A year of pandemic barbecue

photo by Joe McGregor (@ministersofsmoke)

This week I’ve been reflecting on a year of coronavirus in our lives. At every scale, it flipped our world upside down. We’ve been worried for an entire year about our health, our families, our industry, and our economy. A year ago as we cancelled all of our foreseeable events and transitioned our little food truck from walk-up to drive-thru, we had no idea how many of our peers would lose their jobs and their lives. We had no idea what we were up against.

Almost everyone closed for a little while at least. We stayed open at our regular hours and spent that first week speculating through bandanas about the summer and fall. With grocery stores overwhelmed we knew people would want some good food and we really wanted to keep the promise to our staff that we would do everything we could to keep them safe and employed. We didn’t take a day off. The smoke kept rolling and so did the guests.

Early spring is a huge business time for us during a normal year and our guests kept coming out and supporting us. We had drive-thru lines snaking through the parking lot and all the way up Pickle Rd. for our Easter, 3rd Anniversary, and Fried Chicken Sandwich pick-up events. We put simple measures in place like a table out in front of our window to keep guests from coming too close. We stayed vigilant with our masks and kept our circles small. We rallied around each other. Individually, every employee expressed to me that one of their main fears was infecting the staff and having to close down. Feeding people and working as a small team kept our bodies and minds busy when others felt they couldn’t leave the house. It gave us a purpose at a time when so many were scared.

For the first time we felt lucky to be in a food truck. We got lucky a lot the past year. Nobody on our staff got sick, we got both rounds of PPP, and we didn’t have to let anybody go from our small staff. Once Cosmic re-opened, we got lucky that people felt comfortable coming there.

Of course, we didn’t dodge every bullet.

We had to say goodbye to one of our most beloved employees as he went back to Singapore because he couldn’t afford healthcare if he got sick here. We also walked away from a lease on a brick and mortar restaurant, something we’ve been seeking for five years now. We had to watch all of our catering and event revenue for an entire year dry up in an instant. We cancelled tens of thousands of dollars worth of rental equipment for SXSW shows and weddings. Like every other cook, dishwasher, server, chef, and restaurant owner, we worried about our careers and whether we were going to be able to or even if we should at that time provide for our families with the skills we had developed for years.

But we did what we always do, we worked through it. We stayed alive with luck in early spring, but we survived the rest of it with the same tools that got us this far, hard work and creativity. We didn’t just show up every day, we got creative about how we can deliver what we do to people where they were. We decided we could create revenue from our ideas. Our plan was to reach out to potential fans online through not just social media, but media. We started a Patreon video series where we teach subscribers how to make our barbecue and how we run our business. I also started a podcast and this blog to reach potential super fans anywhere on the Internet we could find them. We hunkered down on spending and refined the dishes and design of our menu.

We made it through the spike of the summer and the surge of the fall and winter and here we are again. St. Patrick’s Day is on Wednesday. That was our last day of service inside Cosmic before they closed for two months last year. For us it’s the unofficial start of the pandemic. And even though the governor lifted the mask mandate and declared bars and restaurants to be able to operate at 100% capacity again, that doesn’t mean it’s over. We still have a long time and a lot of work to do to clean up the devastation that Covid has left on our country and industry. But the numbers of vaccines and infections are looking positive for the first time in a year.

Now with most of our staff scheduled to receive the vaccine, we’re incredibly optimistic about the future. We have multiple projects in the works, events being planned, weddings on the schedule. It feels a lot like this time last year, right before everything suddenly changed. But everything is changed now. I don’t think we’ll see masks disappear from service jobs for another few years if ever.

We’ll always remember the beginning of last year and how many questions we had about the future. As an employer, I’ll also remember that we got through it together with our family and coworkers. We’re incredibly proud of the work we’ve done this past year and we’re not slowing down at all. We’re ready to serve lots more barbecue, make lots more videos, and share our ideas and food with lots more folks.

Chef/Pitmaster from Austin, Texas

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