Black Star Co-Op struggling to stay afloat in crowded market


Facing “historically slow sales” in a marketplace flooded with competition, the cooperatively owned Black Star Co-Op last week sent out a letter to its member-owners asking for their increased patronage to help keep the North Austin brewpub afloat.

Black Star suffered a 14-percent decline in beer sales over the past year, which co-op co-founder and kitchen team leader Johnny Livesay partially attributes to the increased competition and new craft beer options in recent years. When Black Star opened in 2010, they were one of only a handful of craft beer options in town. In recent years, brewpubs and breweries with tasting rooms have sprouted up across the city.

And, in terms of the kitchen, when Black Star opened, they were a vocal champion of the nascent trend of farm-to-table restaurants, showing a strong commitment to sourcing all their food locally.

“Now, that doesn’t mean anything because everyone says they do that or does that,” Livesay said.

Black Star has always been driven by an ethos grounded in providing a livable wage for its workers and supporting social justice, recently signing a petition from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Presente.org to promote “sanctuary restaurants.” That commitment to its workers comes at a price.

“We’ve spent a lot more money on labor by not letting our front-of-house workers subsidize our restaurant,” Livesay said. But he acknowledged that Black Star’s pay structure, which includes a no-tipping policy, doesn’t give them much competitive advantage “when nobody else has to do that”

“It’s not easy to do the right thing,” Livesay said.

Black Star has made efforts to trim costs in recent months by cutting and freezing wages, paring back health benefits and performing layoffs. But the cooperative finally “reached a breaking point.” While Black Star has made some changes to try and stay afloat, they don’t intend to change their core mission or pay structure.

“That’s not what the co-op is trying to do,” Livesay said of Black Star, which has about 3,500 member-owners.

Despite the slow first week of what should be the co-op’s busiest quarter of the year, Livesay said there is still hope that Black Star remains open. He recognizes that having a large member-owner base gives the co-op an advantage over many restaurants. That’s why Black Star’s 9-person board decided to put out the call for help from member-owners, a group the business says currently only accounts for 6 percent of monthly sales.

“We just need to have a normal month of sales, which would be like back to last year or even 2015 sales,” Livesay said. (blackstar.coop)

Now open

The owners of Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Austin’s most popular ramen shop have mashed up Japanese and Texas traditions with their latest endeavor, Kemuri Tatsu-Ya , which opened last week in East Austin. The restaurant is billed as a Japanese izakaya that also serves smoked meat. The hybridization echoes the background of chef-owner Tatsu Aikawa, who was born in Japan and moved to Texas at a young age.

Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, which is located in the old Live Oak BBQ building at 2713 E. Second St., serves dishes like grilled chicken thighs and meatballs, and smoked offerings such as duck, mackerel and brisket. That brisket makes its way into one of two ramens that are also on the menu. The restaurant serves cocktails, sake and shochu, along with Japanese beer and whiskey and local beers.

Kemuri Tatsu-Ya serves dinner Wednesday-Sunday, beginning at 5:30 p.m. (kemuri-tatsuya.com)

James Beard Award-winning Paul Qui has returned to the kitchen following the shutter of his eponymous restaurant, Qui.

He opened Kuneho (the name means “rabbit” in his native Tagalog) at 1600 E. Sixth Street last week. Qui closed his first restaurant in September, six months after his arrest on charges of assault against his girlfriend in March. That case is ongoing, with a pretrial hearing slated for February.

Kuneho is more casual than its predecessor, serving sushi and globally inspired dishes, continuing Qui’s pursuit for “the perfect bite.” In addition to nigiri sushi, crudo and sushi rolls, dishes include sunchoke dashi with Hausbar Farm vegetables and dried uni; and trout roe migas.

Qui is joined in the kitchen by chef de cuisine Mia Li, a veteran of Thai Kun with both Chinese (father) and Thai (mother) roots. Kuneho is open Sunday-Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. (kunehoatx.com)

Looking ahead

Republic of Sandwich closed on New Year’s Day, but the small shop at 2320 Hancock Drive near Fonda San Miguel will not sit empty long.

The owners of Poke-Poke , who helped bring the poke craze to Austin with the shop they opened on South Congress Avenue last summer, will open in the space in early February.

Due to space constraints (less than 600 square feet), owners Jason McVearry and Trisha Fortuna will sell six to 10 poke variations by the pound from premade batches in a deli case, as was the custom in Hawaii, where they first learned about the dish while living there. McVearry said customers can also expect poke variations like limu poke (shoyu poke with limu, which is a seaweed with a crunchy, briny quality) and tako (brined octopus) poke. Poke-Poke will also serve the made-to-order styles of poke from their current menu at the new shop.

In addition to the multiple options of the raw dish, which generally consist of sushi-grade ahi tuna tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil and seeds and onion for a salty, nutty, piquant bite, Poke-Poke will also take advantage of their new kitchen to create dishes with cooked beef and shrimp.

Unlike their store at 3100 S. Congress Ave., this Poke-Poke will not serve alcohol. McVearry says he does hope to replicate the delivery service the restaurant uses at its original Venice Beach, Calif., location, and offer delivery service via bicycle to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Now open

Homegrown burger chain P. Terry’s opened its 14th Austin location. The restaurant at 13770 U.S. 183 (at Lake Creek Parkway) is open daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night dining and offers indoor and outdoor seating and a drive-thru. (pterrys.com)

The fast-casual Korean barbecue fast-casual concept Chi’Lantro opened its fifth location. The restaurant, located at 1414 Shore District Drive Unit 102 in the South Shore development, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (chilantrobbq.com)



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