Houston Restaurants Step Up For Customer Safety
3/13/20, 1:36 p.m.: Updated with new additions.
With the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus — specifically, COVID-19 — it’s tough working in any public-facing business, including restaurants. Some people are fearful, and restaurant owners know it. Fortunately, some are focusing on employee education and communication practices to ensure that customers feel secure and comfortable dining in their establishments. Here are some of the Houston restaurants that have issued statements explaining how they are going above and beyond for customer safety.
Anvil Bar & Refuge, Better Luck Tomorrow, The Pastry War, Penny Quarter,Public Services Wine & Whisky, Squable, Theodore Rex, Tongue-Cut Sparrow: Bobby Heugel contacted us to say that all of the restaurants and bars that he and chef/business partner Justin Yu are involved with are focusing not only on cleanliness but on the health and welfare of employees as well. “Health insurance options and paid sick leave are provided for all staff members — and we’ve been doing this for years,” he wrote. Changes are being made over the next 48 hours to increase the already-rigorous sanitation processes, too. Additional hand-washing stations are being added. Employees are required to use gloves to clear tables (and the companies are even purchasing carbon credits to offset the extra waste). Tables are sanitized after each seating while door handles are sanitized every 15 minutes.
Buffburger, 1014 Wirt: In addition to regular cleaning and sanitizing, owner Sara Burden says, “On top of that we are doing extra mopping with sanitizer throughout the day, as well as cleaning all surfaces with commercial grade sanitizer wipes: tables, chairs, highchairs and anything that someone could touch. We are providing these wipes to all customers, as well as available hand sanitizer.” In addition, Burden says the staff is trained on safety recommendations from the Centers For Disease Control, and the guidelines are posted in both English and Spanish.
Chick-fil-A, 2715 Southwest Freeway: High-Tech Texan show host Michael Garfield spotted the above sign at the Southwest Freeway and Kirby location of the popular fast-food chain. To help ensure customer safety, this Chick-fil-A has closed the playground and is not allowing self-service drink refills. That makes a lot of sense, as customer refills involve cups that have already been used.
Click Virtual Food Hall: Chef Gabriel Medina’s meal service has implemented “touchless” delivery. Co-owner Steven Salazar says that drivers are now simply placing the bag on the front step, ringing the bell or knocking and then walking away.
Christie’s Seafood & Steaks, 6029 Westheimer: Owner Maria Christie says that she has long enforced strict sanitation procedures for the over 100-year-old restaurant, but under current circumstances she has added even more. “We are wiping down surfaces with sanitizer more frequently and employees are constantly washing their hands after touching any door knobs, carts or items that come from a customer, such as tip trays and menus (as we did before). We have sanitizer throughout the restaurant for customers to use. The employees have been well-informed on the sanitation procedures, how to keep themselves safe and how it spreads. The good thing is we have white table cloths, so when a customer sits down they know they are sitting down at a clean surface.” The restaurant welcomes to-go orders and even has a pickup window.
Frank’s Americana Revival, 3636 Westheimer: The Highland Village-area restaurant sent an email to its customers communicating its safety practices. “Our team regularly disinfects high traffic areas and commonly touched surfaces including tables, chairs, doors, counters and menus. In addition, we deep clean our restaurant before and after business hours every day. In addition, any employee exhibiting any remote signs of illness is staying home.”
H Town Restaurant Group — Backstreet Cafe, Caracol, Hugo’s and Xochi: For now, restaurateur Tracy Vaught and chef Hugo Ortega are making what could be an important change to the Sunday brunches at Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi. Starting this weekend, instead of being self-serve, those are now à la carte. “Diners can expect the same high quality and variety of foods that they find on our beloved buffets, but served with a smile right to your table,” said Vaught via an email. There are also going to be new food and drink specials and each location still features live music. In addition, all of the restaurants have a strict “no-coming-to-work-sick” policy for employees, and a doctor’s note is required for returning to work. Hand sanitizers are installed throughout the restaurants (host stands, waiter stations, busser areas, bathrooms and kitchens) and frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, computer keys, tabletops, etc. will be wiped down with sanitizing wipes throughout the day and evening.
Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room, 350 West 19th: Owner Alli Jarrett of the Heights restaurant emailed customers to update them on the current sanitation procedures. “Our staff will continue to wash their hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds and rinse thoroughly. We encourage all of our guests do to the same at home and before and after dining with us. We have hand sanitizer placed in strategic places and we are continually wiping down tables, bar tops and other surfaces with sanitizing wipes, including door handles, railings, chairs, menus and the like.” In addition, Jarrett says that the commercial dishwasher is checked regularly by technicians to ensure it’s operating at peak performance and that sick employees are not allowed to come to work. Delivery from Harold’s is available via Uber, Door Dash and Favor. Families take note: through the end of March, kids 12 and under can dine with their accompanying adults for free.
Kenny & Ziggy’s, 2327 Post Oak and 5172 Buffalo Speedway: For the time being, the classic New York-style delicatessens have suspended using handheld, tableside-pay devices. Instead, customers can pay at the cashier stand using the chip reader (which means they don’t have to touch anything but their own credit or debit card). Kenny & Ziggy’s fulfills corporate catering orders, and while it is still creating platters upon request, it’s gently steering customers towards individual sealed box lunches.
Kiran’s, 2925 Richmond: Chef and owner Kiran Verma sent an email to her customers saying, “We are taking additional measures such as putting hand-washing signs throughout the kitchen; triple-rinsing fruit and vegetables; treating all proteins with turmeric; having kitchen staff wear masks when necessary; running dishwasher cycles twice for glasses and cutlery; and keeping napkins and bins near all door handles.” Customers who still don’t want to dine in public can order from Kiran’s via Uber Eats and DoorDash, and they are invited to call the restaurant at (713) 960-8472 if there is any assistance needed with delivery orders.
Koffeteria, 1110 Hutchins: The EaDo bakery has pulled self-serve items, such as the water station and creamer dispenser, and is no longer offering samples. “We are continually disinfecting surfaces, door handles, and registers,” said manager Andreas Hager. “Silverware has been wrapped, while non-wrapped utensils and syrups have been removed.” One added layer of protection is that Koffeteria is cash-less. Customers handle their own credit or debit cards to check out. Also, orders of six or more pastries can be emailed 24-hours in advance for pickup. (Coffee cannot be pre-ordered.)
Hungry’s/Upstairs Bar & Lounge and Hungry’s Memorial/NextDoor Bar & Lounge: According to a statement by the restaurant, all the businesses under the Hungry’s umbrella are communicating regularly with public health officials and continuing “to practice strict cleanliness procedures throughout all of our establishments.” To accommodate customer concerns about dining in, to-go meal boxes for breakfast, lunch and dinner are available, and delivery for those or anything on full menu is free within a five-mile radius. In addition, the restaurants have dropped the cost of the Family Feast for Four to an “economically sensitive” price of $45.
Legacy Restaurants, Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys (multiple locations) and The Original Ninfa’s (Uptown and Navigation): Across the board, new policies are being enacted to increase safety. Hosts or hostesses hold the door for patrons and the durable menus are wiped down with sanitizer after every use. The same goes for all contact surfaces both in the dining room and the kitchen. Additionally, DC33 antiviral cleaner is used on tables, chairs and counter tops in non-production areas. Restrooms are checked, cleaned and sanitized every half hour (toilets, lavatories, partition doors/handles, faucets, door handles) and additional sanitizer stations have been added. When possible, delivery order bags are being stapled shut to ensure the order hasn’t been tampered with between when it left the restaurant and gets to the customer.
The New Potato, 3519 Clinton: As shown in the video above, the east-side bar and craft beer garden decided that a dose of humor doesn’t hurt when describing its cleanliness commitment to the public.
Orleans Seafood Kitchen, 20940 Katy Freeway, Katy: According to a statement from the company, some of the new procedures include no longer handing out menus and instead directing guests to the menu boards at the walk-up counter, placing additional hand sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant and wiping down pay terminals after every transaction. In addition, servers are passing out packaged cutlery kits rather than silverware and using tissue paper to hand counter service buzzers to guests.
Peli Peli (four locations) and Peli Peli Kitchen, 9090 Katy Freeway: Owner Thomas Nguyen says that the waterproof menus are disinfected between use. A memo recently went to all employees instructing them to stay at home if there are any signs of a health problem. Before each shift, a meeting is held with servers to discuss the latest Centers Of Disease Control updates, and every table is disinfected between seatings.
Phat Eatery, 23119 Colonial Parkway in Katy Asian Town Center: Owner Alex Auyeung says, “All door handles and pushers are all being cleaned and sanitized at least every hour. We have actually been doing this since the day we opened. Sick employees have never been allowed in the restaurant, and now we are checking their temperatures three times a day with infrared thermometers. This year, none of our employees or their immediate family members have traveled outside of Texas. Starting today, we are also reducing our number of tables by one-third to be able to separate guests with greater distance.”
Plonk! Bistro, 1214 West 43rd: Executive chef Kala Dunn got in touch to share how the Oak Forest restaurant is curbing the coronavirus risk. “We are propping open our doors when weather allows to circulate clean air through the dining room, and we have removed tables and chairs from our dining room and bar to put more space between guests. We are also routinely disinfecting all surfaces, including menu covers and other frequently touched items,” she wrote. In addition, because the restaurant has many friendly regulars, the staff is having to decline hugs and high-fives as greetings, as well as resist touching their cell phones during service, which may not be adequately sanitized. Of course, everyone is also being asked to increase hand-washing. As general advice, Dunn suggests that diners visit restaurants at off-peak hours when these are likely to not be crowded.
Rainbow Lodge, 2011 Ella: The restaurant has implemented a safe and swift to-go process. Check out the menu online, call (713) 861-8666 to place your order and pay, then pull through the valet parking driveway. A staff member will not only bring out your order, but also give you a a $20 gift card to use later. In addition, Rainbow Lodge welcomes to-go orders and delivery is available via UberEats, DoorDash and GrubHub. Recently, owner Donnette Hansen posted to Facebook about “germinator” Arma, a valued employee with 15 years of hospital housekeeping experience). She’s just one of the conscientious staff members, many of whom have been with the over-40-year-old restaurant for more than a decade.
R.C.’s NYC Pizza & Pasta, multiple locations: Owner and pizza competition winner R.C. Gallegos wrote in to let us know about the new procedures at his shops in The Woodlands, Kingwood and New Caney. “We have initiated an ‘Everyone wears gloves and changes them when they change areas in the restaurant’ policy. We have people solely responsible for wiping down any and all surfaces that guests touch with an alcohol mixture and sanitizer within 20 seconds of the guests leaving. Those include door handles, tables, chairs, light switches, lemon tongs, tea dispensing knobs and the soda machine. All of our kitchen staff already wears gloves at all times — and of course we’re all washing our hands OFTEN!”
Robin’s Snowflake Donuts & Café, 4660 Louetta: Owner Robin Nouu writes, “We are constantly wiping down door handles with Lysol wipes and disinfectant sprays. Tables, chairs, counters and the bathroom are constantly being wiped down between customers, too. We encouraging orders via DoorDash and are temporarily offering curbside pickup.”
Shabu Zone, 11201 Bellaire inside Hong Kong City Mall: Longtime Houston food writer Mai Pham told us that the popular shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot) restaurant (which she also wrote about for the Houston Press) just made an important change. There are no longer shared tongs at ingredient stations. Now, each diner gets his or her own. Owner Kenny Oh says that he’s always had his crew sanitize with bleach three times a day (which is part of why Shabu Zone currently has a health score of 100 on Yelp) but recently also hired a cleaning crew to visit twice a week for deep cleaning. In addition, there are hand sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant.
Udipi Café, 5959 Hillcroft: Owner Sathish Rao is implementing some new procedures at this Indian vegetarian restaurant, as well as maintaining those already in place. All waiters use gloves, and starting on Sunday will only issue disposable cutlery to guests. Tables are set with disposable place mats to avoid cross-contamination. Food that is brought from the kitchen to the table is served on a banana leaf laid on the serving bowl (which sounds like an attractive and interesting presentation, as well). Kitchen utensils not only go through the commercial-grade dishwasher but also go into a sanitized hot water bath.
Underbelly Hospitality — UB Preserv, Georgia James, The Hay Merchant, One Fifth: Chef and owner Chris Shepherd posted a statement on Facebook regarding his approach to the situation. “We hold our hygiene standards to the highest level, and we are not taking this situation lightly. We have a generous health plan for our staff, and any employees that don’t feel well will not be working at our restaurants.” In addition, he said to-go orders are welcome. On a final note, he reminded hospitality workers that they may apply for assistance through the Southern Smoke Foundation Emergency Relief Fund.
Disclosure: Christie’s Seafood & Steaks, Phat Eatery and Rainbow Lodge are current Houston Food Finder sponsors. We could use a few more to continue our coverage through what’s likely to be several “interesting” weeks ahead. Email us to find out how. Readers can support our work and get rewarded via our Patreon page or simply make a single dollar amount contribution at GoFundMe.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.