Given only four days’ notice, restaurants across the state have been scrambling since Governor Greg Abbott announced Monday that the ban on dine-in service would be lifted starting Friday. Now that they are allowed to reopen, chefs and restaurateurs have been checking with food suppliers, their staffs, and their consciences to see whether hosting diners again is the right choice or even feasible. Many of them have been closed completely for more than a month, while others converted operations to takeout and delivery only. Getting the governor’s permission was just the first hurdle; even if they can reopen, they have to follow restrictions that limit capacity to 25 percent (or 50 percent in rural counties with five or fewer positive cases), limit party size to six people at properly spaced tables, and install hand sanitizing stations by the entrance.
“It seriously feels like a new restaurant opening,” says Jessica Delgado, who runs three restaurants in McAllen with her chef-husband, Larry Delgado: Salomé on Main, House Wine, and Salt. Just to open Salomé, an upscale Mexican eatery, will require replacing the temporary takeout menu with some version of the normal one, which means restocking the cooler with a new selection of meat and produce. Replenishing the wine cellar, most of which was sold off for much-needed revenue, will take time and capital. While the couple retained nearly half of their employees over the past six weeks, most of those were cooks. Persuading their laid-off waitstaff to return to a quarter-full dining room will be a challenge by itself, and then both new and seasoned servers will need to be fully trained on the new requirements for restaurant service that are spelled out in the Governor’s Report to Open Texas.
The Delgados couldn’t imagine accomplishing that daunting checklist in the four days. They’ve set a target of May 18 for reopening the dining rooms at all three restaurants. They’re monitoring the public health situation and local customer demand. Takeout and delivery operations at each restaurant as well as prepared meals sold at six local H-E-B stores (a new program the couple described as their saving grace) have kept them afloat. Larry explains: “At Salt, we would have to trade delivery and carry-out for dine-in” because of the New American restaurant’s small kitchen. To abandon a certain revenue stream, however limited, will be a gamble, especially without knowing whether enough diners even want to return to their restaurants.
Bryan McLarty is not worried about diner demand at 407 BBQ, his joint in Argyle, just south of Denton. “My crowd base out here is extremely anxious to get back in here,” he says. His business was primarily takeout even before the virus hit, so he says he has hardly seen a drop in business even after closing down his dining room in mid-March. “I’ve been very blessed,” he says. Regardless, he’s still set on opening his dining room for breakfast at 7 a.m. sharp on Friday. He sees the reopening as a kickstart to his return to normalcy. “Nothing is normal anymore, so I’m ready to get on with things,” he says. When asked about health concerns for his staff and patrons, McLarty said he doesn’t view dining in a restaurant as any more risky than shopping at the grocery store, adding, “I’m not very concerned at this point of having a COVID-19 [case] come out of 407 BBQ.”
Still, McLarty would have preferred the governor to have scheduled the reopening date for a Monday rather than at the beginning of a potentially busy weekend. “From a safety and a logistical side, it’s just not good to go back into something new on a Friday or Saturday,” he explains. For now, he plans to shrink-wrap chairs to the tables that can’t be used inside. As for outdoor dining, the governor’s plan doesn’t include a limit on capacity; it just requires at least six feet of space between tables. So McLarty plans to make all of his outdoor tables available, a plan shared by many other restaurateurs that have patio seating. He’s also not alone among local pitmasters in being eager to open. Panther City BBQ, Smoke-a-Holics BBQ, and Derek Allan’s Texas BBQ, all in Fort Worth—along with Hurtado Barbecue, in Arlington, and Rooster’s BBQ, in Cresson, all plan to open their dining rooms Friday.
At Nixta Taqueria, in Austin, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner, Edgar Rico, is adamantly opposed to serving customers inside his restaurant. “It’s insane to think that anyone’s even ready to open,” he says. Nixta will continue its temporary operations as a takeout-and-delivery joint, which Rico expects to be a more financially sound model for now. “Operating at 25 percent capacity is still operating at a loss, so who is this really helping?” he asks.
Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue, in Austin, agrees with Rico. “Just because somebody opens a restaurant doesn’t mean that guests are going to feel safe,” he says. Franklin, his wife Stacy, and their remaining staff reorganized their entire operation to allow for curbside pickup. The dining room is now the floor of a takeout-container assembly line. If they opened the dining room to just the small amount of allowable diners, they’d have to give up their curbside operation, which has sustained them just enough to stay afloat. That’s not to mention the potential health risks for his staff and customers. “I think anyone that’s running a restaurant wouldn’t see any disconnect between front-of-house and back-of-the-house practices and safety standards,” he says, referring to the trust his customers put in his restaurant to keep them safe. And as for public opinion, Franklin doesn’t see much difference between an outbreak of food-borne illness or an outbreak of the coronavirus. “If it came out that a restaurant got a bunch of people sick, that’s pretty much the end of that restaurant,” he says. “That’s Russian roulette with your business and your livelihood.”
In El Paso, Christopher Morrill, an owner and chef at Taco Shop and Gallery 3 Kitchen, won’t be opening for dine-in service either, and revenue has nothing to do with it. “We will not be opening up as the safety of our employees and guests is our first and only priority,” he says, calling the idea of opening their dining room “beyond reckless.” Among his concerns: El Paso has still not reached a peak of COVID-19 cases, it’s home to the large Fort Bliss military base, and it’s only a few minutes away from our border with New Mexico, which is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases. “We would love to have the experience of a full restaurant again, the laughing, the music, the atmosphere of happy customers, but it’s not feasible at the moment,” Morrill says, adding that he’s not sure when El Paso will be ready. He and his staffed polled customers on Monday who called for takeout and delivery orders to see whether they’d feel safe eating inside the restaurant at the end of end of the week. “Not one said yes,” Morrill says.
Morrill’s fellow El Pasoan Emiliano Marentes, co-owner and chef at downtown’s Elemi, closed the modern Mexican restaurant in March. Marentes and his team, which includes his wife, Kristal Marentes, briefly considered reopening. However, Elemi will remain shuttered. “We are not prepared to open,” Marentes says. “Our staff wants to come back, but it doesn’t make sense if we can only sit ten people. Most likely, we will use this time to set up and fix some issues here at the restaurant, so we can be prepared to open when we can seat at least fifty percent [capacity].” One urgent issue is acquiring a hand sanitizing station. “I’ve been looking to purchase a sanitizer dispenser stand and sanitary liquid. I can’t find any.”
In Dallas, Rodolfo Jimenez, co-owner of Maskaras Mexican Grill, which has been closed since March 16, weighed his decision carefully but decided to open Friday after a month of operating at a loss. “We’ve been closed, but we’ve still had costs,” he says. “We had to throw away food and pay out of pocket for everything, including the rent,” he says. “We want to get back to work.” He’s cutting the menu offerings by 25 percent, but will retain the beloved tacos ahogados. Across town, José executive chef Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman, who has divided time between serving curbside and delivery and feeding health care workers at area hospitals, says reopening on the first day “doesn’t feel right.” But she adds: “Everyone is asking. Our phone has been ringing off the hook for reservations.” The restaurant is now planning to open Wednesday.
In San Marcos, Michael Hernandez feels like he’s running out of time. He and his wife, Asenette, closed Hays Co. Bar-B-Que on March 21 after a week of meager sales from curbside service. “It was costing us more to stay open,” he says. Now that the indoor seating ban is being lifted, they see an opportunity to get back into business with their two large dining rooms and outdoor patio. They’ve installed a plexiglass guard along the ordering counter, added hand sanitizer stations inside the door and around the dining room, and shut off the soda fountain in favor of canned drinks. Gone too are the trays of barbecue. Everything will be served on disposable plates with prepackaged plasticware.
Even with those steps, the Hernandezes understand that the health and safety of their employees and customers are at risk. As for his fifteen employees, he says some agreed to arrive on Thursday night to start cooking, and the others have said they want to return on Friday. The Hernandezes also successfully applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which must be used for employee payroll. As they’ve been preparing the restaurant this week, he says, customers have been knocking on the door constantly this week wondering when they’ll open.
“Do I feel that it’s completely safe? Not really,” Hernandez says, but he was more worried about the pandemic when he closed last month. “At this point, if we don’t open up soon, we have to put Hays County [Bar-B-Que] to a halt,” he said, meaning that the restaurant would be permanently closed in as soon as a few weeks. Still, he’s also torn on the governor’s timing. “Fifty percent of me says I wish he would have held off a little bit, and the other fifty says I see the bills, I see what’s happening with my employees. If we get backlash, then I’ll have to suffer the consequences at that time,” he says adding, “It’s scary. I’m not gonna lie.”