Greater Houston Area Restaurants Show Us Their Safety Procedures
For many restaurant owners, the health and safety of its customers have long been a top priority. It’s the nature of hospitality. In addition, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Houston-area restaurants were required to follow strict health and safety regulations. However, the arrival of coronavirus has made ensuring the safety of customers and staff more difficult, even for the most conscientious owners and operators.
Over the last few weeks, these owners have had to make many tough choices. The big one, since Governor Greg Abbott announced Phase 1 reopening plans on April 27: whether to reopen at a mere 25% capacity — and little potential for profit — while the daily new COVID-19 case count continues to trend upward, or stay closed a little longer? Now that Abbott has launched Phase 2, they must decide if they want to open at — or expand to — 50% capacity on Friday, May 22.
Those who have decided to reopen face yet another slew of challenges and decisions. They must implement a detailed set of new state-mandated safety protocols, including some that are not clear cut. The most controversial — and arguably one of the most important — precepts that was left open to interpretation was whether or not employees should wear masks. Based on the guidelines, employees who cannot maintain six-foot social distancing from customers, such as servers, are indeed expected to use face coverings. (From the Open Texas booklet: “Have employees maintain at least 6 feet separation from other individuals. If such distancing is not feasible, measures such as face covering, hand hygiene, cough etiquette, cleanliness, and sanitation should be rigorously practiced.”)
Then there are the difficulties of sourcing new safety equipment. Hand-sanitizing stations, which are required at restaurant entrances, have been hard to find. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer continues to be difficult to obtain, so several Houston distilleries have stepped in to fill the gap. In addition, masks made out of materials that provide sufficient protection have to be located and purchased.
In addition, owners and operators who want to do the right thing must contend with troubling reports that undermine diner confidence. Hillstone Restaurant Group has reportedly forbade its employees from wearing masks, and one employee is now seeking an injunction from a Dallas judge to allow her to wear protection against COVID-19 on the job. (Hillstone also owns the Kirby location of Houston’s. We called and was told that those employees also don’t wear masks.) We’ve also received numerous comments and photos from readers describing packed patios, uncontrolled crowds, no social distancing and lack of other protective measures. Plus, a Houston Chronicle article covering the May 1 opening of restaurants that mostly cater to the affluent included a slideshow showing many employees and kitchen workers not wearing protective gear.
Though these reports may discourage some potential customers, there are many Houston restaurant owners who have implemented strict measures to keep guests and employees safe. We invited them to “Show Us Your Safety” (#ShowUsYourSafety) via photos and descriptions of their procedures. Below are those who have or will be opening their dining rooms and have responded to the call.
Bravery Chef Hall at Aris Market Square, 409 Travis: This downtown food hall has promoted its above-and-beyond safety measures since switching to pickup and delivery-only. Co-owner Shepard Ross says those are continuing now that in-house dining has resumed at Bravery. In addition to the original vendors — BOH Pasta & Pizza, The Blind Goat, Cherry Block Craft Butcher & Kitchen, Kokoro Sushi & Yakitori, Bravery Wine Bar, The Secret Garden and Lockwood Stn — there are some new temporary additions. Chef Martin Weaver of Grinder’s (formerly of Brennan’s of Houston) is debuting his healthy concept, WateverFresh, at the Gaggenau appliance-outfitted STAGE counter. Andes Café from chef David Guerrero, Margaux’s from Choey Dang and Scott Ache, Naaco Bread Co. from Sunny Vohra and La Villa Tacos from Jonathan Gallardo and José Doñez are all sharing the “Hawker Alley” (formerly Atlas Diner) until it’s time to move on to the forthcoming Conservatory in the Galleria or Railway Heights near the 610 West and I-10 interchange.
The staff at Bravery Chef Hall have a unique safety advantage — they’ve been able to get tested for COVID-19. Company Of Nomads, which runs Bravery Chef Hall, also owns PeakSpace, which has been operating a rapid testing site in Midtown under the initiative Wellness for Humanity. In addition, masks are required for employees and vendors, Plexiglass partitions have been strategically placed, the floor has been marked to clearly delineate areas for six-foot social distancing and UV wands are used to sanitize high-traffic surfaces. Information on additional safety protocols is available on the website.
Goode Company: As one of Houston’s most respected restaurant families begins reopening their restaurants, they have decided to expand their coronavirus testing program. Working with Hamilton Health Box, the group had been been providing voluntary, no-cost coronavirus tests to its employees. Those no-costs tests are now mandatory for all staff. In a statement, Levi Goode, president of Goode Co. Restaurants, said, “These screenings allow us to provide the highest possible care to our employees and in turn to our guests.” For a complete list of Goode Company’s restaurants that shows which locations are currently open, visit this webpage. For those who wish to continue taking advantage of curbside and delivery, all open locations are still offering those services.
Harold’s, 350 West 19th: Known for its classic yet modern approach to Southern comfort food, this Heights eatery reopened its dining room in accordance with Abbott’s reopening plan. To ensure the safety of customers and staff, owner Alli Jarrett is following the guidelines laid out in the Texas Restaurant Promise, which is an initiative led by the Texas Restaurant Association that incorporates the states new safety protocols. In addition, she and her staff are regularly reviewing the CDC’s recommendations. Reservations are highly recommended. To encourage this, each reservation receives a $20 gift certificate (one per table) and there will be no waiting inside the restaurant.
Guests have the option of reducing contact by ordering their food online or they can choose the traditional interaction with wait staff. Jarrett commented via email that most customers are choosing the latter. She also says, “Harold’s staff will be properly cleaning and sanitizing each table after use, wearing and changing gloves between each guest service and wearing face masks. Different colored towels are used to wipe down tables and then properly sanitize tables.” Also, when all staff arrive at work, they go through a daily health screening. For those who still prefer dining at home, Harold’s will continue to offer takeout, curbside and direct delivery within a five-mile radius. Now you have multiple ways to enjoy some fried chicken or Gulf shrimp and grits.
Kenny & Ziggy’s, 2327 Post Oak: The original location of this beloved New York-style deli has created a virtual menu that guests can view on their own phones. To dine in, guest must reserve seats in advance via the Yelp No Wait app. Upon arrival, guests must wait in their vehicles until notified through the app that the table is ready, as well as wear a mask when walking through the dining room. Sanitation stations are placed at the entrance as well as throughout the restaurant. Kenny & Ziggy’s may (or may not) ask to take guests’ temperatures. Due to the reduced capacity, guests are asked to limit visits to one hour and 15 minutes.
Mezzanotte, 13125 Grant, Cypress: For over a decade, this Italian restaurant in a family-oriented suburban area has been a trusted place to dine, and owners Gerry Sarmiento and Adriana Gutierrez plan to keep it that way even now. Guests must make a reservation to dine inside; walk-ins are only accepted on the patio, where tables are spaced the required six feet apart. “All our servers wear masks,” said Sarmiento. “We disinfect all surfaces — including chairs and tables after every party finishes — and handles every hour in the dining room and bathrooms. An employee opens the entrance door so customers don’t have to touch it. Maybe most importantly, an owner is always onsite to ensure that procedures are followed.”
Phat Eatery Katy Asian Town center, 23119 Colonial Parkway: Owner Alex Auyeung got in touch to discuss glove safety, because wearing gloves isn’t protective unless used properly and changed often. “This is what we been doing: all of our servers wear gloves and masks. When our guests finish dining, the servers pick up the last plate. They then remove their gloves, put it on that plate, take it away, then come back out with a fresh pair of gloves,” he wrote.
Rainbow Lodge, 2011 Ella: This beloved rustic restaurant was closed an extra two weeks to ensure every safety protocol was fine-tuned before it made its re-debut on Tuesday, May 19. In addition to requiring face coverings for employees, guests are expected to wear them if walking through the restaurant — but not while they’re seated at their tables. Rather than creating big, disposable wine lists, beverage director Marc Borel has cleverly created a QR code that guests can scan with their phones. Doing so pulls up an up-to-date online wine list. Other safety measures include employee screening and temperature checks before each shift, sanitation stations throughout the restaurant and disposable food menus. With those safety considerations covered, visitors to the Tied Fly Bar are in for quite a treat. While the restaurant was closed, owners Donnette Hansen and Sheila Shell coordinated with local restaurant designer Erin Hicks for a ritzy remodel. Don’t worry: the hand-carved bar by Vermont artist Bill Herrick is not only still the centerpiece but also the inspiration. Take a look at — and revel in — the new, bronze-mirrored ceiling right above the bar, jewel-tone paint, cork wall and ceiling coverings and much more.
ROMA, 2347 University: Shanon Scott, owner of this Rice Village Italian restaurant, has taken these new safety requirements seriously. “Everyone here wears gloves and masks,” said owner Shanon Scott. “We sanitize the restroom every 30 minutes and we have sanitizer by the front door, which is propped open [for fresh air]. It’s a lot of work but I want my guests and staff to be safe.” Tables inside as well as on the spacious porch are spaced six feet apart. Scott shared a video of ROMA’s dining room (above), which looks both socially distanced and immaculate.
Underbelly Hospitality: Friday, May 22 is going to be a big day for James Beard award-winning chef Chris Shepherd and his team. After taking a more cautious approach and not reopening any of their dining rooms on May 1, the group is opening some of its restaurants to 50% capacity. This includes Georgia James — the steakhouse at 1100 Westheimer — and at One Fifth Mediterranean, the revolving-concept restaurant at 1658 Westheimer. Meanwhile, down the street at 1609 Westheimer, UB Presev is launching a curbside pickup menu that features party packs composed of favorites from across all the restaurants. For now, The Hay Merchant, also at 1100 Westheimer, is continuing its curbside program.
As the dining rooms open, Underbelly Hospitality is implementing a number of new health and safety protocols. Some are required, but some are above and beyond the state’s guidelines. These include all staff having their temperatures checked upon arriving to work and being required to wash their hands at least every 30 minutes. In addition, all staff will wear masks and gloves that will be changed after every interaction. All tables, which will be six feet apart, will have single-use hand sanitizer for guests. Plus, physical menus will be replaced with scannable QR codes that will allow menus to be viewed on phones. For a full list of safety measures, go here.