George Perez owns an iconic Brownsville restaurant whose name is ingrained into the city it has served for nearly 90 years.
Mario Dominguez Jr. makes barbecue so renowned that it made Texas Monthly’s Top 50 for being among the best in the Lone Star State.
And yet, in both cases, neither restaurant owner assumed their Valley businesses would survive the seismic disruptions of 2020. Adjustments had to be made quickly before the next wave of trouble hit. Heading soon into a new year, two of the Valley’s foremost restaurant owners looked back at a year on the rebound while busily planning ahead to stay ahead.
“In this business, everyday is different, everyday is a challenge,” said Perez, who owns the Vermillion Restaurant & Watering Hole on Paredes Line Road in Brownsville with his wife, Iselle. “Having said that, I’ve never seen a year as difficult as 2020 and now we have new issues to deal with.”
Dominguez, like Perez, is still working to get back all the business he had before 2020.
“Sales aren’t what they were,” he said at The Smoking Oak in Mercedes. “People are still coming back for the first time.”
Facing Familiar Challenges & Some New Ones
Fewer industries have had it any tougher than the restaurant business over the last two years.
Census Bureau statistics show U.S. restaurant industry revenues are making a rapid return to pre-2020 levels, reaching $72 billion this past August. Employment in the industry, however, is still lagging. This employment sector posted well over one million job openings in August.
Perez is back up to about 75 percent of the staffing he had before 2020. It has been a struggle just to get to that level. Job applicants now have higher pay expectations. Perez has made that adjustment. When it’s added to supply shortages, it spills over to menu prices and what his customers pay. He cited shortages with Styrofoam cups and plates. It’s also taking longer to get shipments of beef and fajitas.
“It evolves all the way down here,” Perez said of the supply chain issues affecting all strands of the U.S. economy. “Truck deliveries are getting here late.”
Dominguez worries about the rising cost of meats and how it’s pushing plates of barbecue up toward what steak dishes cost.
“You just keep adjusting to keep the business going,” he said after a recent lunch rush.
Adjusting & Find Strengths
Both Valley restaurants have done just that – adjusted – and done it superbly at a quick pace.
They had to hear the two owners tell it. The Vermillion and Smoking Oak each opened drive-through lanes and went to curbside service. Each was very much a sit-down type of restaurant where family members and friends could sit for extended periods of time enjoying great food and a cold beer or two.
They still do, but now more want to order through an app, communicate through their phones and have their food brought to their vehicles. Customers are now more on the move, especially the younger demographic. Traditional restaurants like the ones Perez and Dominguez own made changes to adjust to the times coming out of a tumultuous 2020.
“It brought out our strengths,” said Perez of the Vermillion, where he started as a dishwasher in his youth, working his way up to general manager years later, and then purchasing the restaurant six years ago. “It has taken a lot of brainstorming to survive this last year.”
In Mercedes, Dominguez went from customers lining up to give him their orders to having them sit at tables and do the same. Dominguez misses the interaction with his customers, as do they. Yet he says the priority is putting the health and well-being first for all who step into the Smoking Oak.
The next step Dominguez wants to take is extending operating hours for evening dining out on the patio, which has added a whole new element to his business model.
“We want to capture more business,” he said. “It also gives our customers more options, and hopefully, we can regain some of what we lost last year.”