(Note: We're revisiting some of Brian Reinhart's picks for our annual list of Top 100 Dallas Restaurants to see how they're faring in what we hope are the final months of the pandemic.)
When the February snowstorm cut power at Joe Zavala’s house, he packed the kids in the car and left for his in-laws’ house. Conveniently, they live just five minutes from his acclaimed namesake Grand Prairie restaurant, Zavala’s Barbecue, so every day after the snow stopped Zavala made the short trip to check in on his business.
For the first few days, everything seemed OK. The crew started making plans to reopen and serve barbecue that weekend.
Then came Thursday.
“We went to check up to do prep,” Zavala says. “I go in there and the first thing I see is water dripping. On the last day! I didn’t even know that we had pipes in the ceiling.”
But the 1967-constructed building had pipes in the ceiling, and they had burst. Water poured out of light fixtures. HVAC systems were damaged, $4,300 of food was ruined. And, most obviously, there was a great big hole in the ceiling, which Zavala jokingly called a “new sunroof” in an Instagram post.
Now the barbecue spot is closed for repairs, with a reopening date uncertain but likely to be in April.
Zavala says that his contractors are preparing to redo plumbing and wiring and tear out walls, once his insurance company approves the plan.
“It’s going to be electrical work, and being a restaurant, we’re going to have to redo all that Sheetrock,” he says. “You can’t have the opportunity for mold.” Since the burst pipe is in the ceiling, there’s a risk that water spilled down inside the walls. He’s heard estimates of damage amounting to $50,000.
Numerous restaurants around the Dallas area suffered damage during the winter storm. Homewood, in Oak Lawn, had a burst pipe; Heim Barbecue’s new Dallas location had multiple burst pipes in the smokehouse, forcing the pit to remain closed for seven days. Both businesses have reopened.
Other restaurants were less lucky. Mama Mia’s Italian Restaurant, in Deep Ellum, suffered extensive damage, and according to a report by FOX 4, the business has no insurance at all to pay for repairs. FOX adds that Mama Mia’s owners have no idea how long they will stay closed and are hoping for federal disaster funds from the Small Business Administration.
Zavala expected his insurance company to approve funding within a few days. Then contractors will undertake work they expect to last for three weeks, assuming there are no unexpected delays or difficulties.
“First week of April, if we open by then, I’ll be happy,” Zavala adds. “It sucks because March is beautiful weather, people will want to go out to eat, and we’ll miss all of that. It just sucks because our January was busier than pre-covid January. Fajita night was becoming a hit, people were enjoying the burger nights and crispito nights. I thought maybe we were getting back to being, not back to normal, but back to profitable, and then this happens.”
His barbecue business has dealt with setbacks before. It began in 2016 as a delivery service, with customers pre-ordering their meals and the Zavala family driving across the Dallas area making drops. But the very first week that Zavala’s Barbecue opened for orders, nobody bought a single bite.
A year ago, Zavala injured himself playing with his children and consulted a doctor, who found something more worrisome: cancer. He’s in remission now, but he spent most of the pandemic in treatment with a weakened immune system.
Now, his biggest worry is paying his employees for the upcoming weeks.
“That is me and my wife’s only concern, is how we can pay them,” he says. “It’s up to like 60 days, I believe, that [business insurance] covers the payroll. My mom works for me. My best friend’s brother works for me. The guy who owns the building with me, his girlfriend works for us.”
Given how close-knit the restaurant’s staff is, Zavala hopes to keep them all employed even if the repairs take longer than a month. He’s looking into pop-up events and appearances at other venues, if the terms of his insurance contract would allow them, in order to stay busy and keep the restaurant’s brand alive. Already, he’s hopped on Zoom calls to teach listeners barbecue techniques free of charge.
“It’s like 10 times extra work to stay relevant during COVID,” Zavala says. “That’s why I’m trying to do all this stuff, so people don’t forget about us.”
It’s a tough environment for restaurants and barbecue spots to suffer a temporary closure, in the middle of a pandemic and with customers enjoying more dining choices than ever before. Still, I think people, especially in the Grand Prairie area, won’t be quick to forget Zavala’s fabulous brisket tacos and jalapeño cheddar hominy. The restaurant’s owner is optimistic, too.
For now, he’s trying to keep his sense of humor. When I asked how things looked inside the restaurant, the first words Zavala said were, “Now I know why you pay insurance.”
Zavala’s Barbecue, 421 W. Main St., Grand Prairie, 817-330-9061.
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