After weeks of working to stay afloat with dining rooms closed, restaurants across the county are setting their tables to open Friday. They’re ready, but are customers?
Judging by calls from loyal patrons making reservations, restaurant owners are betting they are.
But for an industry that lives or dies by dollars a square foot, state-imposed limits on how many people can dine inside have restaurant operators making crucial calculations about how to maintain a table turnover rate that’s efficient and profitable without making diners feel rushed.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday restaurants could reopen at 25 percent capacity, forcing them to keep most tables empty to continue measures meant to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
Under those conditions, few restaurant owners can afford to give up the takeout and delivery revenue that has carried them through the pandemic, they said. And they also realize some patrons aren’t ready to return to dining rooms.
But even with all the changes and challenges— crowd-control measures, possible supply gaps, amped-up sanitation — most owners are optimistic about a return of diners and are working overtime to ensure patrons and employees feel safe, they said.
TURNING THE TABLES
“Unbelievably, as soon as the governor made the announcement, we started getting calls,” said Charlie Felts, who owns Opus Ocean Grille, 1510 Marina Bay Drive in Clear Lake Shores.
Opus Ocean Grille typically can seat a little more than 400 people. With the 25 percent rule, the restaurant will be able to seat about 118 people at any given time, he said. As of Wednesday, dinner reservations already were nearing the new capacity, Felts said.
A typical table turn at the upscale restaurant is two hours, which means Opus on Friday likely will serve 236 meals, making takeout, which is generating as much as 20 percent of the restaurant’s typical revenue, a necessity, Felts said. Felts also owns Opus Grill in South Shore Harbour Resort, 2500 South Shore Harbour Blvd. in League City, but the restaurant’s kitchen is undergoing renovations and will open at a later date, Felts said.
‘TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF SAFETY’
At The Spot, 3204 Seawall Blvd. Galveston, owner Dennis Byrd and employees are devising systems to accommodate patrons who want to pick up food or dine in, he said.
Byrd operates five venues at The Spot complex and can typically seat more than 600 people. Bars remain closed under Abbott’s orders, but the Tiki Bar serves enough food to operate under the orders. Operating under the 25 percent rule, The Spot can seat about 125 people at a time, he said.
The Spot will need both takeout and dine-in services to generate revenue, Byrd said.
Employees are racing to meet all the safety protocols, Byrd said.
“There is a tremendous amount of safety protocols to implement between now and 11 a.m. Friday,” he said. “The safety of our team and safety of our guests is far greater than whatever revenue we’ll be able to generate by reopening of dining rooms.”
Among the many health protocols are face masks, gloves and temperature checks for employees, clear glass barriers to protect cashiers and guests, attendants monitoring entry points, single-use cutlery and a ban on cash transactions, along with daily deep-cleaning and disinfecting, Byrd said.
‘WE ARE SO READY’
Johnny Smecca, a principal in Galveston Restaurant Group, which owns Saltwater Grill, The Gumbo Diner, Papa’s Pizza, Mario’s Seawall Italian Restaurant, Sky Bar Steak & Sushi and Taquilo’s Tex-Mex Cantina, also is optimistic about a return of customers, he said.
All Galveston Restaurant Group restaurants will reopen Friday.
“We are getting reservations at Saltwater, Mario’s and Sky Bar,” Smecca said. “That reassures us the public wants to come out and take advantage of social activity.”
But the company plans to adjust hours as demand dictates, Smecca said.
“We’ll continue to adapt and improvise,” Smecca said.
The restaurants will meet all the protocols and more with “extra eyes” to watch crowds and ensure everyone follows the rules, Smecca said.
Restaurant owners also are keeping a close eye on meat supplies, he said.
President Donald Trump took executive action Tuesday to order meat processing plants to stay open amid concerns over increasing coronavirus cases and the effect on the nation’s food supply.
“You could see the protein supply chain slow down,” Smecca said.
But Galveston Restaurant Group is prepared for whatever comes Friday, Smecca said. The company will be taking temperatures of employees daily, he said.
“We are so ready,” he said. “We have masks, we have sanitizers, gloves — all our employees understand the importance of protecting themselves.”
Galveston Restaurant Group also will continue to offer takeout services, Smecca said.
‘IT’S A PERSONAL THING’
Mike Tucker, owner of Gus’ Restaurant, 3503 Palmer Highway in Texas City, believes customer demand is there. By Tuesday this week, he already had half a page of reservations for Friday, he said.
And like others, Tucker was still doing the table math to comply with the rules, he said.
“This has really got me baffled,” Tucker said. “My dining room was already designed so people aren’t breathing on each other.”
But Tucker said he’ll be ready and able to seat about 50 people at a time following all the protocols. The 25 percent rule is a little shallow and he’ll still offer takeout service, he said.
“We’re going to do the best we can with what we’ve been dealt,” he said. The restaurant will tweak operations and adjust hours as it goes along, he said.
But the distancing rules are tough for a people person known for visiting tables and greeting diners, he said.
“It’s a personal thing,” Tucker said. “It’s not about opening a restaurant and counting the money. I’m here to see customers, but I’m not able to go around to the tables and do that.”
Just as Texas begins to reopen its economy, Barry Terrell and team had gotten getting really good at takeout service, he said.
Terrell’s family owns T-Bone Tom’s Steakhouse Restaurant and hamburger joint Tookie’s — both in Kemah — and Tookie’s Seafood in Seabrook.
At T-Bone Tom’s, 707 state Highway 146, Terrell and employees have set up a staging area for pickup, improving the system daily, he said.
His restaurants will continue pickup and takeout services and crews have set up a palapa area in the back for outdoor dining, he said.
Terrell predicts pent-up demand for restaurant dining, he said.
“People have being sitting in their houses for six weeks going crazy,” he said. “They want to go outside and do something different, especially if it’s beautiful outside. We’re ready.”