When much-anticipated Montrose restaurant Bludorn opened its doors back in August, it brought with it a terrible recurring nightmare for chef-owner Aaron Bludorn: What if the restaurant opened, but no one came?
“I honestly thought we’d open up and I’d just be looking at an empty dining room,” Bludorn says. “I kept worrying that we’d just say, ‘Well, that was fun,’ and pack up and figure out something else. But I know that we’re not the kind of people who would accept a fate like that.”
And now, nearly 100 days into opening his first solo venture in the midst of the pandemic, Bludorn finally feels like his restaurant is finally on solid footing. The team has mastered the art of takeout, spending untold sums on just-right takeout containers and implementing an ordering system via phone for those who aren’t yet comfortable eating in dining rooms. The kitchen is also dialed in, turning out elegant dishes like Gulf cioppino with red snapper, beef Wellington, and lobster pot pie.
But that didn’t come without a ton of adjustments to the way he and his team were used to operating a restaurant, major changes for service, and along the way, tens of thousands of dollars spent on personal protective equipment.
First, and perhaps most immediately, Bludorn had to decide whether or not to even move forward with opening his namesake restaurant. Back in March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, the beautiful space on Taft Street that now houses the restaurant was an empty shell of a building. Demolition had been completed, and construction was set to begin soon, when restaurant dining rooms across the country were forced to close their doors to stem the spread of the virus.
“While we were waiting on our construction permits, the world changed,” Bludorn says. “We had to decide whether or not to hold on to the space, or go to court to try to get out of the lease. We knew that this was a great location, so we had to figure out how to move forward.”
Then came figuring out how to navigate the endlessly complicated world of regulations and appropriate safety protocols in the COVID-19 era. “In the beginning, there wasn’t very much consistent information available,” Bludorn says. “There were so many different things being suggested, and we knew we didn’t have all the information. But we knew that there was an opportunity to do this right, to operate within these restrictions while still taking care of our guests.”
That was especially true in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott essentially left restaurants on their own to implement procedures intended to stem the spread of the virus. That was a bit of a change for Bludorn, who came up in the world of New York restaurants like Cafe Boulud, where the notoriously strict NYC Health Department looms large for chefs. “If you can make it in New York, and if you can pass those New York City health exams, you can make it anywhere,” Bludorn says. “Working there gave us the training to know how to work safely and how to train a team to work safely.”
To help train the team he assembled for Bludorn’s debut, the chef tapped Cherif Mbodji, also formerly of Cafe Boulud. Mbodji made the move to Houston this year, ready to take on the challenge of working in this uncertain environment. “The one thing we all have in common right now in the industry is not knowing that tomorrow is made of,” Mbodji says. “We are truly taking it one day at a time and focusing on the impact that we can have right away to keep the restaurant as safe as possible.”
At the same time, Mbodji had to assemble a staff under bizarre circumstances. In the hospitality world, it’s pretty rare for a restaurant to hire a server without ever having seen their face, but post-COVID, that’s not altogether uncommon. Mbodji says that the new world of interviewing masked staffers has made him think differently about what hospitality even means.
“In the beginning, it was really strange, dude,” Mbodji says. “The first question I asked myself was whether or not it was appropriate to ask someone to see their face. I mean, how do you translate a smile through your eyes? Then I wondered why it is so important that I see somebody’s face. The mask helped us focus on what was more important — a person’s character, personality, and knowledge of their work. As a result, we hired so many people with dynamic, positive personalities.”
In terms of safety measures, Bludorn says that his staff has been serious about wearing masks at all times, even in the sweltering hot kitchen. There’s also one staffer whose job is devoted to keeping surfaces sanitized and keeping an eye out on the dining room to make sure that patrons are complying with the rules.
The restaurant’s employees follow extensive safety protocol before they’re even allowed to enter the restaurant. Ahead of work, Bludorn employees use an app called Zedic to self-report any potential COVID-19 symptoms or exposures. After answering a series of questions — whether or not they feel feverish or have been around someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, among others — the app sends that information to the restaurant’s management, who determines whether or not they’ll be allowed to come to work. If the employee “fails” that screening, they can be instantly connected with a doctor who can provide advice on next steps. If needed, the restaurant will pay for COVID-19 testing and sick leave. According to Mbodji, with that system in place, Bludorn has had one COVID-19 infection among its staff.
For lead bartender John Stewart, who oversees the cocktail program at Bludorn, coming back to work in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t exactly an easy decision. A hospitality industry veteran with experience that ranges from time behind the bar at Sixth Street watering holes in Austin to Houston’s Eloise Nichols, Stewart was unemployed, like most hospitality workers at the beginning of the pandemic, until a friend reached out to tell him about a potential job opening at Bludorn.
“I think anybody who had listened to the orders to stay at home because of the risk of the virus was a little apprehensive about going back,” Stewart says. “But I will say that when I stepped into the building, it made me feel a lot more secure. They already had the sanitizer sand the social-distancing signs up. My interview was conducted on the other side of a plexiglass wall. I knew that I was walking into an environment where a lot of thoughtfulness and preparation was going into being safe, both those of us who work there and the guests we serve.”
He wasn’t, after all those years of working at rowdy college bars in Austin, particularly worried about contending with diners who wanted to put up a fight about wearing a mask, however. “I have had zero problems. I think most of our guests are excited that they have a place to go where we are taking every precaution possible,” he says. “I’ve also found that diplomacy and how you approach someone solves 99 percent of the problems. With the mask, I just try to bring it up as neutrally as possible.”
As a hospitality professional, though, Stewart had to really rethink what service would look like in the COVID-19 era. With masks on and plexiglass dividers separating both tables in the dining room and seats at the bar, the kind of intimate, friendly service approach that they’d spent years honing would have to change dramatically. Specifically, how would he continue to build camaraderie with his customers while masked up and maneuvering between dividers?
“It takes a little more time, but it does allow me to focus on these customers a little bit more,” Stewart says. “The goofy side of me, the ’80s kid who was obsessed with ninjas, I like wearing the mask. But I know that nonverbal communication is a big part of this job, and that’s being stifled because of the mask. I’ve also had some trouble finding the right volume control because I don’t want to be yelling at people, but I want them to hear me adequately. It does feel a little weird to not feel like I can totally connect with my guest because most of my face is covered.”
At present, Stewart, Mbodji, and Bludorn are like everybody else in the industry, running the restaurant one day at a time. They have no real idea of what’s coming next, especially as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the state and the possibility of further occupancy restrictions for restaurants looms, but they’re committed to stay the course in 2021.
“We see it as an opportunity to contribute to our city and show that perhaps there is a way to operate in these conditions by being very, very safe,” Bludorn says. “When people are able to dine and feel comfortable, it takes them out of the stress of this pandemic. It’s also the kind of behavior that it takes for governments to see that we’re doing the right thing and actually support us.”