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Texas' post-Harvey restaurant problem: Not enough cars

Texans who worked in restaurants pre-Hurricane Harvey can readily be found among the nearly 29,000 victims asking for financial help via GoFundMe.com, a website where visitors can make small donations to needy parties. More than a few have the same request—not for money to repair their homes or feed their families, but for contributions to replace cars destroyed in the storm.

Estimates of how many vehicles were rendered useless by Harvey’s floodwaters range from 500,000 up to 1 million, with the worst damage believed to have befallen car-dependent Houston, home of roughly 0.2% of restaurants nationwide.

In the weeks after Harvey crashed ashore, chains with a strong presence in Texas noted a surge in business once restaurants were reopened and streets drained enough to be passable. But staff mobility was another matter. Although employees were available for work, they had no way to get there.

“We’ve gotten very creative with our schedule writing,” remarked Renee Roozen, president of the Dickey’s Barbecue Pit chain. In Texas, where Dickey’s has 143 branches, employees with access to a vehicle have been picking up the hours of co-workers who have no way of getting to work, often working double shifts.

Other operators report their employees with wheels are serving as car poolers, collecting co-workers and hauling them in a group to the restaurants.

Dickey’s also adjusted to the employment challenges, as well as disruptions in the supply of some items, by temporarily cutting back the extent of its menus.

In Florida, where Hurricane Irma brought travel-halting floods but not nearly the car damage seen in Texas, some Pollo Tropical restaurants limited service to drive-thru or dine-in, but not both. Sister chain Taco Cabana, the quick-service chain concentrated in Texas, reduced its operating hours and offered a limited menu.

Back in Dickey’s home state of Texas, the car crunch also dramatically changed Dickey’s sales mix.

“Our dine-in sales are very, very strong, beating last year’s levels, beating prior month’s by double digits,” Roozen said two weeks after Harvey. Her visits to restaurants found large parties spending more than they normally would, which she attributed to patrons using the restaurants as rendezvous spots with friends and neighbors they hadn’t seen since the storms. The meals were a chance for reassurance and a celebration that everyone was OK, she surmised.

In addition, “people are eating out more because they don’t have time or they have so much to do that they can’t think about things like cooking,” she says.

Other observers have pointed out that home kitchens are often still not operable, so residents of areas like Houston had no choice but to buy ready-to-eat meals. And they dined in restaurants because their homes were often not inhabitable yet.

But takeout also boomed, Roozen observed, and she noticed a hybrid of sorts: people ordering large quantities of food, eating a full meal on-premise, and then carefully wrapping the leftovers to bring home for a later meal or snack.

Where business really tanked, she said, was in delivery. Dickey’s uses a number of third-party deliverers, and many stayed offline even after the recovery began. Roozen speculates that they, too, were walloped by the widespread water damage to cars.

“Because they are dealing with junior-level employees who use their personal cars, they don’t have the people to make the deliveries,” she said.

The delivery service Favor, which operates in 15 cities in Texas, is currently running ads on Craigslist for delivery personnel, with a starting-wage offer of $25 an hour.

Domino’s, however, said all of its stores in Texas had been spared or reopened within two days of Harvey, and that units “haven’t reported any issues along these lines.” It declined further comment.

Fifteen of Dickey’s 143 restaurants in Texas were directly affected. All have reopened and are assessing the damage, including the impact on food costs.

“Thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds were not used in a sales-boosting methodology,” Roozen said. “We had one operator who just started handing it out. He went to local churches and started giving it away.”

Another operator from outside the affected area hauled a mobile smoker to Texas and started smoking meats for damaged restaurants to sell until operations could be restored and fully staffed.

“It is by far not over from a recovery standpoint,” said Roozen. “But we are getting closer to a business-as-usual mode.”

Meanwhile, Isis Hernandez-Lopez has drawn contributions of $1,220 against her GoFundMe.com goal of $2,000 to buy a car so she can resume work at Burger-Chan. The Chick-fil-A in Gatewood, Texas, still has more than $4,000 to go in its quest to raise $5,000 in car funds and other assistance for employees.

Nothing has yet been contributed to Kelvin Lopez, who posted that he needs $1,000 for wheels to get to his restaurant job.

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