Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the food court at Greenway Plaza was a truly envious location for a restaurant operator focused on the lunch crowd. The massive business district, which houses more than 4.4 million square feet of office space, hosted thousands of workers during normal business hours. When COVID-19 arrived, though, those workers all but disappeared.
As businesses in the complex encouraged employees to work from home and shuttered altogether, Burger-Chan owner Diane Feng saw the writing on the wall. “We kinda knew it was happening, and we thought about what we could do,” she says. “Ultimately, if all these people work from home and our landlord closed the doors, we would basically have to close.”
The same was true at Feges Barbecue, the award-winning smoked meat stand operated by Erin Smith and pitmaster Patrick Feges. “Everything came to a grinding halt in the course of 24 hours,” Smith says. “People were very aware of what was happening, and when Judge Hidalgo issued the ‘stay home, work safe’ order on March 17, our workforce went to zero overnight. The office building was closed, the doors were locked, and nobody was here.” According to Smith, the typical lunch crowd dwindled from a couple thousand patrons during the rush to “around 75 or 80.”
After taking some time to regroup, Burger-Chan opened its doors for takeout. Feng’s husband and Burger-Chan chef Willet Feng immediately pared down the restaurant’s menu to make takeout more economical — hand-cut fries were replaced with frozen tater tots, and the milkshakes came off the menu. “We had to pare it down to something that was manageable not only because of the limited staff, but because you have a fraction of the business that you normally have,” Feng says. “You don’t want to have a bunch of waste.”
The space’s layout also made curbside pickup and delivery, which many restaurants pivoted to after their dining rooms were shut down, a real challenge. Many of the building’s entry doors required fobs for access, which only building employees had. Both Feges BBQ and Burger-Chan continued to offer takeout and delivery, but because an office park like Greenway Plaza isn’t exactly a dining destination, they struggled to attract a new clientele and revenues dwindled.
12:07pm on Tues., 6/16/2020. ... Normally at this time, each food vendor down here has a long line, and business is constant from around 11am to 1pm. ... Hasn't been like that since Thursday, March 12, 2020. ... Through April and May of 2020, business has been slow, but we received enough hospital orders each week to buoy us to the next. ... June 2020 has been rough. Many organizations that provided large orders for us to fulfill for hospitality and front line workers have run out of funds. PPP loan money runs out in a few weeks. ... We are down 80% in sales, and even though a few office workers have returned to Greenway, it's not enough. So Houston, if you care about local restaurants like ours, we need your help now. ... You know how shocked everyone was when Justin Turner announced that Bernie's Burger Bus was closing suddenly? Well this is the canary in the coal mine. If you don't want us to temporarily or permanently close, we need your support. Please order online, order for your office, order for your neighbors, order for your friends or order for strangers. Spread the word. We want to continue to hustle to stay afloat--so please put us to work!Posted by burger-chan on Tuesday, June 16, 2020
“Right now we’re consistently doing about 20 percent of previous revenue, but that 20 percent is also representative of a whole lot more work than we used to have to do,” Smith says. “We’re now open seven days a week instead of five, and Patrick and I are working all of those days because we’re part of our salaried labor force.”
As a result, the tenants of Greenway Plaza’s food court approached their landlord, property management company Parkway Property Investments, to find creative strategies to keep these businesses open while the offices were still closed. Considered an amenity to the building, the food court is a powerful enticer for businesses looking to lease space at Greenway Plaza, which meant that the landlord offered three months of rent abatement to help bridge the extreme revenue gap.
But that wasn’t enough, so Smith, Feng, and other operators at Greenway Plaza had a sit-down with the landlord to talk about how to get more customers in the door. “They had very open ears and seemed to be really listening to what we were asking for,” Smith says. “ We wanted to know what they could do to help us bring in business. We need them to help us bring in revenue.”
Feng echoed that sentiment. “We’re a small mom-and-pop, we don’t have cash reserves,” she says. “And so I feel like there’s no way they can expect us to stay open, and continue to open at a loss forever.”
As the pandemic drags on and the possibility that the new “normal” will involve a whole lot of people working from home, Smith and Feng are looking to alternative sources of revenue. Both operators have new brick-and-mortar locations in the works, but those won’t be open for months. As such, Feges BBQ has been hosting weekend pop-ups in the parking lot of its forthcoming restaurant on Long Point Road, along with events at local favorites like Axelrad Beer Garden and catering. The doors at Greenway Plaza were, finally, unlocked for those picking up restaurant orders.
“People want to buy this barbecue, we just have to eliminate the obstacles that are in the way of them getting to us,” Smith says. “ The real name of the game is how can we get our food out of this food court and into the hands of people.”
Feng’s business is taking a different route. After posting a plea to social media to let fans of the restaurant know that it was in dire straits, it was absolutely slammed with customers. But Feng knows that isn’t sustainable. To bring in extra cash, her chef-husband Willet is doing private omakase dinners for moneyed diners who want restaurant-quality food but aren’t comfortable dining out.
“There’s just so much uncertainty in terms of when the offices are going to come back, or if they ever will,” Feng says. “We may be forced to make some difficult decisions.”