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Is 'heat fatigue' keeping customers from dining out in Austin this summer?

People sit outside at a pink picnic table with other empty tables around and big fans around them
Michael Minasi
Nixta Taqueria employees share a meal together on the restaurant's covered patio on Tuesday. Staff say the extreme heat has slowed business.

As a wave of historic heat came rolling in in June, Sara Mardanbigi developed a sinking suspicion this summer would be different.

The owner of East Austin’s James Beard Award-winning Nixta Taqueria rattled off a list of challenges facing the restaurant industry: Inflation has been slowing, but food prices are still up from last year. Labor costs continue to rise, with the Texas Restaurant Association estimating wage increases of 13-23% since the pandemic. Profit margins, for some, have been sliced in half.

Summer is typically slow, especially for restaurants in college towns. But for Austin restaurants, this season’s numbers are down considerably from last year.

“Anytime it rains or it snows or it gets cold for the first time in Austin, everybody sort of hermits up. It’s the same way with heat."
Sara Mardangibi, Nixta Taqueria

Real-time data from OpenTable shows the number of seated diners at Austin restaurants has dropped 8% compared to last August, matching 8% dips in June and July.

“There’s no doubt that this extreme heat wave is hurting restaurants,” said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, chief public affairs officer for the Texas Restaurant Association.

“Business hasn’t fallen off a cliff, but it’s noticeably down a bit compared to even previous summers when we had extreme heat,” she said. “So there’s kind of this general sentiment that this summer is particularly brutal, and that is impacting consumer behavior.”

Mardanbigi, who estimates 90% of the seats at her restaurant are outside, is also convinced the heat has played a role in the summer slump.

“Anytime it rains or it snows or it gets cold for the first time in Austin, everybody sort of hermits up," she said. "It’s the same way with heat."

But this summer’s heat is really hot. Some would-be customers have seemingly gone into hibernation and have yet to reemerge.

A universal slowdown

An oppressive June heat wave corresponded with a noticeable drop in customer visits to Nixta Taqueria, said Mardanbigi, who co-owns the restaurant with chef Edgar Rico. She said they're seeing roughly 10% fewer diners than they typically would this time of year.

Donna Wilkins, co-founder of Juliet Italian Kitchen, said that while summer heat in Austin is nothing new, she’s noticed it's becoming more of a conversation at industry conferences.

While heat might not be the only thing keeping customers away, Juliet's staff have noticed a difference.

“Very few people are wanting to sit on the patio, even late into the evening," said Wilkins, who oversees locations at Barton Springs and the Arboretum, each with a considerable amount of patio space.

A sign invites visitors to avoid the heat by stepping inside to place a food order
Michael Minasi
Restaurants owners say the heat has contributed to a summer slump in business.

Outside of holiday spikes in online orders, boosts from food delivery apps do little to offset decreases to in-person dining.

Jessica Galindo Winters and Adam Winters, owners of Mellizoz Tacos and Cruzteca Mexican Kitchen, said customers aren’t coming to dine-in as often as they used to, particularly during the day. They haven't seen a bump in online orders this summer, either.

The couple’s catering business — which includes two food trucks and staff available to serve at events — has also taken a hit.

“It just seems like there’s not as many events being held,” Winters said.

“It’s just too hot to get out. It kind of reminds us of the heat wave from 2011,” Galindo Winters said. “That’s when we were operating our food trailer on South First Street. … We just saw a complete lull in business during that time.”

Mardanbigi said she's heard from others in the industry that the slowdown is not just impacting majority-outdoor spaces.

“For me, I think the most surprising thing is hearing from other restaurants who do full-service indoors, no one’s waiting in lines, AC is blasting. But it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I think there’s heat fatigue. Even if you do want to go out, as soon as you open the door you get hit by a wave of heat, and it kind of dissuades you.”

No cheap fixes

Mardanbigi said Nixta Taqueria has generally seen sustained revenue growth since its October 2019 opening.

That is, until this summer.

“There is, I think, a general concern of, ‘Oh, well, if this is going to be the new normal, what sort of tactics do we need to consider?'" Mardanbigi said. "'Is there anything that we can do?’”

Potential ideas to counteract the heat range from installing cross-directional fans, water stations, swamp coolers and awnings.

Juliet Italian Kitchen added additional patio coverage this spring to encourage outdoor eating. In the summer, Wilkins’ team brought in 15 misters, although the city has restricted their use to between 4 p.m. and midnight because of a drought.

These types of fixes don’t come cheap, though. For some mom-and-pop operations, they can be downright unaffordable.

Wilkins estimates Juliet Italian Kitchen spent about $20,000 at its two restaurants to address the heat.

Along with a flurry of upgrades to their AC system, the Winters have invested in a number of commercial grade fans to cool things down at their 1,700-square-foot restaurant. They estimate their recent AC tune-ups alone will set them back $6,000.

“That’s not landlord covered. That’s a major expense,” Winters said. “Coming at a time when sales are down.”

Where we may be headed

Wilkins says Juliet Italian Kitchen is seeing some adjustments come from the consumer side, too, with their restaurants’ most popular summer dining times shifting later into the evening.

But diners may soon see some big shifts from restaurants, too.

Mardanbigi said she’s heard from peers who are weighing “summer breaks,” where they shut down altogether to cut costs during slow stretches of the year.

She said her team anticipates the industry experiencing an overall downturn during the third and fourth quarters of the year.

“There is a little bit of a recession that is on its way for Q3 and Q4, so I think this is kind of just leading into that,” Mardinbigi said. “I do think heat is a huge part of it. It’s sort of a daily conversation, and it’s very in your face. But I think it’s kind of compounded by the financial side, too.”

Will relief come, ultimately, from us crossing our fingers for an early autumn breeze?

“I think overall people are positive about it,” Winters said. “They know that the weather is going to be cooling off in the next month. Get those patios ready.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Cruzteca Mexican Kitchen was 700 square feet.

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