What Houston Dining Will Look Like After the Stay-At-Home Order is Lifted
In what feels like six years ago but was only a little over six weeks ago, Houston dining rooms were still open and serving. The days leading up to March 16 — the date when judge Lina Hidalgo issued the stay-at-home order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Harris County — proved to be the dress rehearsal for restaurants to practice increased safety measures. Some, like Phat Eatery in Katy, anticipated the need to reduce tables by half even before it was advised to increase distancing between customers. Several restaurant owners increased sanitation and safety procedures to help reassure a fearful public.
Then, it was all over. As community spread of the coronavirus in Houston became apparent, restaurants were ordered to close dining rooms and to offer only delivery and take-out service. Bars were ordered to close completely.
Unless it’s extended, Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order expires at midnight on April 30. Even so, until May 26, there’s a mandatory order to wear face coverings while in public. While restaurant and bar owners are awaiting specifics on what type of rules they have to adhere to in order to open, those days to leading March 16 were a preview as to what circumstances likely await dine-in customers. Second verse, same as the first. Update, 4/27/20, 2:53 p.m.: Texas governor Greg Abbott has announced that restaurants may reopen on May 1 but only at 25% capacity. If cases remain on the decline, 50% capacity will be allowed on May 18.
As important as complying with Harris County and Health Department regulations is (not that every owner is actually obeying them), an even more important and difficult challenge is making customers feel safe and comfortable. Some owners, such as Caroline Cobell of Caroline’s Kitchen & Healthy Eatery in Spring, are already planning on going above-and-beyond what is likely to be required. She’s planning on only using disposable serviceware, even though proper washing techniques are sufficient for killing coronavirus. “We’ve been surveying our customers and asking them what they will feel safe with and that’s their response. We want our customer base to feel safe and will take whatever steps necessary,” she said.
Even before restaurant dining rooms were shut down, employees of many had already swung into action with frequent sanitization of items that customers regularly touch (such as door handles) and removing common-use and self-serve items like condiment stations. Expect that to be a standard for weeks, if not months, to come. “We are removing all communal aspects of our dining experience, such as napkins, utensils and menus,” said Craft Pita owner Raffi Nasr. “I’m still trying to figure out certain things like iced tea. You can’t take away tea refills from Texans. Even once we are able to let people in our doors, we will still probably keep our contactless, covered drive thru”.
Perhaps the biggest question on restaurateurs’ minds, though, is if they open the dining rooms, will the customers come back? Co-owner Iman Yarjani of Ember & Greens took a poll in the Memorial Area Eats Facebook group to get some idea as to what to expect.
Out of 366 total respondents, 153 want restaurants open now. 20 are ready for restaurants to open in May. That’s a total of 173 who say they’re ready to go out and eat as soon as the stay-at-home order is lifted. As for those not ready to sit in a restaurant dining room yet: 166 selected June and 8 said more than three months. That means that only about 47%, or just a little less than half, are ready to go out and eat again and 53% are not.
Getting everything spaced out, jammin a little Ice Cube, Today is a good day.
Above: Richard Andrews of Potatoe Patch shows how he’s spaced out tables to give diners at least six feet of space.
Richard Andrews, who operates Potatoe Patch in far north Houston, sees the bright side of those percentages. “That means I’m 37% better than now and able to employ more people,” he said. He’s also been working proactively in anticipation of reopening. “I’m already starting to move tables out and set up for six feet. I’ll do the deep, deep sanitation on Wednesday, including rewashing all plates and cups. I’m also going to sanitize and treat with ultraviolet light the air conditioning ducts and vents.”
Yarjani, who conducted the poll, also takes the possibility of getting about half of Ember & Greens’ customers back soon as a positive sign. “It’s definitely encouraging. I have been reading and researching several hours every day just to grasp what’s going on, and based on my research, I believe it’s time to open up again with proper safety protocols in place. We plan on following the guidelines set by governor Abbott which seems to indicate businesses will be reopening as early as the first week of May. If that’s the case, we will likely relaunch the restaurant with our new brunch menu for Mother’s Day weekend.” In addition, Yarjani also is heartened by the poll numbers indicating that — assuming there’s not a resurgence in coronavirus cases — nearly all customers will be ready to dine in again by June.
With that said, opening at half-capacity — with half the normal revenue — is still a difficult scenario for many restaurant owners. It follows more than six weeks of scraping by and making whatever money they could through delivery and takeout. In a half-revenue scenario, owner Thomas Tang, who operates two locations of ramen restaurant Samurai Noodle in Katy and in Houston, says, “It would mean that a discussion on the rental agreement with the landlord would soon follow.”
Tang also warns that diners may see price increases around town. “People need to be aware that all the changes requested or expected is going to cost a lot.” Some of those costs include specialized cleaners or cleaning services, labor and material expenses related to employee training or retraining, disposable servingware and menus, and additional or replacement supplies or equipment.
Even with dining room reopenings, it doesn’t mean guests aren’t still going to lean heavily on to-go and delivery orders. “We are all going to be hybrid restaurants through the end of 2020, at least,” said Donnette Hansen, owner of Rainbow Lodge.
All of these considerations make one thing clear: it’s going to be months, not days or weeks, before Houston’s restaurant scene is back to operating the same as it used to, or being the flourishing aspect of the local economy that it once was.