As much of the local news media has been anticipating, Gov. Greg Abbott today announced reduced restrictions on certain businesses, including restaurants. Beginning May 1, restaurants across the state of Texas can reopen at 25 percent capacity occupancy. Restaurants are not required to open, but those who choose to must adhere to the following health protocols from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The guidelines are very similar to the Texas Restaurant Association Promise, points out David Denney, president of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association. “And no restaurant—and I have talked to a lot of them—nobody wants to put employees or guests at risk,” he says. “And people don’t have to. It’s not mandatory. It’s completely voluntary.”
Denney acknowledges that “there are a lot of people still nervous and a lot of people still eager to [reopen].” For some, this is carefully measured step in the right direction. For others, the news does not come as welcome or anything near a panacea.
In response to the Georgia’s swift reopening last week, restaurateur Brooks Anderson spoke to the realities of reopening even at 50 percent. (Anderson is co-owner with his brother Bradley, of Rapscallion, Boulevardier, Hillside Tavern, and the wine room Veritas. The latter is the only business that remains open; all others are closed temporarily.) Even with 100 percent occupancy “most ‘successful’ restaurants are running 5, 10, 15 percent profit at any time,” he says.
Restaurant industry margins are notoriously slim.
“If you’re at half capacity, you need people showing up at 5, 5:30, 6 [on a Tuesday]. And they just don’t do that. And then eating at 8:45, 9:15 on a Tuesday, which is never gonna happen. You can’t even do the numbers you were gonna get on a slow night.” Meanwhile, the restaurant is fully operational, incurring the same expenses: linen service, the utilities associated with having the lights on, salaries for a newly re-hired staff, food costs. Certainly, restaurateurs can simplify the menu to lower food costs or raise prices to try to recoup some of the revenue lost to empty seats. Still, Anderson asks, “Is my rent going to be half? Are my utilities going to be half?”
Peja Krstic, too, wonders about paying 25 percent of his rent. In Krstic’s tiny, 40-seat restaurant Mot Hai Ba, operating a 25 percent capacity would represent 10 diners at his communal tables at any given time. He goes in with the assumption that “we absolutely have to continue doing [takeout], because restaurants cannot sustain themselves on 25 percent of people.”
The math doesn’t add up for Salaryman’s Justin Holt either. “It is not going to do us any good to allow 6.75 patrons into the restaurant. Socially and monetarily, it is not a responsible move at this time. We will continue to serve in the safest way we know how for the time being: contactless, curbside pickup only.”
“Every restaurant company is different,” says Denney. For some operations with drive-thru or places that lean more fast casual, “those restaurants may remain dark for, gosh, who knows? But at least they have a choice.”
Beyond crunching the numbers, of course there’s the health aspect to weigh.
“I don’t think I personally will allow the 25 percent of dining in my establishment whatsoever. We have experts and doctors that urge us not to do this.” Krstic will continue to operate take-away food. But “until the CDC or doctors say [it’s safe], until we have actual hard proof. I’m not going to jeopardize my employees and myself.”
But Gov. Abbott said in his press conference on Monday, April 27, that “these are decisions that are the result of tremendous input by the best possible medical team. We would not be making a decision to open up Texas without that medical advise,” adding, “I believe we can reengage the economy while using these strategies.”
But for restaurateurs like Anderson, considering the protection of his own staff, that leaves a lot of questions. “Social distancing is an impossibility in a commercial kitchen. It’s an impossibility.” And what of the scenario of having a staff member report a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Does he have to close immediately and require his entire staff to be tested, Anderson asks. What measures might be in place to deal with interruptions in service, re-closures?
“We’re gonna get open under the new guidelines and the people that can, will do their best,” Denney said. An imperfect step, is a step forward nonetheless.
Business owners like Sam Zietz of Grubbrr, a nationwide payment technology company, are also thinking about next steps. Zietz is especially mindful of something that is now part of the American psyche, namely, how comfortable diners feel in a reopened reality. His business, a leader in kiosks and mobile ordering, recently launched a new product designed specifically at to allay the fears that dining in-room provokes.
“You’re going to have to go out of your way to show the steps you’re taking toward cleanliness,” Zietz says. “So people constantly wiping tables down with disinfectant in common areas.” Or perhaps charts, like in bathrooms, detailing what portions of a restaurant have been cleaned and when. His company is envisioning a digital board that would show charts of this nature, updated in real time and visible from all parts of a restaurant. “It’s all about perception—to make that client or customer comfortable that this establishment is clean and safe.”
In a similar vein, North Texas–based SWX Global Design and Production recently unveiled a new product: lightweight Social-Distance Barriers designed to “maximize seating capacity and profits while giving patrons a secure, sanitary and safe experiential environment.”
These are not psychological realities to be taken lightly.
While profitability and the health and safety of both employees and customers are top of mind, there’s also the spirit of a restaurant to consider. “How is a restaurant able to create a beautiful, comfortable dining experience when you’re still doing a large amount of food to-go and that food needs to be packaged, needs to be labeled?” asks Kritic. “In my restaurant, my dining room is converted into a to-go room. What am I supposed to do as a small restaurant? Which part of the dining room do I use? And I can’t even sustain employees that I have.”
“To me, this makes it even worse for restaurants. For everybody, it’s the same. As we say back home, ‘This is a house not on the sky, not on the ground.’ We don’t know where we are,” he said. “And that’s what scares me.”
Denney remains cautiously optimistic: “I’ve seen so many amazing pivots and innovations that I know we’ll continue beyond this.” And indeed we will.
For phase two of reopening the Texas economy, Gov. Abbott hopes to ease restrictions further around May 18, when bars may be next to come back into the economy and restaurants can welcome dining rooms of up to 50 percent their capacity.