with high alcohol sales say they are unfairly being caught in the crossfire of the statewide bar shutdown, despite running starkly different operations from those Abbott warned against when he issued his latest executive order.

“We’re all struggling to survive right now,” Garrison said. “And we’re about to lose a heck of a growing industry if the governor doesn’t do something.”

[…]

When Ironroot Republic Distillery shut down, most of the people who booked tours could no longer purchase bottles unless they were local to the area, owner Robert Likarish said. Delivering or mailing liquor to consumers isn’t allowed unless there’s a restaurant attached and the business has a mixed beverage permit.

Because it’s in a rural area, it’s been a challenge to get traffic to the distillery for curbside pickup. And even if people do come, state law only allows distilleries to sell two bottles of liquor to a customer within 30 days.

“Essentially, all the things that we’d normally do to help sell and push movement of our product are gone,” Likarish said.

Spencer Whelan, executive director of the Texas Whiskey Association, said the governor’s executive orders didn’t take into account the business models of distilleries and similar businesses.

“It was just kind of generally a wide-swath brush applied to everybody in the alcohol manufacturing industry if they had any kind of retail onsite consumption,” Whelan said.

Whelan is calling for the two-bottle limit to be waived and Sunday sales be allowed. But more than anything, he is urging Abbott to allow age-verified delivery — so that distillers can sell their products across the state.

[…]

Wineries, which often have spacious outdoor vineyards and patios where patrons can spread out, say they’re also being unfairly targeted.

“We were highly impacted by the shutdown and the pandemic just because we were forced to basically close our tasting room, which is where 90% of our sales are generated,” Lost Draw Cellars owner Andrew Sides said.

After missing out on sales in April and May — the months that typically perform best — the Fredericksburg winery reopened at the beginning of June with new rules: All tastings were moved outside, and only one group of people who came together was allowed at a time.

But then, along with bars, the winery was forced to close.

Sides said he wished that Abbott’s order had been more specific — his permit is different from bars’ permits, and people are largely taking the wine offsite to consume at home. It’s frustrating for him when other similar businesses — like a local salsa maker who allows onsite testing — can stay open.

“The whole intent for most tasting rooms and wineries is for people to come and try wine, buy it and leave,” he said.

As you know, I agree with all of this, even more so for outdoor tasting rooms. Let the places that serve food continue to serve food for pickup and delivery, and even for limited outside seating if they have it. None of that is particularly risky, and it will help a business community that really needs it. And of course, I’m all for dismantling our ridiculous system of regulations on beer and liquor. (Turns out that ridiculous anti-competitive beer distribution laws aren’t just for Texas, too.) Let the distilleries sell more bottles, and let them all sell on Sunday. It seems like some of this ought to be an easy Yes for Abbott, so I’m kind of puzzled why he’s not taken any action to help these folks. Whatever the reason, I hope they get some help before it’s too late.

Give the bars a break

I’m OK with this.

The Texas Restaurant Association has asked Gov. Greg Abbott to revise the definitions of “bar” in his recent order closing drinking establishments in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

In a letter to the governor, the TRA argues that if businesses now classified as bars but equipped with permanent kitchen facilities are allowed to reopen as restaurants, 1,500 Texas businesses could resume operation and put up to 35,000 people back to work.

Under current state rules, any establishment that makes 51% of its revenue from alcohol sales is classified as a bar, even if it serves food. The TRA’s proposed change to that definition could clear the reopening of San Antonio businesses such as Southtown fixture The Friendly Spot and brewpub Weathered Souls.

“The definition of ‘bars’ in Gov. Abbott’s executive order has inadvertently captured a lot of restaurants, requiring them to close their dining rooms, even though they were following all of the statewide health protocols for restaurants,” the TRA said in a statement accompanying the letter.

“All restaurants should be allowed to serve the public under the same health and safety standards.”

Lots of bars serve food, and as far as I’m concerned, every bar that has a kitchen ought to be able to prepare meals to go for the duration and beyond. Let them sell mixed drinks to go, too. All that qualifies as low-risk activity and should be enabled and encouraged as a sensible way to let people work without putting their health in significant jeopardy. I’m less interested in letting them open their dining rooms at this time, especially now when we’re talking about maybe having to shut down again, but for to go service they should be considered as restaurants.

You may as well mark today’s date on your calendar, because it will be a long time before I say these words again: I agree with Sid Miller.

In a July 1 letter, Miller asked Gov. Greg Abbott to amend the recent order that closed all Texas bars so that wineries and tasting rooms can reopen immediately.

Currently, wineries and tasting rooms are lumped into the same business category as bars. That’s because more than 51% of their revenue comes from the sale of alcoholic beverages.

“I am sure you will agree tasting rooms are not bars, nor do they present the same reasons for concern related to excessive alcohol intake or inability to social distance as found in a bar,” Miller writes.

The letter noted that nearly 95% of all Texas wine is sold in tasting rooms, and without that revenue, Texas winemakers may not have the ability to purchase grapes for future Hill Country vintages.

“When these wineries suffer, we lose more than just wine,” the letter continued. “The closure of these testing rooms has a damaging downstream effect on the grape producers, wineries and surrounding communities…”

I’m a bit more measured on this one, since tasting rooms are mostly going to be inside. Outdoor tasting areas should be allowed with social distancing, and indoor tasting rooms should be allowed to operate with the same basic constraints as restaurants, which is to say with a max 50% capacity right now. I believe wineries can sell their wares to go for off-premises consumption, in the way that breweries now can, but if there are any restrictions on this they should be lifted, just as all of our anachronistic and anti-consumer laws regulating beer, wine, and liquor ought to be reformed or repealed. The point here is that both of these proposals are low risk and good for both the businesses and the consumers, and we should do them. Your move, Governor.

UPDATE: Case in point.

The pause effect on bars and restaurants

I feel terrible for them, but what could we do at this point?

Ed Noyes was trying to get some shut-eye when he woke up to seven different texts Friday morning.

Three of the five bartenders at his Fort Worth establishment — plus his girlfriend — delivered the news: Malone’s Pub had to shutter immediately under the governor’s orders. His employees wanted reassurances: Would the business survive? Should they file for unemployment? What were his next steps?

“We were just all in shock,” Noyes said.

On Friday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered another economic blow to bars and other places that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from selling alcohol. The establishments had to shut down by noon after a statewide surge in coronavirus infections officials said was largely driven by activities like congregating bars. There’s no immediate plan for when they’ll be able to reopen.

“The announcement just came out of nowhere,” Noyes said. “When I went to bed last night I thought we’d be open for the weekend, so this really blindsided me.”

Restaurants were ordered to scale back their operations to 50% capacity. And Abbott also banned river-rafting trips. They were his most drastic actions yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas.

But bars arguably faced one of the biggest challenges to operating in pandemic. Every tantalizing aspect of the nighttime hotspots — large crowds, prolonged bouts of close contact, mouths constantly open to drink or speak — clash with the health guidelines put in place as COVID-19 ravages the state.

[…]

Last weekend, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission launched “Operation Safe Open” to ensure bars and restaurants were following coronavirus safety rules. As of Wednesday, 17 bars — out of nearly 600 businesses visited by the commission — got their alcohol permits suspended for 30 days.

In some enclaves, residents have complained about staff not wearing masks, social distancing measures not being enforced and tables not being cleaned after use.

“I went with a friend for a quick night out,” Steven Simmons, who lives in Tyler, said of a June 11 visit to a local pub. “Easy to enter the bar, just checked IDs and that was it. No social distancing being enforced, no hand sanitizer anywhere, tables were not cleaned after use or anything. Employees were not wearing a mask at all.”

But in other parts of Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, some bar owners say they’re trying to strike a balance between their livelihoods and business and public safety.

“We joke at the Friendly Spot Ice House that we make a ‘bestie pack,’” said Jody Newman, the owner of the San Antonio hotspot. “The pact is that people ‘friendly’ distance, that they mask up, that they have clean hands and that they be friendly and understand we’re all going through this together.”

Still, since opening during the first week in June, Newman said she’s seen about 30% of the business she would normally get at this time of year.

With Friday’s announcement, Newman said, “thousands and thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Here’s a local view of this dilemma.

“The whole thing is a mess for everyone. Obviously, we’ll have to adjust again,” said Alli Jarrett, owner of Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room in the Heights, adding that reducing capacity means she will not be able to bring back workers she had hoped to re-employ. “It’s not just restaurants. It’s every single business – every segment of the population. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just really, really hard.”

[…]

Brian Ching, owner of Pitch 25 in EaDo, fears the worst. “I don’t know if the business will be here in a month, two months,” said Ching, who also is readying another bar, East End Backyard, to open in July. “We were able to get PPE but we’ve burned through it all.”

He is most concerned for his workers, he said. “This time around, being closed with no PPE, we are likely going to have to furlough employees. I feel for all of them. There seems to be no end in sight.”

Bar owner Andy Aweida said he worries what the bar shutdown will mean not just to his staff but to all those in the bar industry.

“We did everything we were asked and did it well. It’s unfair to them and many others. So many people are doing what is needed and playing by the rules,” said Aweida, a partner in the Kirby Group whose bars include Heights Bier Garten, Wooster’s Garden and Holman Draft Hall. “I truly feel horrible for all those amazing employees, staff and many other good, hard-working people this affects.”

Lindsey Rae, who opened Two Headed Bar in Midtown only six months ago, conceded that the first year for any business is the toughest. But the bar closures are catastrophic.

“This is going to be a financial disaster for us,” she said. “We are down 85 percent since the pandemic. All of our revenues are exhausted. We can only afford to operate for about one more month unless Gov. Abbott will give us some gleam of hope.”

Hope, however, seemed fading on Friday for Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, owner of the new Thai restaurant Kin Dee in the Heights. She saw six reservations cancel after the announcement.

“This is going in the wrong direction,” she said. “We are complying with the guidelines. We are a small restaurant and we just opened. This is tough.”

At 75 percent capacity, Kin Dee was “doing OK,” Srasrisuwan said. But not for long. “We can’t sustain at this level for more than one or two months,” she said. “I’ve seen the number of COVID-19 increase so I am not surprised by Gov. Abbott’s announcement but I am worried. We don’t want to lose our staff but I don’t know how to keep operating at this rate.”

For some restaurant owners, Abbott’s pullback was not unexpected.

“It’s about time, to be honest. I thought we reopened too soon,” said Christopher Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s in the Museum District. “It’s the most responsible thing I’ve heard from (Abbott) in a while.”

Williams said he will be able to weather the capacity reduction because he was able to remain solvent by streamlining his menu, dropping prices, and increasing take-out. “At a time like this everyone needs to take profitability out of the equation. It’s about sustainability.”

George Mickelis, owner of the iconic Cleburne Cafeteria, said he was grateful for Abbott’s decision, and said he would be able to continue staying in business even at 50 percent.

“Obviously, no one wants to return to a complete shutdown and we pray that that is absolutely never necessary again,” Mickelis said. “We are all Texas tough and we will prevail.”

Two things can be true at once. This is a terrible blow to a crucial part of the Texas economy and culture. I’m much more of a restaurant person than a bar person these days, but bars are a key ingredient to neighborhood life, and a vital hang-out place for many people. They also employ a lot of people who’ve just been put back out of work at a time when we don’t know if there will be further federal assistance coming and the state of Texas has gone back to requiring out-of-work people to be actively job searching in order to get unemployment benefits. It’s also the case that we should have been a lot more careful and deliberate in allowing bars to reopen in the first place, precisely because everything about them makes them a prime vector for spreading a disease like COVID-19. I don’t know what else we could have done now, but it’s surely the case there are things we can and should have done differently before now.

Other businesses are now in a similar bind.

In the backyard of her business, Cutloose Hair, salon co-owner Ashley Scroggins watched a livestream Friday morning on her phone. On the screen was an image of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaking of the risks of COVID-19 to the region.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.” She called for nonessential workers to stay at home.

Scroggins put down her phone and put on her mask. Then she walked into her salon, shut down the online booking system and began calling upcoming reservations: The salon was closing until cases subsided.

Officials have moved to contain the number of known COVID-19 cases spiking across the state, often through conflicting messages that left businesses attempting to weigh health risks against economic concerns.

While Hidalgo recommended nonessential workers stay home, she no longer had the power to enforce such a plan because Gov. Greg Abbott had superseded it with his own plan to reopen the state. Friday morning, Abbott rolled back portions of that plan — ordering bars and tubing and rafting establishments to suspend services and restaurants to cap dine-in capacity at 50 percent — but maintained other businesses could remain open.

That left salons, restaurants, gyms, offices, retailers and other businesses Friday to decide whether to heed Hidalgo’s call to return to the stay-at-home precautions she had the power to enact in March.

Many, like Cutloose Hair, decided shutting down on-premise operations was the right thing to do.

“It’s not getting better,” Scroggins said of the pandemic. “And the only way we can truly support our city is just to do what they’re asking us to do.”

It’s not an easy choice for many. My company, for which I’ve been working from home since March 6, two weeks before the city shut down, has suspended its plan to start bringing workers back to the office until further notice. I suspect there will be a lot more like this, and there should be. If you can reasonably work from home, there’s no good reason not to.

One possible small bit of hope for the bars and restaurants:

Under current state rules, restaurants and bars can sell beer, wine and liquor, but only in closed containers with their manufacturer’s seal intact.

The organization Margs For Life is lobbying to change that.

Founder Kareem Hajjar, also a partner in the Austin law firm Hajjar Peters LLP, is talking with Texas food and beverage associations to build support for an emergency order to let bars sell mixed drinks in containers that they seal on premises.

“While that work continues today, Margs For Life has evolved into a community of people who are either in the industry or support the industry, where we can share news and events, and help one another be as profitable as possible during this pandemic,” Hajjar told the Current.

Margs for Life’s proposed rule change, proponents say, would help restaurants and bars reduce inventory — and allow some facing dire financial circumstances to stay afloat.

“I’m privileged that I work at a bar that has granted me the ability to do to-go cocktail kits… But bars and restaurants would benefit from FULL to-go kits,” said David Naylor, a bartender at San Antonio craft-cocktail bar The Modernist, via a Facebook post. “Manhattans expertly built, Negronis that don’t require you to amass a stocked bar… ALL these are possible if [Gov. Abbott] would allow it.”

Abbott has expressed support for this idea.

Abbott originally signed a waiver March 18 allowing to-go alcohol sales, in an effort to support struggling restaurants after they closed their dining areas. The waiver was originally to last until May 1, but it was extended indefinitely. Abbott teased that this change could be permanent, tweeting at the time, “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”

Abbott again tweeted late Saturday that he supports the idea of extending his temporary waiver. State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, replied, saying that he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session to make it happen, also advocating to allow restaurants to continue selling bulk retail food items to go.

[…]

The Texas Restaurant Association submitted a proposal Thursday evening to Abbott’s office, asking to expand the waiver to also allow mixed drinks with liquor to be prepared, resealed and sold.

Cathy Lippincott, owner of Güero’s Taco Bar in Austin, said its margarita to-go kits were very popular during the beginning of the restaurant shutdowns, but as dining rooms began to reopen, sales dwindled. Now, days could go by without the restaurant selling a single kit.

Under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines, restaurants can only serve liquor in manufacturer-sealed bottles and with the purchase of food. For several restaurants, including Güero, this means their drinks are served in do-it-yourself kits, where customers mix the ingredients and liquor together.

Lippincott believes that if mixed drinks were also allowed to be served to go, she could see that being a popular option.

I support this as well, and any action that can be taken now to achieve this should be taken. And then, when the Lege convenes in January, we should not only pass a law to make this permanent, but also revisit all of our archaic and anti-competitive laws that govern the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. You know what I’m talking about. Let’s please at least let this terrible pandemic be a catalyst for something good.

It’s really hard out there on the restaurants

I feel for them, but none of this is unsurprising.

Celebrating her birthday in Galveston, Melinda Prince walked out of Yaga’s Cafe on Thursday full of coconut shrimp. What she didn’t realize was one of the employees at the restaurant may have been working while infected with the coronavirus.

Prince found out three days later through a post from the restaurant’s Facebook account.

“I freaked out,” said Prince, who plans to quarantine for two weeks and get tested if COVID-19 symptoms arise.

Facebook posts from Yaga’s Cafe, whose managers did not respond to requests for comment, indicate other employees have since been tested for the coronavirus, the restaurant voluntarily closed, a professional cleaning crew was hired and recent customers were also encouraged to get tested.The Galveston eatery is not alone. Restaurants and bars across Texas — including in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and San Marcos — have closed recently due to concerns about potentially spreading the coronavirus, according to social media posts and local news reports.

I wish there were a better answer. What should happen is another round of stimulus money from Congress – the original PPP idea was fine, if incredibly clunky at first – because we really can’t just reopen everything and hope for a return to normalcy. The virus is still out there, and we’re not doing nearly enough about it. At least we will have some new face mask orders, which should help a bit. Restaurants are a huge piece of our economy, with a ton of jobs at stake, and we’re not doing nearly enough to help them through this crisis. I don’t know what else to say.

One good thing that may come out of all this

We may get to keep booze to go sales.

On Twitter Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested to-go alcohol sales should be made available in Texas past the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas restaurants will be allowed to open for dine-in Friday under a 25 percent occupancy limit, and they’ll also be able to still offer alcohol to-go with the purchase of food. The state may be able to keep the option permanently, Abbott said in a tweet.

“Alcohol-to-go sales can continue after May 1,” the governor tweeted Tuesday night. “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let his keep going on forever.”

Some of what the governor may be hearing — or seeing — is the online chatter between residents enjoying the ability to pick up drinks to enjoy at home throughout the pandemic. The new freedom has been the source of memes, jealousy from other states and was incorporated on El Arroyo’s famed marquee signage in Austin. Long drive-thru lines at places like Taco Cabana, where frozen margaritas are $2, have also been common.

Abbott included the hashtag #txlege in the tweet for the Texas Legislature. The next legislative session begins Jan. 12.

Hooray and all that. I can’t help but think of the multi-year struggle to get beer-to-go legislation passed in the Lege, and the big money opposition to it from the cartel known as the distributors. That was a big step forward, but there remain dumb laws that impinge on craft brewers. I wish we could wave a pandemic-powered magic wand to make it all make sense, but we’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way.

More on coronavirus and meat processing

From the Trib:

To understand powerlessness in a pandemic, trace a northbound path from Amarillo up State Highway 87. Not too far shy of the border where Texas meets Oklahoma lies Moore County.

There are few easy ways to make a living in this country of feedlots and dryland cotton, but one of the hardest is at the JBS Beef meatpacking plant. Just about everything looks small on these vast flatlands until you get right up on it, but the 125-acre plant in the tiny town of Cactus is massive from any vantage point.

The steady billow of gray smoke from the plant’s stacks tells you it is still running full tilt. With the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world, it’s considered essential to keep thousands of cattle running through the kill floor each day, headed for dinner tables across America.

Meat and poultry plants nationwide have emerged as incubators for coronavirus spread. More than a dozen have been forced to shut down temporarily as the number of cases and deaths tied to those facilities rose; others have scrambled to ramp up health and safety precautions in facilities where meatpackers often must work shoulder to shoulder.

State health investigators are tracking 159 coronavirus infections tied to the Cactus plant, including one death associated with the outbreak, and Moore County now has the highest reported infection rate in Texas. Yet about 3,000 workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala and refugees from Asia and Africa, still report there each day.

Meatpacking has always been brutal and dangerous work, but it pays relatively well. JBS jobs have drawn generations of immigrants to this rural community, so many that Hispanics make up more than half of Moore County’s nearly 22,000 residents, and one quarter of the population is immigrants.

But the people who prop up life here, the ones now getting sick or working in fear wondering when they will, have little power over what the coronavirus is doing to their lives, because they have little power here at all.

From the Observer:

Officials at Tyson’s poultry processing plant in Shelby County may have waited weeks to tell workers that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19, preventing other workers from taking action to prevent the spread of the virus inside the facility, plant employees told the Observer last week. The company waited even longer to implement rudimentary safeguards (such as breathing masks and plastic screens to separate workstations) as more workers fell ill, were hospitalized, and died, they say.

[…]

The Observer has changed Bennett’s name, as well as the two other employees named in this story, after employees expressed concern that Tyson might retaliate against them for speaking to a reporter. The story also omits some details of employees’ positions within the plant and their medical histories to make them less identifiable. The extent to which the Tyson outbreak has contributed to COVID cases in this rural region is still unclear, partially because of a lack of reliable state data on infection rates and testing. It is clear, however, that some workers feel as if Tyson put profits over worker safety as the virus spread through the facility this month. If the company had distributed protective equipment earlier, “it probably wouldn’t be as bad as it is now,” Bennett says.

The employees say that approximately three weeks ago, a plant supervisor told workers that at least one employee had tested positive. But they shouldn’t worry, the supervisor reportedly said—the case had occurred two weeks earlier, so other workers likely wouldn’t be threatened. The announcement hit the workers like a bombshell. “I don’t think it was fair to us as employees the way they waited until 14 days later to tell us,” says Denise Richardson, who has not contracted the virus. “If you’ve got paperwork confirming that someone has it, you let everybody know and give us all an opportunity to take proper precautions.” At the time, the company had just recently begun to start screening workers by checking their temperature, and masks had not been widely distributed to employees, Richardson says.

By the time Tyson alerted employees to the danger, the virus already appeared to be spreading. Bennett, after days of “feeling sicker and sicker, weaker and weaker” at work, was hospitalized shortly after the announcement. Bobby Dawson, another Tyson employee, tested positive for COVID-19 about the same time as Bennett. He says he informed plant supervisors about the positive test result the same day he learned of it. Dawson criticized the company for not telling him about the situation sooner, which would have allowed him to take precautionary measures to keep from getting sick, such as taking days off work or wearing protective equipment. “They hid it from us. They didn’t give us a choice to do anything,” Dawson told the Observer. “Their main concern is to get them chickens out, regardless of what their employees are going through. That’s why we all come up sick.”

The conditions of the plant lend themselves to the spread of disease, the workers say. Employees work “elbow to elbow” as they defeather, eviscerate, and debone thousands of birds a day. Even the most innocuous task—such as clocking in for a shift and clocking out at the end of the day—appears to present considerable risk, as hundreds of employees crowd the few functional terminals. “You got so many people trying to clock in at one time you can’t do nothing but catch it,” Richardson says. “We’re packed in there like a bunch of sardines.”

Richardson also notes that many of the plant’s workers cross the border each day from Shelby County’s adjacent parishes in Louisiana, a state that’s been ravaged by the virus. Shelby County shares a border with DeSoto Parish, where at least 180 confirmed cases and 10 deaths have been counted among a population of only 27,000.

See here for the background. These and other meat processing plants will continue to stay open due to federal order. I don’t have anything to add here, just that you should go read both of these stories.

Coronavirus and meat processing

In the Panhandle:

State health officials confirmed Tuesday that they are investigating an outbreak of the new coronavirus at the JBS Beef packing plant in the Texas Panhandle, part of ongoing efforts to monitor major meat processing plants as the pandemic continues to threaten food supply chains.

Earlier this month, the Department of State Health Services conducted an epidemiological investigation in Shelby County that identified a cluster of 14 coronavirus cases and two related deaths that were “in some manner” tied to employees of a Tyson Foods facility.

Now, a department spokeswoman said, an “environmental assessment team” is being sent to Moore County to advise on ways the massive meatpacking plant, which processes a significant portion of the nation’s beef, can curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new strain of the coronavirus.

The investigation follows the shuttering of the company’s meat packing plants in other states because of local outbreaks. Moore County, near the Oklahoma border, has one of the highest rates of infection per capita in the state. (Some local leaders attribute it to rapid testing.)

After a call with Tyson Foods officials, the health department asked the company to enact additional protections for employees at its facility near the Louisiana border, including monitoring all individuals entering the facility for both fever and other COVID-19 related symptoms, and to increase its sanitizing as part of the transportation the company provides for workers.

And in East Texas:

The state health department is investigating cases at a Tyson poultry processing plant in Shelby County that may comprise a significant number of the county’s 69 confirmed cases. While meatpackers across the nation have been slammed with high numbers of coronavirus cases, leading to the deaths of workers and facility closures, this represents one of the first known outbreaks of the virus at a plant in Texas.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has offered few details of its investigation into the outbreak at the Tyson facility on the Texas-Louisiana border. But Dr. Florencio Singson, who operates a clinic in Center, the county seat, told the Observer that health officials said the outbreak represents a “majority” of the county’s cases. Meanwhile, Tyson posted on its Facebook page that it is closing the facility this week. The post made no mention of the apparent outbreak, saying only that the company was installing new equipment at the plant.

Shelby County, population 25,400, has one of the highest per capita rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas. It’s nearly four times that of the state overall, and the highest countywide rate outside the Panhandle. Cases ballooned in Louisiana and into East Texas in recent weeks, with coronavirus now confirmed in nearly every Texas county in the region, many of which are rural and have limited medical resources. Many also have large populations of African Americans, who are being infected with and dying of coronavirus at disproportionately high rates.

Public health experts say the spread of coronavirus in the region (and the state overall, which had nearly 20,200 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday evening) is likely dramatically undercounted due to limited testing. “We know it’s underreported [in Shelby County],” Singson told the Observer. Texas has been slow to roll out widespread testing, resulting in among the fewest completed tests per capita of any state.

As the Observer story notes, COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at meat processing plants around the country, with the Smithfield outbreak in South Dakota being the worst so far. It’s not a surprise – workers are in close proximity, and there has been little done by their employers to keep them safe, which is typical for an industry that generally treats its employees terribly. Smithfield had the benefit of a union – you can listen to a short conversation with the local labor council president for Sioux Falls here if you want to learn more about that location – but it wasn’t enough. I can’t imagine the workers in Texas, at either location, having it any better. You want to know what’s in the future when and if we “reopen the economy” without a real plan and real resources for universal testing and worker protection, there you have it.

By the way, the city of Cactus, where the JBS plant is, is under an executive order requiring “everyone over the age of five” to “wear a covering over their mouth and nose when outside their home or vehicle”, with violators subject to a fine of up to $1,000. Sound familiar? Moore County voted 75% for Donald Trump in 2016. I’m just saying.

The local plea to reopen

I have a lot of sympathy, but I don’t think this is a great idea.

A coalition of 350 local businesses is urging Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo to begin May 1 to ease stay-at-home restrictions meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, warning many firms cannot survive additional weeks of forced closures.

The impromptu association, calling itself the Houston Coronavirus Business Group, said in identical letters to the leaders Wednesday that a balance must be struck between the medical community’s desire to keep cases and deaths down and the need to limit damage to the economy.

The group said business leaders should have an equal influence in extending restrictions beyond April 30 as doctors, who they said fail to grasp the severe economic damage wrought by the “draconian” stay-at-home order.

“These good folks aren’t business or economic experts, and they don’t see or understand the economic spiral that we are currently experiencing and the human toll a complete shutdown will ravage in terms of lives, mental health, physical wellbeing, crime, poverty, etc.,” the letter states.

The letter is the first organized push by members of the business community against restrictions of movement and commerce since the pandemic reached the Houston area.

The virus is expected to peak in the Houston area in late April or early May, health experts say, calling it a potentially disastrous time to permit residents to again congregate in restaurants, offices and playgrounds.

“The virus will and should dictate when we lift restrictions,” said Baylor College of Medicine CEO Dr. Paul Klotman. “It makes no sense to artificially pick a date based on what we wish to happen.”

Let me say first that however you feel about this effort, I’m glad these guys didn’t resort to crap like this or this. I don’t have a good answer for them. Ideally, the federal government would have fully stepped in to ease the burden on these businesses, but the first round of assistance is already gone, with a lot of it not going to the businesses that needed it the most, and who knows what will come next or when it may come. There are some local efforts to help restaurants, like this one Mayor Turner just launched, which I consider to be a very high priority. But ultimately, until there is sufficiently widespread testing and the ability to track the movements of those who catch the virus, anything we do to loosen restrictions now is just a huge risk. I mean, a much wider pandemic with a much higher death rate isn’t going to be good for anyone’s business, either. I wish there were something more we could do.

Coronavirus and beer

Houston’s craft breweries are adjusting to life with closed taprooms and beer-to-go sales.

The team at Saint Arnold Brewing sat down to taste some test beers one Wednesday morning, as its members do when they work on new releases. But their meeting didn’t happen in the usual conference room. Instead, the 10 staffers each sat at a separate table in the brewery’s 10,000-square-foot taproom, with ample social distance between them.

There was another difference from normal times, of course: The vast taproom, typically bustling with people, had not seen a single customer inside since the coronavirus-related stay-at-home order. Across Houston, craft brewers have shut off their taps and closed their beer halls, gardens and patios. But they want Houstonians to know that they’re still brewing.

“Our production side is operating at full strength,” says Brock Wagner, founder and brewer of Saint Arnold.

The team has stopped kegging, but has shifted to canning and bottling more beer than usual in order to ramp up to-go sales, something they had never really focused on before, being a destination brewery. They have also seen an uptick in grocery and liquor store sales as more people hunker down at home.

“Everybody’s consumption of alcohol has probably gone up a little bit,” says Wagner. “I know that mine has.”

These new sources of revenue aren’t even close to making up for the loss of business usually generated from Saint Arnold’s taproom being open, their bar and restaurant orders, and other big buyers such as the Minute Maid stadium. But every little helps, a sentiment many local brewers echo. As taprooms — a major source of revenue for these businesses — lay empty, to-go and off-premise sales, even if a drop in the bucket, have become crucial to the survival of the industry.

Brody Chapman, founder and CEO of Spindletap Brewery, says big stores like H-E-B, Kroger and Spec’s have moved a lot of inventory, which has helped local breweries immensely. He’s also been amazed at how many loyal customers have been supporting their business by taking advantage of Spindletap’s new curbside and drive-through beer sales.

“Without the local support, honestly, we would be dead in the water,” he says.

[…]

There are also efforts to lobby state and local governments for relief, spearheaded by the Texas Brewers Guild. While Gov. Greg Abbott issued a temporary waiver last month relaxing liquor laws for bars and restaurants, breweries are still not able to offer services like direct-to-consumer delivery.

“When breweries are fighting for their lives, it would be nice to have more opportunities to get product out to people,” says Chapman. However, he says that a Houston-based start-up called HopDrop, a craft beer delivery service, has been instrumental to propping up local breweries during this time.

The craft brewing boom in Houston, with its lively on-premises social scene and great dining options, has truly been one of the best things to happen in my thirty-plus years in this town. These guys are huge supporters of school and charitable/non-profit fundraisers as well, which we’re going to need a lot more of in the coming months. There are many good reasons to stock up on your favorite brews at this time, which you can do via curbside pickup at the breweries – It’s Not Hou It’s Me has a handy guide to what’s available – or at the grocery store. As with so many other things, let’s make sure this part of our lives is still there when we get to have a life again.

Oh, and for sure let’s remind the Legislature again that the existing laws we have regarding beer distribution were ridiculous in the best of times and super anti-business in the worst. Let’s hope that our archaic and bizarre beer laws are among the things we learned we could do just fine without when this crisis is over.

(Turns out I was a little skeptical of home beer delivery in general and HopDrop in particular when it first came out. Shows how much I know.)

Three cheers for grocery store workers

They deserve them, and more.

They are the friendly cashiers, the helpful baggers, the essential stockers and warehouse workers. The receivers who unload the delivery trucks, the personal shoppers who fulfill online orders and the teenagers who haul back all the shopping carts left behind in the parking lot.

Supermarket employees have long toiled behind the scenes of the most mundane of weekly errands: grocery shopping. But since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the humble grocery worker has taken on a new mantle in society, that of an emergency first responder in the global fight against the spread of the virus.

Grocery employees are working long hours — and putting their lives on the line — to provide food and basic household essentials to worried consumers increasingly staying at home during the pandemic. Unlike office staff, these workers cannot do their job from the comfort of their homes. U.S. grocery cashiers made a median wage of $10.78 per hour in 2018, far less than the median salaries for police officers ($30.47 an hour) and firefighters ($23.85 an hour), according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the same time, these workers have taken on additional duties, particularly to help keep stores clean. H-E-B is asking employees to devote shifts to cleaning entire stores, wiping down self-checkout after every two customers and frequently sanitizing high-touch areas, such as scales and shopping carts.

“People are starting to realize who they are, that these folks are really unbelievable,” H-E-B President Scott McClelland said. “They realize we’re on the front lines and we’ve got a role to fill in the community, one that’s as essential as the medical community.”

You might also read this Texas Monthly story about how HEB prepared for coronavirus, because unlike a certain Presidential administration I could name, they understood that it was coming and they needed to be ready for it. Funny how these things work. Anyway, among the many things that I hope come out of this crisis, maybe now we will all learn to appreciate – and compensate – people like these a bit more. They have more than earned it.

Worrying about the restaurants

Alison Cook laments the potential fate for her favorite part of Houston.

Depending on local or state strictures, to help stem the spread of Covid-19 restaurants in most major markets would be able to provide takeout, drive-thru or delivery rations only. Dine-in was done, for the present and — according to some epidemiologists and public health experts — very possibly in rolling closures for the next 18 months. That’s the time it will take for a vaccine to be tested, manufactured and made available.

If we’re lucky.

Even though I’ve suspected this was coming since the calamitous February business drop experienced by restaurants in Bellaire Boulevard’s Asiatown — a preview of what lay ahead for the whole market as Covid-19 spread, I feared — the reality of the closures has hit me hard.

I gasped when I saw an Open Table graph that showed restaurant bookings, already down 45 to 65% last week, plunging off the cliff to zero on Tuesday in Boston, L.A., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Washington, D.C. It looked like the highway to hell.

I’m in mourning daily as I read the anguished tweets from Houston chefs and restaurant owners I admire. I’m sick with worry for the servers and bartenders and bussers and line cooks whose livelihoods are in peril.

[…]

My greatest sorrow is that I see a great winnowing ahead. On the other side of this public health crisis, it seems likely that Houston’s dining landscape will be substantially altered. Restaurant profit margins are slim in the best of times, and without serious public investment at the state or federal level, we are likely to see many bankruptcies.

It’s not the big chain restaurants I’m worried about — it’s the mom-and-pops and the small independent operators who help to define the city. Those are a cultural legacy well worth saving.

Ian Froeb, the restaurant critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told a radio interviewer the following: “I have a top 100 restaurant list and somebody that’s in the industry said, ‘You could be looking at 80 of the 100 might not come back.’ I didn’t push back. That seems like a real possibility.”

I’m not quite that pessimistic, yet, but the fallout is going to be bad.

Obviously, we can all do more ordering takeout in the interim, in the hope that these places we love can weather the storm, which we also hope will be measured in weeks and not months. But let’s be clear, the state of Texas could also help.

Up against a Friday deadline, the broad base of workers in the Texas restaurant industry have asked Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials to waive monthly sales taxes due by the end of the day.

Bobby Heugel, owner of several popular bars and restaurants in Houston, said many businesses could ride out the new coronavirus’ social slowdown for months if the state waived, delayed or deferred the monthly taxes.

“We have been crushing the governor’s office for requests of deferrals,” Heugel said Thursday. “Their voicemail actually stopped working late last night.”

Comptroller Glenn Hegar said the state won’t push back Friday’s deadline, though it has done so after hurricanes and other disasters. Hegar and aides cited a couple of reasons: Hurricanes and similar disasters, unlike pandemics, can knock out the infrastructure used to calculate and pay taxes. More importantly, the state and local governments that depend on those taxes to keep hospitals and emergency services going need the money as they prepare for the number of Texans testing positive for the new coronavirus to skyrocket within weeks.

“It would be irresponsible, but more popular, to delay collections,” said Karey Barton, associate deputy comptroller for tax. “The people who paid those taxes need that money to be available to keep operating hospitals and other services.”

I understand the concern, but the state has a rainy day fund it can tap into to bridge the gap in the interim. Maybe Greg Abbott needs to use his emergency powers to make that happen, maybe he needs to call a special session to enable it, or maybe he just needs to order it and let someone file a lawsuit to stop him, I don’t know. But the effect of losing a significant portion of the hospitality industry will last a lot longer than this crisis. We need to think outside the box here, and take action as needed before it’s too late.

Nuro set to roll out

Ready or not, here they come.

Self-driving delivery vehicles that carry no humans will hit Houston roads next month.

Nuro, a San Francisco technology company, is planning to deploy its next-generation autonomous delivery vehicles in Houston after receiving federal approval. The R2, which features climate-controlled compartments and 360-degree cameras, radar and sensors, will carry grocery orders from Kroger and Walmart to customer’s homes, starting in March.

Nuro last year began piloting self-driving Prius cars in Houston, but the delivery vehicles still had a human driver and passenger to oversee the technology. The R2, which weighs about 2,500 pounds and has a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour, will have no human driver or passenger.

[…]

Several grocers, including Kroger, Walmart and H-E-B, are testing self-driving grocery delivery service in Texas. Supermarket chains are investing heavily in new technologies to win over online shoppers. Customers using the autonomous vehicle delivery service will have to pick up their groceries from the vehicle curbside, notified of their arrival via text message. They will use a unique code to pick up their groceries.

See here, here, and here for some background. I am very interested in three aspects of this. One is just how many people will use this service at all, and how that changes people’s grocery shopping habits. You still have to shop, you’re just doing it over an app instead of in person at the store, where your decisions may be affected by the sights and smells of the goods, the samples and specials that are being pushed, whatever other impulses you may have, and what your kids may be nagging you for if they’re with you. I could see this being used more heavily for last-minute and “oops, I forgot I needed this thing and I don’t want to go back to the store” needs than as a full substitute for doing the in-person stuff.

Two, how many people who already use some form of human-delivered groceries will switch to this. The Nuro option will surely be cheaper (and there’s no guilt about tipping), but you have to be home to retrieve the groceries. As I’ve noted before, when we’ve used Whole Foods’ delivery service, we put a cooler on the front porch and have them deliver while we’re at work. That’s a real time and effort-saver for us, and as such it’s worth the extra cost. How tight a delivery window will you get with Nuro? If I know I’m only going to be home or available while I’m at home for a short period of time, do I trust my order will arrive when I need it to? And of course some people will require assistance in bringing their groceries in, and some people will not want to leave their house on days that are cold or scorching hot or rainy to haul bags of groceries inside. How that will break down is not at all clear to me.

Finally, note that the top speed of these things is 25 MPH. That’s nice and safe and very pedestrian-friendly, but it’s also going to mean a lot of aggrieved drivers on Houston’s main roads doing dumb things to get around the Nuro cars. I suspect there will be some number of accidents that aren’t the Nuros’ fault but wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t exist. I can’t wait to see a study about that effect. Also, going back to my second point, how confident will Kroger and Walmart be in the delivery time estimates they give their customers? My guess is their algorithms will have to be tweaked a bit here and there over time. What do you think? Does this option excite you or is it just another tech thing you’ll never use?

Oh God, I have to mention Tony Buzbee again

There goes one New Year’s resolution.

Straight outta The Hights

There is a plate of crawfish on the table in front of Tony Buzbee, who has substituted his jeans-and-jacket campaign garb for a baby blue sweatshirt and Texas A&M baseball cap.

The setting: Crawfish & Noodles on Bellaire Boulevard, where Buzbee — three weeks removed from an unsuccessful mayoral bid — is facing a camera held by his girlfriend, Frances Moody, and digging into the ample helping of crawfish.

“The reason we know these are fresh is because they’re small, because it’s the very beginning of the season. Beware of large crawfish at this time of year,” Buzbee says, poking a finger at the camera. “Beware of places that freeze their crawfish. You want ‘em fresh.”

The 54-second video was posted Sunday to Buzbee’s Facebook page, which until recently promoted his campaign for Houston mayor. It since has been converted to a page for his new show, Uninvited, which Buzbee says will feature deep-dives into Houston restaurants, their owners and the food they serve.

Each of the 13 episodes will spotlight a different restaurant and likely will be posted online mid-summer, once a week on Facebook and YouTube, Buzbee said.

Five restaurants already have signed on to participate, and a crew is filming a promo for the show Thursday. Buzbee also has launched the rough draft of a website, tonybuzbeeuninvited.com, which still includes some dummy text and a few typos. And he has posted three teaser videos on Facebook, including the crawfish one.

[…]

“I thought I was Trump. Now I’m Anthony Bourdain,” he said. “That’s one comparison I would damn well take.”

There are links in the story to that video and the website, but you can click over there to find them, I’ve already done too much. Just be aware that if you do go to his website, you will see pictures like this, so be prepared. Local Twitter is having a field day with this, with Nonsequiteuse having the most fun, so start there if you want to pile on.

One more thing:

Buzbee said the show will not impede on his law practice, to which he has returned full time since embarking on a post-election vacation he documented through a series of posts on Instagram. Buzbee also previously tried his hand at travel blogging, though his blog has remained dormant since he published a handful of posts in 2018.

Not just anyone has what it takes to be a blogger, let me tell you. Once a dilettante…

Beer to go is here

Hooray!

The highly anticipated beer-to-go legislation officially [went] into effect Sunday, and local breweries [celebrated] the occasion by offering up cans, growlers and crowlers of beer for visitors to bring home — a simple act that has been illegal in the state of Texas until now.

“We still don’t really believe it,” said John Holler, who along with his wife Kathryn, owns Holler Brewing in Houston’s Sawyer Yards district. “Without this, our beer would never be in a can, because at our size, it just wouldn’t make sense to sell cans unless we could sell them directly to the consumer.”

John Holler has been a key part of the push to help Texas become the 50th state in the nation to allow beer-to-go sales, joining the board of the Craft Brewers Guild. While Texas craft brewers spent more than a decade advocating for beer to go, it wasn’t until the run-up to this 86th Legislature that the movement reached is full force with the formation of the guild, a political action committee.

[…]

For some of the city’s larger breweries, the novelty of being able to sip their beer from cans isn’t quite as potent as it is for Holler, where beers have always been available exclusively from the tap.

At Southern Star Brewing in Conroe, brewers will celebrate by releasing some of their specialty beers, like a tequila-aged Trippel and others in can and growler-fills.

It’s been too long since I’ve visited some of these places. Time to start planning some Saturday outings, now that the heat should begin dissipating a bit. We wanted this for a long time, now let’s make it count.

Biking and breweries

Actually, this makes perfect sense.

This started off in the gray area between a good idea and a bad one. Two years ago, Jason Buhlman and Brian Kondrach got about 30 of their friends together for an afternoon of two-wheel tourism, in which they aimed to bike between as many breweries as possible in one day.

“At the time, there were only eight breweries that we could do inside the Loop,” Kondrach explains to a group of prospective riders on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June. “It took us 14 hours. We were way too drunk. It was a mess.”

“A mess,” echoes Buhlman, who is standing just to the right of Kondrach, wearing a baseball T-shirt with the motto, “Wheels Down, Bottoms Up,” printed across his chest.

“So we put some rules on it,” Kondrach continues. “We made it so it was only 45 minutes at each stop – just one pint each, and then we move. And we added two breweries and did it again six month later.”

The ride was still fun. But much less … sloppy. And that’s when Buhlman and Kondrach realized that a curated version of this could potentially lay the groundwork for a business that could combine two of their loves: Craft beer and bicycles.

Then last May, their business, Tour de Brewery, was born. Rather than 10 breweries in an afternoon, they offer shorter tours in distinct pockets of the city, featuring about three breweries apiece.

[…]

Across Houston, breweries are becoming more bike-friendly. At Saint Arnold, a BCycle bike-share station opened earlier this Spring; there are plans to unveil one at 8th Wonder by the time the summer is through; and hopes of opening a third in Sawyer Yard, in close proximity to three breweries. And some of the city’s breweries are forming bike teams, and hosting bike crawls of their own. But as all this happens, it raises one big question: Should people hop on bikes after drinking?

“We’ve have people approach us and ask, ‘Why would you put a station at Saint Arnold or 8th Wonder?’” says Henry Morris, a spokesman at BCycle. “And the answer is, well, they have parking spaces. People drive there and drive back and they’re expected to be responsible. So if you take a bike share to a brewery and you have too much to drink, you should call an Uber home.”

That’s why the guys at Tour de Brewery emphasize that their outings are about discovering new beers.

“If you’re going to bike and drink, it’s important to remember that it’s a tasting experience,” says Jessica Green, director of development for Bike Houston, which is on track to add 50 miles of bike lanes to the city this year, including a stretch that will help cyclists close the gap between 8th Wonder and Saint Arnold. “Have one beer, and then ride. And the riding will help you metabolize the alcohol. But don’t drink more than a beer or two an hour, which is when you get into getting drunk.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these breweries are neighborhood institutions as much as anything else, in the spirit of the old corner bar. They draw their customers mostly from their nearby surroundings, not the wider region. Also, and especially for the breweries in the inner core, parking is at a premium. That’s a combination that incentivizes biking, on both sides. For sure, as the story notes, you should imbibe carefully if you do this. Honestly, though, the same would be true if you drove. So plan your route, pick your spots, maybe give Tour de Brewery a look, and enjoy your afternoon.

Here comes the driverless pizza delivery vehicle

Gotta admit, this has me scratching my head.

No Noids were harmed in the writing of this post

There goes another high schooler’s job: Domino’s Pizza Inc. plans to test unmanned pizza delivery in Houston later this year.

The chain, known as a technology leader in the restaurant industry, is teaming up with Nuro, a Bay Area robotics startup run by a pair of former Google employees. To start, Domino’s will send food to customers from a single store in the Texas city using one of Nuro’s fully autonomous vehicles.

The test is scheduled to start late this year and could expand in 2020, according to the companies. Domino’s has more than 6,000 restaurants in the U.S. and, with the labor market tight, the company is experiencing a driver shortage, with as many as 10,000 open positions nationwide, according to Kevin Vasconi, the company’s chief information officer.

The Nuro partnership will help the chain determine if autonomous vehicles are a way for its restaurants to keep up with demand during busy times when drivers are in short supply, he said.

“Consumers are ready for this,” Vasconi said. “I have been surprised by the overall positive reaction people have had to an autonomous vehicle delivery experience.”

[…]

Domino’s previously tested autonomous delivery vehicles in a partnership with Ford Motor Co. The pilot began in 2017 to see how customers would react to stepping out of their homes to fetch pizza from a locked warming chamber in the vehicle. That program has ended.

Pizza Hut, a chain that made its name with sit-down dining and is now trying to catch up with rivals on delivery, teamed up with Toyota last year to work toward driverless delivery.

Nuro is the same outfit doing the Kroger autonomous grocery delivery testing. See here and here for background on that. I wish there were some information on how the earlier pilot went (I didn’t find anything in a cursory search). With groceries, you get a cheaper delivery price if you go out and lug them into your place on your own. Will that entice people to do the same for pizza? I guess you’d save the cost of a tip, if nothing else. I haven’t ordered from Domino’s in a million years, so I’m the wrong person to react to this news. How do you feel about this? TechCrunch has more.

Whata lot of angst

I’ve lived in Texas a long time, but I wasn’t born here. As such, news like this doesn’t hit me the way it hits some other folks.

Chicago-based BDT Capital Partners said Friday it’s agreed to acquire a majority stake in Whataburger.

The burger chain will remain headquartered in San Antonio, and the groups will “begin exploring expansion plans,” they said in a statement.

Whataburger’s founders, the Dobson family, will keep a minority position in the company. President and CEO Preston Atkinson and Chairman Tom Dobson will retain their seats on the board but retire from daily operations.

Both will turn to running Las Aguilas, an investment company launched by the Dobson family in 2011 that focuses on real estate and philanthropy.

The decision “is both exciting and bittersweet” for the family, Tom Dobson said.

“Whataburger has been the heart and soul of our family legacy for nearly 70 years, but we feel really good about the partnership with BDT,” he said.

The news that Whatburger had been “exploring options” came out about a month ago, and it’s fair to say that it caused some anxiety among the faithful. None of what did happen sounds apocalyptic to me, but then I just never fully acculturated the way some other prominent immigrants have.

My wife and kids are coping as best they can, thanks for asking. We will get through this, y’all. I promise. Texas Monthly, the Rivard Report, and the Current have more.

Saint Arnold’s silver anniversary

A very happy anniversary to them.

There is nothing particularly unique about the start-up story behind Saint Arnold. [Founder Brock] Wagner, 54, had been working as an investment banker when he decided to chuck the suit and tie and try to open up a brewery. It’s the same origin story repeated on what feels like a weekly basis here in Houston these days, as side-hustle brewers ditch their full-time corporate gigs to start small brew shops. This year alone has seen similar tales told at both True Anomaly Brewing and Walking Stick Brewing Co.

What sets Saint Arnold’s story apart is the fact that it’s been able to survive all these years, even through a long period during which the state of Texas had some of the nation’s most antiquated brewery laws. When Wagner sold his first keg of beer on June 9, 1994, it was illegal to sell beer on-site. Or offer tours. He had to rely on sales at bars, but he wasn’t even allowed to promote those.

“The laws in Texas made it so the chances are, you weren’t going to survive,” he says now. “And that is why we’re the oldest craft brewery in Texas. It’s not because we were first. We weren’t. It’s because we outlasted everyone else.”

[…]

“There was a time, in about 1995 or 1996, that there were actually a lot of brew pubs in Houston. And every single one of them failed,” Wagner says. “We’d get together every month at our locations, and we’d share information and drink beers together. Then that went away for the longest time because if you were going to have a Houston craft brewers’ meeting, it would be me sitting at a bar by myself.”

He blames the laws, among other things. So he split his focus. Wagner began lobbying the Legislature to loosen up the arcane laws, nabbing a huge victory in 2013, when brewers won the right to sell beer on premises. At the same time, the brewery doubled down on consistency of beer and quality. Wagner pushed his brewers to make sure each new recipe met two criteria: It made you want to order a second, and it had some sort of “wow factor” — maybe extra-dry hops, a rush of citrus — that set it apart from other beers already on the market.

But what really enabled Saint Arnold to shift gears from surviving to thriving, as it now produces 70,000 barrels a year, Wagner says, is the idea that the brewery belonged to more than just him.

I’ve been a fan and customer of Saint Arnold since the days at the old location off 290 when tours were still free and the line to get in wasn’t that long. (Heck, I had my 40th birthday party at the old location.) The current location north of downtown is a gem, and I love that Brock Wagner supports other breweries, especially those opened by former employees of his. Craft breweries belong to neighborhoods, and there’s plenty of room for more of them in our ginormous metropolitan area. They should all hope to be as good, and as consequential, as Saint Arnold. Cheers, y’all.

Pickle ’em if you got ’em

A victory for home foodies.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst

In a victory for home cooks across Texas, the Legislature has expanded the state’s definition of the word “pickle,” allowing for pickled beets, carrots and other produce to be easily sold at farmers’ markets alongside pickled cucumbers.

The legislation, pushed by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, was passed by the House Tuesday and given final approval by the Senate Thursday. It still needs a signature from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott before becoming law.

Judith McGeary, head of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said her group is excited to see the measure advance and that it would broaden “options for the farmers and the consumers who are looking for healthy, locally-made foods.” Texas has been among the more restrictive states in allowing foods to be sold at markets, she said.

Texans have been able to hawk pickled cucumbers in local venues since 2013, when Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, authored a law that let cooks sell certain goods without first becoming licensed food manufacturers. But an unexpected rule authored by the state’s Department of State Health Services has barred home chefs from selling any other kind of pickled produce without first installing a commercial kitchen, taking a course, and obtaining a special license.

“Only pickled cucumbers are allowed,” an FAQ section on the agency’s website specifies. “All other pickled vegetables are prohibited.”

The rule was drafted to implement the new law, and a department spokesperson told the Texas Tribune last May that the agency did not receive objections to the pickle definition. The spokesperson declined to comment Tuesday.

[…]

Laws authored by Kolkhorst and Rodriguez had already made it easier for home cooks to peddle their goods at local markets, by exempting them from regulations that some consider onerous. An old rule that small-batch bakers have a commercial kitchen, for example, was jettisoned in 2011. The exemption was extended to a host of other foods in 2013, including fruit butters, popcorn and pickles — though the State Health Services department took that to mean pickled cucumbers only.

As the story notes, a couple who intended to make some money pickling vegetables filed a lawsuit against State Health Services, which brought the issue to light. The story also notes the cottage food law, which passed in 2011 in its second attempt. I am as before on the side of the home foodies, so I’m glad to see this bill get passed. Hopefully, there will be no more weird bureaucratic interpretations necessitating further bills like this one.

A beer truce is declared

Well, glory be.

Beer brewers and distributors and have been battling for years over what can be bought and sold at breweries across Texas.

This week, two key groups in the fight finally signed a truce.

The Texas Craft Brewers Guild, which represents the interests of local breweries, and the Beer Alliance of Texas, which represents the interests of beer distributors, have inked an agreement proposing that Texans be allowed to buy up to two cases of beer per person, per day in places where beer is brewed.

[…]

Regulatory reforms passed in 2013 allow breweries that produce fewer than 225,000 barrels, or about 3 million cases, of beer each year to sell up to 5,000 barrels for on-site consumption. Proposed bills filed by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, would expand the law to allow the beer to be taken to-go from local taprooms.

The agreement between the two sides came in the form of a proposed new version of the Rodriguez and Buckingham bills. The added provisions include keeping the 5,000 barrel cap, limiting the amount that can be taken home and for packaged beer to have alcohol content posted clearly on its labels.

The compromise would also require breweries to report beer-to-go sales to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission on a monthly basis.

And the groups agreed to refrain from lobbying to change the fluid-ounce caps of malt beverages for 12 years.

As you may recall, I discounted the possibility of this happening as the session was starting. I’m delighted to be proven wrong, though as the story notes the bill still need to pass. The other lobbying group, the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, are not part of this agreement and thus could work to defeat it. It does feel like there’s an end in sight, which would be good news for everyone. Let’s get this done.

Is the craft brewing business in a slowdown?

Item one.

Alluring as those wide-open skies and rugged vistas may be, the hardscrabble life in West Texas can be unforgiving. And so it was last year for the region’s popular and award-winning craft brewer, Big Bend Brewing Co., despite a planned expansion to San Antonio that might have turned its luck around.

In December, the 6-year-old brewery surrendered to multiple challenges and announced it was shutting down Big Bend Brewing’s hometown operations and taproom in Alpine and abandoning the move to San Antonio.

“We had high aspirations and lofty goals, and we did everything we could to achieve them,” read the Dec. 21 Facebook post announcing the closure. “We remain hopeful and are working hard to make the stoppage temporary. The goal is to come back better than ever. We are no stranger to adversity – forging a craft beer brand in the rugged frontier of West Texas is no easy task.”

[…]

“The main trend is if you’re a local brewery doing small-batch beers, with an old-school small brewpub and restaurant model – those that are still popping up – if they are well-enough financed, they seem to be doing OK as local or hyperlocal places,” said Travis Poling, co-author of San Antonio Beer: Alamo City History by the Pint.

“But the time of the large regional breweries seems to have kind of come and gone,” Poling added. “Everybody wants to be the next Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams, but … the barrier to entry is a lot higher because there’s a lot more competition not just from larger regional brewers, but also the regional breweries bought up by Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and others.”

The Brewers Association reports there are 6,372 breweries in the nation, and of the $111 billion overall beer market, craft beer accounts for $26 billion, up 5 percent in 2017. Texas ranks ninth in the country for most craft brewers with 251 total breweries, or 1.3 per capita. The industry had a $4.5 million impact on the state’s economy in 2016.

In March, Brewers Association Chief Economist Bart Watson wrote, “Compared to many parts of the U.S. economy, craft’s 5% growth rate [in 2017] is quite strong. That said, it’s probably not as strong as many breweries expected as they built their business plan.”

“It’s a difficult time to invest in craft beer,” [Mahala Guevara, vice president of operations for Big Bend Brewing] said. “There’s been an enormous number of breweries opening in the last five years, and we’ve seen a lot of high-profile closures and reductions-in-force and layoffs. Five years ago, the market was going wild, everyone was making money, experiencing tremendous growth. Now there’s depressed investment in craft beer, so even though people are interested, everyone wants to wait out the business cycle.”

I don’t think the cash flow problems of one brewer in a rural part of the state is representative, but I’m keeping an open mind. Item two:

“I think people think Houston is getting saturated, because they haven’t been to a big beer city,” Platypus Brewing’s head brewer Kerry Embertson told me last week during an interview. “Like, Houston’s beer scene is relatively new. Yes. There are the St. Arnold and Southern Stars that have been around forever. But there’s a bunch of people like us that have been around three years or less. There’s plenty of room to make good beer, and customers will come to your place. Especially as spread out as this city is.”

John Holler, who co-owns Holler Brewing along with his wife Kathryn, just a couple blocks from Platypus echoed his colleague’s thoughts.

“I think Houston can definitely accommodate more breweries,” Holler said, during that same interview for an upcoming story. (Sorry! No spoilers!) “The key is, you know, we can accommodate probably 20 or 30 more Platypuses or Hollers. But not 20 or 30 more Saint Arnold.”

This story was based in part on a recent NYT story on the slowdown in growth of the craft brewing industry, and noted the switch from beer to cider at Town in City Brewery. As far as Houston goes, I think John Holler is exactly right. There’s still plenty of room here for small breweries that mostly serve the neighborhoods they’re in and a few bars and restaurants in town. Very few, if any, of those places are going to grow up to be Saint Arnold, or Karbach. Nothing wrong with that, and no reason to panic. Just a bit of perspective.

A switch to cider

Some craft brewing news of note.

The taps, they are a-changin’ at Town in City Brewery, where owner Justin Engle has decided to pause beer brewing and focus instead on creating hard cider.

The folks at Town in City began building their reputation in cider about a year ago, when they launched Houston Cider Co., in a shared space with the beer-brewing operation. But this month, Engle said he decided not to renew his brewer’s permit when it expires.

“We were given legal advice that if we were to renew our brewer’s permit prior to the TABC Sunset hearings, that we may be stuck for two years in old TABC rules,” Engle said of the current fight between brewers and legislators to modernize state laws for alcohol sales. “If the new rules are passed, it would still take us two years to get to the next rules. So we decided not to take that gamble, and so we’re not going to renew right now.”

But that doesn’t mean things at the brewery on Cavalcade near the Heights are going quiet.

On Dec. 18, Houston Cider Co. took a leap that Town in City never attempted: It began canning. Now, three of the cidery’s mainstays — Dry, Cherry and Rosé — are available at Whole Foods and a few other shops across the city.

Cider production began outpacing beer production at the Heights brewery back in August, Engle said.

Still, cider isn’t exactly a sure thing — especially not when compared with the ever-growing popularity of craft beer. According to Drizly, an eCommerce marketplace for alcoholic beverages, only 7.1 percent of sales in the beer market went to cider in October, the most recent month for which data are available. At that same time, 26.7 percent of sales were for craft beer.

But there’s another way to read that: Cider isn’t as crowded a space.

See here for some background on the ongoing legislative battle, which begins again in earnest as the Lege reconvenes. I note that one of the two incumbents that CraftPAC had been supporting as of that January publication date was defeated in November (Tony Dale of HD136). Sure hope they backed some other winners, or the slog will be harder than it needs to be. As for cider, the story notes that there are only eight such breweries in the state, with Houston Cider Company being the only one in our fair city (there is another one based in Dickinson that is the nearest neighbor). Here’s a Leader News story from January about their debut.

I blogged about Lerprechaun Cider Company, the first local cider company, back in 2011; they had a product relaunch in 2015 and according to a footnote at the end of this 2017 Houstonia story were never brewing here and had stopped distributing here. Their domain has expired, which I think tells you all you need to know. That Houstonia story was about Permann’s Cider Company, which as of last July was on track to have a taproom downtown. Not sure where that stands – they have a Facebook page that’s had five posts since February and a Twitter account that hasn’t tweeted since last August. I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that I wish the Houston Cider Company good luck, and that hopefully some day they’ll be able to brew beer again, too.

Our increasingly non-dry state

There are now only five counties in Texas where you can’t buy alcohol.

On Election Day in Stanton, just north of Midland, Ron Black was skeptical that a particular measure on the ballot would pass.

“Well, I think at first it was uh, nobody thought it would go through because they’ve tried it so many times, you know. I can’t tell you how many times it’s gone to the ballot,” Black said.

Black manages the Lawrence Brothers grocery in Stanton. The vote was whether to keep Stanton dry – that is to prohibit the sale of alcohol – or to allow the sale of beer and wine at stores like Black’s. But to his surprise, Stanton went wet after all. And it’s part of a long-term trend that’s washing over Texas.

To put it in perspective: in 1996, there were 53 dry counties in Texas. By 2011 that number dropped to 25. And as of Election Day when Stanton, the seat of Martin County went wet, there are now just five dry counties in Texas – in a state whose attitudes toward alcohol have always been complex, but tended to be more conservative than the country as a whole.

“Texas is slightly earlier than the nation and slightly later than the nation in terms of how long its Prohibition was enforced,” said Brendan Payne, a history professor at North Greenville University and an expert in Prohibition in Texas.

[…]

But the real shift toward dry county extinction came from the passage of House Bill 1199 during the Texas legislative Session in 2003.

“That is what revolutionized our alcohol laws,” said John Hatch, president of Texas Petition Strategies. To hold a wet-dry election in Texas prior to 2003, you had to get signatures from 35 percent of a jurisdiction’s registered voters, each of which had to sign their name exactly as it appeared on their voter ID card, with their voter ID number. And you only had 30 days to do it. It was more difficult to get booze on the ballot than an actual candidate. Hatch asked the legislature to change the law.

“They gave us everything we asked for,” Hatch said. “We went from needing 35 percent of all voters to 35 percent of the last election for governor. So it made it a lot more manageable. We doubled the amount of time from 30 days to 60 days. We made the signature requirement the same as any other petition: if you sign your name “Michael Marks,” that’s good enough.”

A flood of elections followed. In the 15 years preceding the law, there were about 150 wet-dry elections statewide. In the 15 years following the law, there were close to 950 elections. Nearly 80 percent of those went wet.

Fascinating. I’ve noted a few of these elections over the years – Lubbock County, whose dryness I experienced as a visitor in the 80s, was a big one – but I didn’t realize how close to extinction the notion of a dry county was. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer the last five holdouts hang on. Congratulations to the people of Martin County. Please celebrate responsibly.

Whatabout that styrofoam?

Texas’ favorite fast food chain is being asked to make changes to how it serves its food.

Activists are pressuring San Antonio-based Whataburger to end its use of foam cups and containers in favor of materials friendlier to the environment.

More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling on the popular fast-food chain to stop using polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, in its cups and food containers, Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger said.

The petition was delivered Monday to Whataburger’s San Antonio headquarters and to restaurants in Austin and Corpus Christi by representatives for Environment Texas, Surfrider Foundation’s Texas Coastal Bend chapter and Care2.com.

“We think that they can find a good solution that meets customers’ needs but moves away from such harmful products,” Metzger said outside Whataburger’s headquarters on the North Side.

Whataburger, which has more than 800 stores in 10 states, said it is looking at alternatives to Styrofoam cups “that keep drinks at the right temperature, but we have a lot to consider from a quality and supply perspective when meeting our customers’ expectations.

“In the meantime, we continue to urge customers to properly dispose of our cups,” the company said in a statement.

[…]

McDonald’s pledged to phase out foam cups by the end of the year. Dunkin’ Donuts said earlier this year it would replace its foam cups in favor of double-walled paper cups by 2020. Starbucks Coffee Co. announced plans in July to eliminate the use of single-use plastic straws in favor of strawless lids or straws made from other materials by 2020.

“Companies are very conscious of their brand,” Metzger said. “They’re, of course, wanting to keep their customers. And that’s why I think we’re going to see companies like Whataburger hopefully join the ranks of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts and do the right thing here.”

Whataburger is talking to Environment Texas and the others about this, as they should. It’s a simple request, for a clear purpose, to do what others are now doing. Whataburger may have some questions, and they would surely need to phase in a change like this over time, but I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t want to do it. I hope they make that decision soon.

Beer for dogs

We live in strange but wondrous times.

When Megan and Steve Long tell friends and customers about their newest venture, Good Boy Dog Beer, more often than not, they’re met with the same three questions.

One: Is it really for dogs? (Yes.)

Two: Is it alcoholic? (No.)

Three: Can I drink it? (Um, sure?)

The beer doesn’t exactly dance on a human palate, thanks to a complete lack of sodium. But that was never the intention. The Longs, who own Henderson Heights bar in the Sixth Ward and Reserve 101 downtown, wanted to create a new product that mixed two of their favorite things on the planet — beer and dogs.

They’re not pretending to be the first people with the idea. There’s been a scatterplot of breweries offering pints for pups for more than a decade now. But they do seem to be the first in Houston, a city that has become increasingly dog-friendly in recent years, thanks to a growing number of patio bars willing to let four-legged friends tag along for Sunday funday. And that Fido-forward culture has helped the Longs find immediate success.

Within weeks of their launch, all three flavors of their beer — IPA Lot in the Yard, Mailman Malt Licker and Session…squirrel! — are available in 15 bars throughout the city, including Front Porch Pub and FM Kitchen and Bar, for a recommended price of about $5 a can. And they’re getting requests to ship cans across the country.

So yeah, it’s not beer in the sense that you or I know it. But it comes in cans and it’s served at bars, so close enough. Good for the Longs, finding a niche and filling it.

Have a Coke and a toke

Dude.

Aurora Cannabis Inc. led pot stocks higher after Coca-Cola Co. said it’s eyeing the cannabis drinks market, becoming the latest beverage company to tap into surging demand for marijuana products as traditional sales slow.

Coca-Cola says it’s monitoring the nascent industry and is interested in drinks infused with CBD — the non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that treats pain but doesn’t get you high. The Atlanta-based soft drinks maker is in talks with Canadian marijuana producer Aurora Cannabis to develop the beverages, according to a report from BNN Bloomberg Television.

“We are closely watching the growth of non-psychoactive CBD as an ingredient in functional wellness beverages around the world,” Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg News. “The space is evolving quickly. No decisions have been made at this time.” Landers declined to comment on Aurora.

[…]

Coke’s possible foray into the marijuana sector comes as beverage makers are trying to add cannabis as a trendy ingredient while their traditional businesses slow. Last month, Corona beer brewer Constellation Brands Inc. announced it will spend $3.8 billion to increase its stake in Canopy Growth Corp., the Canadian marijuana producer with a value that exceeds C$13 billion ($10 billion).

Molson Coors Brewing Co. is starting a joint venture with Quebec’s Hexo’s Corp., formerly known as Hydropothecary Corp., to develop cannabis drinks in Canada. Diageo PLC, maker of Guinness beer, is holding discussions with at least three Canadian cannabis producers about a possible deal, BNN Bloomberg reported last month. Heineken NV’s Lagunitas craft-brewing label has launched a brand specializing in non-alcoholic drinks infused with THC, marijuana’s active ingredient.

Well, we have plenty of caffeine-infused food and beverages on the market, so this was only a matter of time. I personally don’t have any interest in cannabis, but I have no doubt that plenty of other folks will. If you really want to know when our state’s marijuana laws will start to change, this is likely to be your answer: When big business interests start lobbying to make it happen so that they can make a boatload of money. Ain’t life grand? Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a snack.

The beer boom continues

Raise a glass.

There were a dozen craft breweries across the Houston metro before 2013, and that seemed like a lot at the time.

Now, there are 52.

The new breweries have added 344,487 square feet of industrial space — roughly the size of a 14-story office building — to the local market, according to a new report from commercial real estate firm NAI Partners.

[…]

NAI said cities in Texas are “wildly underserved.” Only 12 of the 52 breweries are inside the 610 Loop, the report said, citing data from the Houston Beer Guide.

The report is here. On the one hand, I’m a little surprised there aren’t more breweries inside the loop, since they’re very much a neighborhood business and benefit from having a lot of potential customers in close proximity. On the other hand, real estate prices are such that it’s practically a miracle any breweries are inside the loop. However you look at it, I do agree there’s room in the market for further growth. We were behind the curve on this trend for a long time, and we’re still catching up.

Algae farms

Food for the future.

Inside a high-tech lab in a modular building in the West Texas desert here, a young scientist peered through a microscope at a slide of live and multiplying algae. She was on the prowl for “grazers,” a sort of cellular-level locust that could wreak havoc on the multimillion-dollar crop proliferating in thick green ponds outside.

It’s the equivalent of a cotton farmer walking rows in search of disease-carrying bolls, explained Rebecca White, the 38-year-old microbiologist who runs one of the world’s few commercially viable algae farms.

The harvest? For now, kilos upon kilos of biomass that is a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids, which in recent years have become all the rage for lowering cholesterol, promoting healthier skin and promising other health benefits. Common practice has been to consume them via a hunk of salmon or supplements derived from fish or krill. But since fish and krill actually get their omega-3 from algae, White and her team have figured out how to cut out the “middle fish” and capitalize on cultivating the source.

In a sign of how commonplace the practice has become, White, whose family has for generations raised cotton and cattle in the Texas Panhandle, says her grandfather has begrudgingly acknowledged that domesticating aquatic microorganisms counts as real farming.

The farm in Imperial is owned by Houston-based Qualitas Health, which partnered with H-E-B for the alGeepa line of supplements and is now expanding into the $33 billion omega-3 market with iWi. The latter line rolled out at Amazon.com, the Vitamin Shoppe and Sprouts Farmers Market in June.

[…]

The United Nations in 1974 called algae “the most ideal food for mankind,” and the Food and Agriculture Organization declared it “the best food for tomorrow.” But so far not even NASA’s been able to get people to want to eat it. At least, not the average American.

With more people eschewing certain foods and a world population expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, however, a new generation of scientists says the mainstreaming of algae is inevitable.

“Most people’s experiences with algae are a contamination event of some sort,” White said. “Your pool, the dog bowl, the Great Lakes, your swimming hole — that’s all negative. But algae has been doing so many positive things for so many years that they don’t talk about in a way that gets people’s attention. … Our goal is to make people think about algae as food.”

If you can package it as a meat substitute the way soy is, you’re probably most of the way there. That won’t be for everyone, of course, but I’d bet the market will be pretty substantial over time. It’s a long story, so read it and see what you think.