Following Texas governor Greg Abbott’s executive order allowing restaurants to reopen their dining rooms on May 1, restaurateurs across the city raced to open their establishments after more than six weeks of being shuttered.
For Paul Miller, whose Gr8 Plate Hospitality operates the Union Kitchen and Jax Grill restaurants in Houston, that meant moving tables six feet apart, taping down social distancing lines on the floors, and perhaps most importantly, tracking down enough personal protective equipment to keep his staff and customers safe after reopening.
“The most difficult thing was sourcing out all of the product that we needed to put procedures in place. All of the restaurants in Houston were trying to open for Friday,” Miller tells Eater. “We had to make sure that we could find enough extra cases of hand sanitizer, gloves and masks for all of the restaurants. That was probably the hardest part.”
Like Miller, Alex Au-Yeung, the chef-owner at Katy Malaysian favorite Phat Eatery, was ready to get the doors open again. He printed disposable paper menus, as recommended by the state, revised the sanitation protocols for his restaurant, and implemented an interesting strategy for maintaining the 25 percent occupancy limit outlined in Abbott’s order. “To avoid crowd gathering at the entrance, our front door is locked at all times. We have a doorbell,” Au-Yeung says. “Guests ring the doorbell to let us know they have arrived and how many are in their party.”
At Phat Eatery, reopening the dining room didn’t have a massive impact on the restaurant’s financial outlook, thanks in part to its small dining space, which meant that takeout and delivery orders are still crucial for Au-Yeung and his staff. “Since we have only five tables max with an occupancy of 19 ¼ people, it really can’t get too busy for dine in,” he says. “Our curbside pickup and delivery still made up 80 percent of our revenue this weekend.”
For other establishments, like Steak 48, business was booming. A spokesperson for the ritzy River Oaks steakhouse tells Eater that it was booked solid this weekend, with every open reservation spoken for. “The welcome increase in business was a measured first step to what we believe will be a great recovery,” Steak 48 chief branding officer Oliver Badgio told Eater. “We added large floral arrangements on all tables not in use to provide an attractive and clear visual indication that our first priority was on our guests comfort and safe enjoyment.
Across the state, many diners and restaurant owners questioned the decision to reopen restaurants in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, as cases of COVID-19 across the state spiked. In Harris County alone, there are more than 6,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and on Saturday, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that the city of Houston had matched its highest single-day death total.
As a result of that hesitancy, many of Houston’s biggest restaurateurs opted to keep their dining rooms closed and focus on takeout and delivery service. James Beard Award winners Chris Shepherd and Hugo Ortega are both keeping their dining rooms closed until further notice, and stalwart Houston eatery Brennan’s will also continue to offer takeout only in the coming weeks, along with dozens of other restaurants that are making similar choices for now.
“I would be very upset to bring people back to work if, God forbid, we have a second spike in coronavirus and have to close again and they have to reapply for unemployment,” Kenny and Ziggy’s owner Ziggy Gruber wrote in an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle. “It wouldn’t be right. I have to think about our extended restaurant family.”
For many restaurateurs, though, the first weekend of the reopening was more about getting back in the groove of service than filling up their dining rooms. “The most important part about this weekend was us getting back into what we are all used to, running a restaurant and feeding guests. It was nice to see co-workers and guests eager to be back,” says State Fare executive chef Justin Yoakum. “We all smiled and laughed because it felt good to be cooking again and to work with one another. I am glad we had the opportunity to open.”
It appears that diners were also really excited to be back in their favorite establishments this weekend, even if there are potential health risks. The regulars were awesome. People were tipping our staff really well,” Miller says. “People were there with super positive attitudes, whether it was regulars sitting at the bar or coming in with their families and enjoying themselves.”