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Houston’s Food Halls Face Distinct Challenges In Welcoming Back Diners

A look at how spots like Finn Hall and Underground Hall are changing operations as the doors reopen

Finn Hall in Downtown Houston
| Shawn Chippendale

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott allowed the state’s restaurants to reopen their dining rooms on May 1, but it’s taken a little bit longer for Houston’s food halls to prepare to welcome diners again.

Downtown’s Finn Hall, which is home to nine restaurants and two bars, faces distinct challenges in meeting the guidelines that the state and the Centers for Disease Control set in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus. Among those challenges is the fact that each of the restaurants operates independently: As Finn Hall reopens today, only four of its establishments — Craft Burger, Lit Chicken, Odd Ball Eats and Pizza Zquare — are serving.

David Buehrer, Finn Hall’s culinary director, says the court is reopening in an effort to keep its vendors in business. “As a food hall operator, we have to look at it from the ability for the small business owners to make decisions on their own,” Buehrer explains. “So as an operator, what we’re trying to do is just make a safe environment and stay under the regulations of the state.”

Those efforts include sourcing biodegradable materials to reduce the waste of disposable cutlery and packaging; limiting table seating; installing hand sanitizer stations; and stationing employees at the entrance to open doors for patrons in an effort to reduce contact with “high-touch” surfaces like doorknobs, which are most likely to spread coronavirus.

In addition, Finn Hall vendors who have chosen not to reopen yet are not being charged rent. “Internally, these are the discussions we’ve had,” Buehrer says. “We’re on a percentage pay rate anyway, so if they decide not to open, they don’t have to pay rent, and that’s okay. Let them choose. Because of the language and the lease, it’s really an easy conversation if they decide to open or not.”

At Underground Hall, founder Daut Elshani says he started making preparations to reopen as soon as Gov. Abbott made the announcement on April 27. Some of Underground Hall’s vendors were already serving delivery and takeout, with the exception of Crisp, whose owners will shutter the pizzeria’s Underground Hall outpost in an effort to focus on their main location in the Heights.

The first day of business was busier than he expected, Elshani says. He has decided to limit Underground Hall’s capacity to 20 percent, a more stringent restriction than the state’s recommendations. The hall has also posted signage warning diners not to enter if they’re planning to “visit elderly grandparents or anyone immunocompromised,” and installed glove disposal and hand sanitizing stations.

Underground Hall’s biggest challenge so far has been re-staffing its restaurants, largely because some employees have to stay at home for various reasons, including a lack of childcare. “Quite a few of them are still apprehensive about coming back to work, and some really want to come back to work,” Elshani says.

Also in Downtown, Bravery Chef Hall is taking an even more dramatic approach. Although the hall has resumed on-site dining in its outdoor seating areas, it is requiring diners to order and pay via their phones, and will only allow them to enter the building to use the restroom. Customers who do want to come inside will be will be required to wear masks and have their temperature checked before entering.

Only one of Houston’s major food halls has decided to remain closed entirely: Politan Row, the Rice Village food hall that opened in November 2019, isn’t even open for takeout or delivery. “We are committed to doing all that we can to provide for our staff, vendors, and broader community,” a statement on Politan Row’s website reads. “That means accommodating what’s best for the general public while also making sure our guests are well-fed, happy, and safe.”

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