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With the Lights Out, North Texas Restaurants Become De Facto Warming Stations

Nameer Salman has kept his restaurant open so his customers have somewhere to eat and stay warm.EXPAND
Nameer Salman has kept his restaurant open so his customers have somewhere to eat and stay warm.
Patrick Strickland
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On Tuesday morning, Nameer Salman scraped shovelfuls of snow off the pavement leading to the entrance of his restaurant, Jasmine Café. A couple of his waiters joined him, tossing the snow back behind them and clearing the path.

Tucked in a strip of businesses off Richardson’s Main Street, Jasmine has kept its doors open the last few days even as the statewide winter storm has forced many restaurants to close until electricity is stable and the weather warms. The bar next door is closed, as are several restaurants and cafes across the street.

“In this kind of situation, we always lose money,” Salman, 41, told the Observer. “Whenever you open like this, you don't make enough to cover your costs of paying your employees.”

Still, for many of Salman’s customers, there were few alternatives to stay warm and find a hot meal. “A lot of people have been coming here for 18 or more years,” he said. “If the weather's bad, we still try to open.”

With few other places in the area open, Jasmine has become a de facto warming center for regulars and new customers alike.

A couple dozen people had gathered inside Jasmine. When the electricity worked, the central heating kept the space warm. Salman fired up heaters and customers crowded around tables nearby. The waiters on shift rushed from one table to the next, trying to keep up with the orders.

The coronavirus pandemic had already hit his business hard, but Salman says he wants to maintain opening hours as regularly as possible throughout the storm. This week, he picked up the employees who wanted to work but didn’t have a ride. “They still want to make a living,” he said. “They still need the money.”

But at nighttime, he can’t keep the restaurant open without electricity, so he’s been forced to close early each evening.

Tony Naimeh passed a couple hours on Tuesday at Jasmine. Back home, his power was off, and he couldn’t cook a hot meal because his stove is electric.

“I’ve been at home for two days without power. I was freezing, and I can't cook,” Naimeh said. “They have electricity here. I can eat here, drink hot tea and be warm.”

The storm hit hard over the weekend, and some parts of Texas woke up on Sunday to find snow piled up in their driveways and blanketing the streets. At the time, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, warned of rolling blackouts the agency expected would last no more than 45 minutes at a time.

But many found themselves without power for several hours at a time. Overnight on Tuesday, more snow fell and temperatures stayed well below freezing. The next morning, some 3.4 million homes still had no power, according to poweroutage.us. Of that total, hundreds of thousands were located in North Texas.

“We know millions of people are suffering,” ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness said in a press release. “We have no other priority than getting them electricity. No other priority.”

Later in the day, ERCOT officials said the number of Texans without power was gradually decreasing, but didn't have an estimate for when power would be fully restored, The Dallas Morning News reported.

But without power, many were left cold and hungry. Some left their homes and went to warming stations popping up around the Dallas area, others hunted for rooms at hotels and motels already filling up and unluckier residents slept in their cars to stay warm.

Meanwhile, the shelves at many gas stations and grocery stores emptied, and lines outside the few fast-food chains that were open wound around parking lots and snaked into the streets. At one point on Monday night, the queue at a Burger King in Houston had more than 50 cars,  ABC13 Houston reported.

On Wednesday, the Texas Restaurant Association put out a call to action on social media, asking restaurants to help deliver hot meals to hospitals “in serious need of food for their staff and patients.”

Anna Tauzin, head of communications at the Texas Restaurant Association, said the storm comes after a year of restaurants struggling to make ends meet during the coronavirus pandemic. "This is just another piece of devastation for restaurants," she told the Observer.

But social-distancing protocols also mean restaurants have to limit the number of people they take in right now. Many restaurants are slammed, while the ones that have closed are scrambling to make sure their food doesn’t spoil, Tauzin explained.

“Especially because the roads are still so iced over, sometimes you can’t get to a central warming center and you’ve just got to get to your local café,” she said. “Luckily, restaurant people are the best kind of people. They’re always willing to open their doors. Even after everything they went through in 2020, they’re still willing to help their community.”

The total cost the storm will have on restaurants and other businesses is still unclear. Pipes have busted in homes and businesses alike, and many restaurants will likely have to replace food supplies that went bad during outages.

Back at Jasmine, Nameer Salman’s phone rang every few minutes. Customers wanted to know if the restaurant was open, and more important, if the electricity was on at the moment.

Salman said he worried the constant outages could damage restaurant equipment, some of which would cost several thousand dollars to repair. "There should be a clear schedule for electricity," he said.

Later, when the electricity cut off again, the credit card machines went down with it and customers without cash couldn’t pay. “We’ve had 10 or 15 tables that didn’t have cash on them,” Salman said. “But I’m getting calls from people who don’t have food or are sleeping in their cars. That’s why it makes sense for me to stay open.”

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