Nixta Taqueria raises $80,000 in a day after electricity issues force restaurant to close
Austin restaurants have struggled to attract diners this summer in part because of the extreme heat. They've had to blast their ACs and invest in fans and misters to keep their spaces cool — but now, the City of Austin has shut down one restaurant due to electricity issues.
James Beard Award-winning Mexican restaurant Nixta Taqueria has been closed since Aug. 16, when Austin Energy got an alert that the restaurant was drawing too much power, according to co-owner and chef Edgar Rico. A City of Austin employee took out the meter on one of Nixta's electrical boxes, shutting off most of the restaurant's power — including its AC.
The city told Rico an electrician just needed to apply for a permit and upgrade the electrical panel — "a relatively quick fix," Rico said.
But the city then denied the permit. According to Rico, it said the building didn't have approval for an AC unit a previous tenant had installed. Rico said city officials inspected the building in the months before Nixta opened and never flagged any issues with the AC.
Rico said the city now is requiring Nixta to restart the permit process from the beginning, as if the restaurant were opening for the first time. That includes hiring an engineer and architect and drawing up a full site plan. The whole process could take four to eight months and tens of thousands of dollars, Rico said.
"They essentially gave us a death sentence," Rico said.
A city spokesperson said the city found melted wires during its visit to Nixta, and the restaurant "was at a significantly high risk of fire or explosion."
"A permit to repair this issue could not be immediately issued for several reasons, including that there is currently not enough amperage (amps) to operate all the electrical equipment in the building and the electrical meters don’t meet clearance requirements, which is also a critical safety issue," the spokesperson wrote in an email.
The city also said it found other permitting issues that created "life-threatening" safety concerns.
Rico and co-owner Sara Mardanbigi are in talks with the city and hope to carve out an alternate plan for reopening, but Rico said the process has been confusing. At one point, he said, a city employee called and said the initial permit the city requested had been approved, only to call back half an hour later and say it had actually been denied.
The city also suggested Nixta switch to doing take-out orders only. Even though the building still has gas and some "very light power" from another electrical box, Rico said, the kitchen can reach 120 degrees without AC and isn't safe for staff.
For now, the restaurant will stay closed. Rico said he doesn't know when it'll be fully back in business. The husband and wife team have already had to furlough some of their staff.
"I feel like there needs to be like an easier path for people that are truly mom and pop shops, that are just trying to open and just try and do good in their community," Rico said. "That's all we've ever done from day one."
The Austin community has stepped up to support Nixta. On Thursday morning, the owners created a GoFundMe with a goal of $80,000 to pay for permitting expenses and to retain some of their staff. As of Friday afternoon, the restaurant had raised more than $89,000.
Nixta has also seen an outpouring of support from other Austin restaurants. Interstellar BBQ, Veracruz All Natural and Kitty Cohen's commented on Nixta's Instagram post about the GoFundMe, offering to host the restaurant in their spaces.
Nixta has taken one place up on its offer: Rico and Mardanbigi will be at East Austin restaurant la Barbecue on Sunday for a pop-up. The owners are also exploring transitioning to a food truck until the restaurant can reopen.
"We've always given to the city in some way, shape or form," Rico said, "and I'm just really glad to see that the city is giving us a lot of love back."