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As the pandemic drags on, 24/7 dining makes a return to Austin

Thursday, December 16, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

Last month, Bennu Coffee was able to reach a milestone it had been after for months: resuming the 24/7 hours of operation it had gained a reputation for among Austinites.

At the moment, only Bennu’s Highland location is open around the clock, but owners Stephanie and Steve Williams are already making plans to open up 24/7 at its South Congress and Martin Luther King locations as well.

After the outbreak of the coronavirus, a number of Austin’s iconic 24/7 restaurants, coffee shops, and cafes scaled back operations at first due to the uncertainty during the early months of the pandemic, but more recently because it’s been difficult to find staff willing and able to work the early hours of the morning.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that between March and April 2020, the leisure and hospitality industry and Austin had lost nearly half of its jobs. While the industry has recovered significantly since then, it’s been a slow and steady process that’s stalled since the summer  the most recent data shows that Austin is still down more than 10,000 leisure and hospitality jobs compared to before the pandemic.

The key to Bennu’s 24/7 re-opening is a classic economic incentive: wage increases.

Stephanie and Steve Williams increased the pay for the overnight shift by around 40% and have also ensured tip minimums for their employees that work during the day. They’ve also given their staff members holiday bonuses.

While business hasn’t fully bounced back, the investments in the team are promising and a month into the reopening process, things are relatively hopeful.

“We think it’s successful enough and moving at a pace where we’re like, ‘OK, let’s do this at one of the other locations.’ I think Austin is ready,” Stephanie Williams told the Austin Monitor.

Still, though, Bennu isn’t exactly in the clear just yet. The Williamses are still not netting a profit for the business and payroll now makes up nearly half of the company’s total expenses.

The couple have also begun to feel the effects of inflation and supply chain complications, macroeconomic trends affecting the entire hospitality industry.

In a November letter, the National Restaurant Association wrote that menu prices are up 4.7% in the past year alone and that 75% of restaurants have changed their offerings because of supply chain issues.

“Five of our vendors in the last month have said that prices are increasing on everything from waste collection to food that we sell to coffee that we get,” Stephanie Williams said.

The most difficult item to keep in stock has been plastic cups. Bennu has maintained its supply of cups through an informal system where shop managers pick up as many as they can wherever they can find them, sometimes as much as double as the company is used to.

Because of increases in the cost of goods and labor, Bennu is going to have to raise its prices.

“We hate it every time we have to do it, but when every week you’re seeing an email from another vendor saying I’m raising prices … we’re not going to have a choice,” Stephanie Williams told the Monitor.

Still though, the biggest issue to businesses reopening to 24/7 service is still staffing and even then, Bennu is at a slight advantage, as its overnight shifts only require one person. Until broader staffing issues are resolved across the hospitality industry, Austin’s around-the-clock food and cafe industry is likely in for a long road to recovery.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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