Houston Bar and Restaurant Professionals Mirror on the Pandemic

Covid-19 dominated everything in 2020, from the way we lived (mostly at home) to how we ate (again, mostly at home). In Houston it significantly altered the restaurant industry, with more than 100,000 workers temporarily finding themselves out of work during the year, according to the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. Restaurants closed for weeks, and in some cases permanently, chefs and workers found themselves out of jobs, and a city known for how much its residents go out to eat retreated.

From March 2020 to January of this year, we interviewed restaurateurs, chefs, and bartenders in an effort to chronicle how Covid-19 affected their lives and livelihoods. The following is an oral history of that impact, focusing on major moments and challenges that arose over the tumultuous year.

Reality Sets In

On March 16 Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that all restaurants and bars must close their dining rooms and taprooms by the next day. Restaurants could only allow takeout, drive-thru, and delivery—a huge loss for dine-in business. Operators trimmed payroll to stay afloat financially and still reported losses of anywhere from 40 to 75 percent from the year previous. Star chefs and industry workers alike were immediately affected.

David Buehrer, owner of Greenway Coffee and operator of multiple eateries including West University all-day cafe Tropicales and Heights doughnut shop Morningstar: “I was actually in New York in January, and the friends I was staying with were very well aware of the situation in China, reading the tea leaves and knowing that it was inevitably coming sooner than later. I kind of had that moment of a Walking Dead episode where the people I was with were super aware and I was figuring things out through that.”

Chris Shepherd, owner of Underbelly Hospitality (UB Preserv, Georgia James, One Fifth, Hay Merchant, Blacksmith), on March 13: “I was supposed to be in Seattle this week, but I get it. Right now, maybe don’t travel so much, we’ll come back to it. But our industry is gonna need more help than ever before. I wish I had all the answers; I’m really trying hard to figure it all out myself. We just gotta hunker down and support each other.”

Buehrer: “So it hit but there was no sense of how to react to it; the city just shut down in the middle of March. So, prepared? No. Who was? Saw it coming? Mmm, kind of, but being equipped to handle a situation of its scope? No. And what it meant for my business? Heh. I had no idea.”

Tracy Vaught, co-owner of H-Town Restaurant Group (Backstreet Café, Hugo’s, Caracol, Xochi): “We came back (from vacation), and I think we were only back in town for a few days before the State of Texas closed down restaurants on March 17. I’ll say that, for me, was almost incomprehensible. I really was walking around almost like a zombie or something.”

Sasha Grumman, then-chef de cuisine at new restaurant Rosalie: “It all happened really quickly. It was one of those things where we looked at each other and thought, ‘Let’s furlough everybody’ and we’ll be back in two weeks. But being in a hotel we have conventions, and we host 1,000-person parties. Once those things all got cancelled for March, April, May, June, and people started cancelling for September, we were like, ‘This is gonna be a big deal.’”

Vaught: “We laid off most of our staff. We kept around 35 people, and I think that’s the number that we kept, which amounts to chefs and managers at each individual restaurant. We ended up deciding that those people would continue on with a 25-percent pay cut, so we went like that for a while and opened up for some to-go business.”

Kim Jordan, server, UB Preserv: “We were waiting for that ball to drop. We got the email that citywide, it had been announced that restaurants would have to close. So I did apply for unemployment, but in the back of my head I didn’t know what I’d get from that.”

Buehrer: “There were some quick realizations. Like Tropicales just opened less than a year before, and we were still in a development phase of that business. But the Gringo family who owns Gringo’s Mexican Kitchen, my partners there, they have other restaurants they had to close. So they had a discussion with me right away about the reality that was happening. You’ve got irons in the fire and we’ve got irons in the fire, so let’s each focus on those and keep moving forward. So that’s how we closed Tropicales.”

Grumman: “The initial feeling was really intense, and it’s the most closely related feeling to grief that I’ve felt in a long time. There was a lot of disbelief in the beginning. But then the weight of you don’t know what to do sets in, and it’s all out of control at that moment. I had never been on unemployment before. I had never been furloughed before. We had just opened in October and we were just getting the hang of it. The team was solid. Then we lost everything in one week, in that one moment. I would not undersell it at all: It was really, really hard.”

Jordan: “I have a very good working relationship with Southern Smoke Executive Director Kathryn Lott, and she reached out and said, ‘I need help with Southern Smoke.’ To get offered a job like that, which was remote, was a godsend.”

Alba Huerta, owner, Julep: “No one was prepared, nothing was planned. It’s more ‘What’s the best situation I can make out of this right now?’ That’s how every operator felt.”

Pivoting

By late spring many had sought other outlets to make money. Restaurants had been allowed to offer only takeout for six weeks. In Houston places were going under every week, unless they could find another way to pull in customers. New vendors turned to farmers markets to sell their goods. Grocery stores picked up take-home meals from popular local restaurants—Agricole Hospitality’s Heights superstar Coltivare, for instance, placed heat-and-eat meals at H-E-B, while Tejas Chocolate + BBQ, in Tomball, had the opportunity to host lunch pop-ups at area Krogers. The pivot was the name of the game.

Grumman, who started experimenting with baking breads in the summer: “I threw it out there to see if people were interested. People were super supportive and returned as customers. I started with a structure of five days a week going into the weekend, and that seemed to be best. And I’m working out of a home kitchen with a home refrigerator doing four slabs a day, but that started selling out every day. I was like, ‘Okay, let’s figure out how to maximize production at home.’”

Emmanuel Chavez, whose investors for his Mexican corn-focused restaurant, Tatemo, dropped out once the pandemic started, was unemployed and turned to selling corn tortillas made through the process of nixtamalization at farmers markets: “Because of the pandemic everything changed for us. We weren’t able to have people come in, but we still had a commitment to the farmers that we work with to provide a certain amount of maize per week. So we had to figure out what was the best way to put out a product, fast. We were doing R&D and coming up with dishes and coming up with new ways to package things that were never before in our mind. Once we figured out the best way to put us out there, it’s been a breeze.”

John Carey, market manager, Westchase Farmers Market: “Necessity is the mother of invention. We’ve had a lot of people displaced from the traditional workforce. We’re one of the few markets that have allowed cottage (home) bakers, people trying to scratch a couple bucks making peach cobbler. If it’s good, they can sell it at the market. A lot of people are finding a way to expand their entrepreneurial spirit.”

Tyler Horne, manager, Urban Harvest’s Saturday farmers market, River Oaks: “The numbers indicate an uptick in sales for vendors year over year. For some people it’s become an outlet.”

Ryan Pera, partner, Coltivare, in May: “We have 50-percent revenue, but all of us signed leases based on what 100-percent revenue looks like. We had to find ways to make our businesses work. So I think it can be a good exchange, a good way to get your names out there.”

Moore, co-owner, Tejas Chocolate + BBQ: “We had an opportunity through a lady who does some work for us who’s connected to Kroger. She said, ‘Hey, Kroger has reached out to me and asked if some of my clients would do pop-ups at our grocery stores.’ And they said, ‘Tell us what location you wanna do, what day, and we’re not charging anything, just come out and serve food, about as much as you want.’”

“The traffic at the supermarket is much greater than anything we’ve had before. We’ve learned how to make dining-in and online ordering co-exist, so by doing online ordering and curbside pickup locally, and now this pop-up, we’ve opened ourselves up to a consumer base that just doesn’t do barbecue lines. We’ve broadened our footprint a great deal. So now dine-in is nearly back to where we were before, and we have a significant flow online, too.”

Phased Reopenings and Outrage

In mid-April, after a month of closed dining rooms, restaurant operators were antsy. Talk spread that Abbott was close to passing an order to reopen dining rooms soon, maybe by the end of May. Matt Brice, owner of Hedwig Village’s Federal American Grill, caused a media frenzy by deciding to reopen on April 24, sending peers in the industry reeling, with some taking to social media to blast his decision. Others understood to an extent; could they really blame him? 

The following Monday, Abbott announced that restaurants could reopen on May 1 with dining rooms allowing 25 percent of regular capacity (bars could not reopen). Operators like Jonathan Levine of Jonathan’s The Rub and Kyle Pierson of The Branch in Spring Branch had just four days to scramble to reopen—not just with the new capacity regulations, but also making sure tables were at least six feet apart, seating no more than six people per table, and people wore masks whenever they weren’t seated—in hopes of making money.

Brice: “I came to the realization that you got Walgreens open, Target open, Walmart open, all these grocery stores that are not gonna take the precautionary measures that we’re gonna take … We can’t let the government pick who wins and who loses.”

Levine, owner of Jonathan’s The Rub, in April: “I love Matt to death, but I don’t agree on what he’s doing. We’re all friends; I just have a different opinion on how to proceed.”

Brice: “I didn’t expect this to blow up the way that it did. If the media wasn’t involved, I would’ve just opened quietly. I’m not opening to promote Federal Grill.”

Pierson, owner of The Branch: “The most optimistic thing I heard from other restaurants is May 10. But now it’s May 1 … this came as a shock to every restaurant owner I know. It’s like ‘Damnit, we’ve got (just) days to flip our entire business model.’ So, thanks, Gov. Abbott.”

Benjamin Berg, owner of Berg Hospitality Group (B&B Butchers and Restaurant, B.B. Lemon, B.B. Italia, the Annie Café & Bar): “We’ve been planning the whole time, but what are we gonna do? One day we’re told wearing a mask is good, the next day not wearing a mask is good. I have a strong opinion that we gotta keep the government out of our four walls. Once you bring them in, they never leave. We should be cautious and comforting in how we serve our guests, and the guests are gonna tell us what they’re comfortable with.”

Pierson: “By rule we’re allowed to have 37.25 seats, but we’ll have 36 because odd numbers don’t work in restaurants. I have four two-tops, four four-tops, and two six-tops and that’s it. I have no walk-ins because I can’t have seven deuces come in.”

Berg: “We’ve taken out tables. For me it’s easy to take out tables. I like to pack ’em in. But we’re in a place where we’re comfortable. It’s a shame because we’d be killing it right now on the patio.”

Co-existing with Covid

After reopening dining rooms in May, Abbott said the goal was for Texans to “co-exist with Covid-19 as safely as possible.” Many restaurants reconfigured their dining rooms and patios, installed dividers, and considered throwing away more material to do just that.

Aaron Lyons, owner, Dish Society: “We kind of evolved in some ways more than others. At first we had handheld tablets and you can swipe your credit card through that. Our staff didn’t feel super comfortable doing that right away… I was at the Katy location and going around at tables. I asked a couple ladies if they needed any help and one said, ‘I’m not gonna push a bunch of buttons, just bring me a mimosa.’”

Jacklyn Pham, manager, Saigon Pagolac: “We pre-planned that we’d have to space out tables and provide hand sanitizer, and provide guidelines, so customers knew what they had to do.”

Levi Goode, owner, Goode Company: “In some cases we’ve installed plexiglass, like with that transaction with a person (for pickup orders). We’re taking as many steps as we can to make sure everyone is safe and healthy.”

Pham: “We’re using our standard plates because paper plates couldn’t hold what we serve. So we make sure everything is washed and placed in a clean area. And the chopsticks are disposable. But we’re using disposable menus and when the customer is finished with that, we trash it.”

Lyons: “For now we’re treating it like a to-go situation. A QR code takes you to an online ordering site, and the food comes out in to-go packaging. We didn’t do anything drastic other than add a few people to staff to manage the situation.”

“The loyalty of Houstonians and Hedwig Village people has been incredible. We’ve been busy from day one.”

Naoki Yoshida, owner, Shun, in June: “We’re doing pretty well since we expanded our to-go menu. We had some wagyu come in, snacks and cakes, those things have helped out a lot. But, in general, we’ve dropped about 40 percent in sales.”

Shepherd, in June: “Some people want to go fast but not everyone does. We have two out of four restaurants open. … The staff’s back in and doing things, and that’s what we’re gonna do. But the most important thing is safety for the staff.” 

The Mask Issue

With rates of new Covid-19 cases decreasing through May and early June, Abbott quickly increased capacity allowances in Texas restaurants. By June 12 restaurants could be open at 75 percent capacity, but within weeks, as rates spiked, Abbott backtracked. After that, as the calendar turned to July, restaurants could stay open and were settling into a new normal, operating at 50 percent.

One issue for restaurants reopening and debuting in summer was dealing with customers who didn’t want to wear facemasks when standing or walking around, a point of contention that increasingly turned political as the year continued. In December an employee at Grand Prize Bar would have to receive 10 stitches after being assaulted by a customer after repeatedly asking him to put on a mask—the story even made the New York Times.

At first local authorities were the ones requiring masks, but on July 2, Abbott issued an order for the entire state:

Ricardo Molina, owner, Molina’s: “The very first morning, I guess it was Monday morning, one of the first customers was a little older gentleman. He said, ‘I don’t wanna wear one.’ But we told him, we gave him one to wear, and he took it, he put it on, and he wore it. As far as anybody getting real confrontational? It hasn’t happened yet.”

Jordan: “In June UB Preserv reopened. We were open for two days a week, maybe three days. You know you’re putting yourself at risk of getting it. Not only are you in a small bubble with the people you work with, but you don’t know what your co-workers are doing and if they’re responsible. You’re worried about your immediate bubble, but you’re also worried about the people in public who have a more relaxed comfort level, the people who won’t put their masks on.”

Aaron Bludorn, chef/owner, Bludorn, which opened in August: “We started bringing in staff in early August. We were doing interviews, and I turned away chefs who came in not wearing masks. I wasn’t interested in having them in the kitchen if they weren’t going to be safe in an interview.”

Pham: “I haven’t seen customers come in without masks. I think it’s just an understanding that everyone is going through this and watching the news.”

Anita Jaisinghani, chef/owner, Pondicheri: “There was someone yelling at my staff saying, ‘I’m not gonna wear it.’ Hell, take me to court. Just put it on, please. I don’t understand this ridiculous behavior. It’s just so careless.”

Bludorn: “If anything we’ve just gotten better at it. People realize there’s plenty of proof in people wearing masks, and we’re very adamant on that, and guests have gotten more comfortable with that.”

Patio Weather

As summer wore on, the number of new confirmed cases in Texas had fallen. With that came hope that restaurants were doing something right. They continued to implement new strategies. When fall arrived, and cooler temps prevailed, patios saw a boom like never before.

Bludorn: “One thing we did in construction was we expanded our patio space. We thought we were gonna have an herb garden, but we decided it made more sense to put down more pavers and add tables here. It’s when we were seeing that this wasn’t going away in May we started brainstorming ways to be sustainable as a business and be a contributor to the community.”

Lyons: “A lot of customers were mad they couldn’t eat inside at first. A lot wanted to eat on plates with silverware. A lot wanted to be waited on. But a lot of people appreciated it; it’s just some people were frustrated.”

June Rodil, partner, Rosie Cannonball, in August: “The great patio out here at Goodnight Charlie’s has an awning, and we were looking at it, but we were just doing delivery and takeout. Then we thought, ‘We should do a Spritz Patio.’ Everyone’s depressed, so why not just everyone day drink? We want to make sure that the social contract between guests and us is really fluid. Adding more tables means we’re adding more people and everyone is comfortable with it.”

Shepard Ross, partner, Bravery Chef Hall, in June: “We’re trying different initiatives, launching Sunday brunches, launching a farmers market across from the “Houston Is Inspired” mural. A market can bring people down here on a Sunday. People are getting more comfortable. People will start to go here and get food and drink, and they tend to gravitate outside.”

Hanging On

In September confirmed cases in Texas fell to their lowest mark since early June—just 1,300 new cases on September 27—spurring Abbott to loosen regulations for hospitality businesses. Restaurants were allowed to operate at 75 percent capacity as of September 17.

Huerta: “I think that people figured it out, especially everyone that is planning to reopen. But it’s not over. We might be … kind of in the middle. Even as we’re seeing vaccines come out, how does that get handled? How do you enforce that? There’s an element as operators that we’re going to figure it out.”

Bludorn: “Well, time will tell, but ask me today, and I’m super proud of my team and anyone who’s been with us to help make this happen. Everyone did exactly what was asked of them and more. There’s no way that I’ll look back at this year as a failure.”

Vaught: “Before we reopened Xochi, we learned we had a cook who died from Covid-19, and we had other employees who had family members who passed. We had employees who got very sick. We had a maintenance man who got very sick and spent two to three weeks in the hospital and couldn’t speak. I felt … it changed my way to not just have a tough exterior. I was putty. I felt so worried for the staff members. I realized how important they were to me, that they’re my family. I really had an awakening.”

Ross: “The question is, is everybody gonna survive financially? With takeout you can only do so much, with delivery you can only do so much. So doing events, getting people’s attention, whatever works, we’re all still here working hard.”

Buehrer: “I think if a business was either one year old or five years old, it had a harder chance that it was going to stay open, because the same thing happened with Morningstar closing this month. We were running out of money and trying as far as we could, but our lease was coming up. … When you have this expected rate of return from the business and you lose a year of it, it makes it impossible to reorganize.”

Buehrer: “October. That’s where I’m gonna feel pretty good about opening a regular business again. But that doesn’t mean people are gonna use it in a regular way. Consumer habits have changed.”

Vaught: “Most times when you’re under stress, it’s for a week or a day or it might even be for a month, but when it’s a year it really takes a toll on you. You worry about the employees and paying the bills and just what’s gonna happen next. You can’t predict what’s gonna happen next.”

Comments are closed.