Empty Hotels, Closed Restaurants, And No One To Serve: A Look At DFW's Hospitality Industry | KERA News

Empty Hotels, Closed Restaurants, And No One To Serve: A Look At DFW's Hospitality Industry

Apr 17, 2020

The efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 have been tough, especially on the hospitality industry. From food service to hotels to any company catering to travelers, workers in this industry are facing an unprecedented challenge. And the owners of those shuttered businesses employ a big chunk of the Dallas-Fort Worth workforce

We spoke with some of those owners to hear about the challenges they're facing. 

Restaurants
The Fort Worth restaurateur Jon Bonnell has had to ditch fine dining and take on curbside service during the coronavirus outbreak. This photo shows him masked and serving customers on Easter 2020.
Credit Jon Bonnell

Nothing. Not his time spent working in education, nor his 20 years in the industry could've ever prepared Jon Bonnell for running a restaurant during a global pandemic.

"When they shutdown the dining rooms, bars and everything, I thought to myself, 'We're going to need to abandon the whole idea of fine dining,'" he said.

The award-winning chef – and the owner of four eateries in Fort Worth – figured that he needed to think outside of the box. And so, he embraced a drive-thru-like strategy.

"Our team figured people still were going to need food," he said. "And what people were going to need was home meal replacements."

That's what he created. For the last few weeks, Bonnell and his staff have ditched their restaurants' normal menus, which featured seafood and other delicacies like elk tenderloin.

"No one needs tenderloin, crab claws or fresh oysters on the half-shell," he said. Instead, they've started making $40 homestyle family meals, like meatloaf and fried chicken.

This would never be the business model I'd start with," he said. "But we kind of looked at it as part 'how do we limp along until this is over,' part community service."

Business has been ok. He's making about 500 meals per day. And he almost always sells out. But he's stunned by what the COVID-19 outbreak has done to his industry. 

“This is the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around: There is not a waiter, a waitress, a bartender, [or] a hostess in the state of Texas. Those jobs literally don't exist right now," he said. 

Bonnell has felt the effects of these changes firsthand. In March, he had to fire all but 30 of his 260 employees. And he's not alone. 

According to Visit Fort Worth, about 50% of all independently owned restaurants in the city have completely closed.

"The reality is that every single person we are here to serve is in the most difficult spot they've been in individually and as an industry," said Bob Jameson. He's Visit Fort Worth's leader and described the organization as a sort of chamber of commerce for the city. Jameson told KERA that his group is doing everything possible to get out information about restaurants that are open, so locals can support local businesses during the pandemic. 

But Bonnell — who is appreciative of every single customer he's had — said this is the reality of the situation that restaurant owners are facing.

"The ones that are still open are trying to figure out how to work with 80 to 90% reduction in sales," he said. "That's just across the board."

Hotels
The Statler Hilton in Dallas.
Credit Miguel Perez for KERA News

Hotels are feeling the heat too. Craig Davis, the head of Visit Dallas, says the city's 230 hotels are usually pretty full in the spring, around 75% to 80% capacity. Now, it's around 5%.

“We did a straw pole and we believe that most hotels have furloughed 90 to 95% of their staff, which is about 60,000 people with great paying jobs," Davis said.

The two cities combined attract about 35 million visitors each year. And those visitors contribute nearly $8 billion of economic impact to both municipalities, which Jameson said creates jobs. 

"Visitors and the money they spend in Fort Worth has created 25,ooo jobs in our community," Jameson said. "The advanatage that brings to people who live in the city are these: other people's money is being spent and creating tax revenue. And those visitors' money allows us to enjoy our community too, because it encourages new restaurants and retail shops to open up."

Davis echos Jameson's sentiment. He asked, "would your favorite restaurant be open if 27 million people didn't visit Dallas?" 

Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas on Pearl Street in Uptown, Dallas, Texas
Credit Andreas Praefcke via Wikicommons

"Probably not," said Laila Assanie. She's an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and studies the North Texas economy. Assanie helped KERA get a better handle on the number of people impacted in this industry during the pandemic. 

“The leisure and hospitality sector employs 405,000 people," she said. "So, it's pretty large."

Assannie said that these job losses are especially tough right now, because the region's been booming for the past decade.

“We have been one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas and our employment growth here has been faster than both the U.S. as well as the state of Texas," she said. 

The coronavirus has reversed that. The Brookings Institute says 37.2 million people work hospitality-like jobs. And those people are not only at risk of losing their job now. Their jobs could never return.

"The longer this goes on," Assanie explained, "the more likely it is that we will see more business failure. Because less businesses will be able to cash-flow their operations."

Transportation
Chauffeur Maurice Scott stands in the garage of Premier Transportation Services in Dallas.
Credit Hady Mawajdeh/KERA News

Assanie is talking about businesses like Premier Transportation Services in Dallas. That's where Maurice Scott's a chauffeur.

“My last ride was March 20," Scott said. "So that's been, you know, kind of, uh — kind of different." 

Scott has been a driver for more than two decades. He likes it. He says perks can include tickets to sporting events, great conversations and, from time to time, tips. 

"The thing about getting a tip is that you can't rely on it. It's not something you should expect. Because not everyone is going to tip you above the standard rate for whatever run you've just made," Scott said. "We get paid a flat rate per ride. And if we get a tip, that's just an extra."

Unfortunately for Scott, planes and hotels have been empty in recent weeks. And that means people, especially the kinds of clients Premier typically serves, haven't needed rides.

"This is very weird," he said. "I've never seen so many cars parked in our garage. It's always empty in here. Not now, though. Now, it looks like a dealership or something."

Premier Transportation's fleet of motor coaches sit in an empty parking lot. Each vehicle is worth more than a half-million dollars.
Credit Hady Mawajdeh/KERA News

Scott's employer is Eric Devlin. He founded Premier in 1996. Devlin explained that his company is in uncharted territory.

“In March, April, May, we average 250 runs a day," he said. "And we're doing four now. Our revenue is off 98%."

Last year was Premier's best year ever. Devlin said they made $18.6 million in revenue. Now, his fleet of sedans, SUVs, minibuses and motor coaches are all sitting in a garage depreciating. 

"I think we have seven vehicles insured right now," said Devlin. "We've mothballed all the rest of them." 

Devlin's had to let go of more than 100 employees, some four-fifths of his staff. But there isn't anything he can do about it. He simply doesn't have the customers he'd need to keep them on the payroll. 

“I'm optimistic that we're going to get back to where we were, [to] 2012 or 2015 revenue levels," he said. "But not 2019's. It'll take a few years for us to get there again."

Just a few months ago, in the winter of 2019, Devlin was picturing his most profitable year ever in 2020. Instead, he's working late-night shifts as a Premier's dispatcher, hoping for more business, hoping he'll get a call telling him that the economy is open again, and hoping he can eventually hire back those 100 people.