The return of customers to dining rooms on May 1 pierced the silence that had blanketed Austin restaurants since they were forced to close their doors to guests on March 17.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s May 1 proclamation allowed dining rooms to operate at 25% capacity, and the murmur of dining customers grew louder on May 18, when phase two of the governor’s plan to reopen the state’s economy allowed restaurants to open dining rooms to 50% capacity.
The first wave saw a smattering of restaurants open in the first two days after the order took effect, including the three locations of Tex-Mex restaurant Dos Salsas, interior Mexican restaurant Manuel’s, East Austin icon Juan in a Million and multiple locations of Rudy’s BBQ. The weeks between phases one and two saw the number of open restaurants increase, with fine dining restaurants such as Jeffrey’s opening, and May 18 ushered in a new crop of open dining rooms that included popular chain Torchy’s Tacos and fine dining Hestia in downtown.
With the governor’s proclamation allowing dining rooms to open came a checklist of minimum standard health protocols for restaurants that included limits on seating at a table (maximum six people), stringent sanitization practices and single-use disposable menus.
The Texas Department of State Health Services also released a safety checklist for individuals that includes social distancing; self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms; considering face coverings in public; and washing and sanitizing hands. Abbott also said that those at greater risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, such as older people, should remain home as much as possible.
Chef-owner Kevin Fink of Hestia, who was nominated for his second consecutive James Beard award amidst the pandemic, opened his live-fire restaurant on May 18, though he planned to book only 15 tables a night, well below the 50% and even 25% thresholds.
"For us, all of the state’s guidelines are almost bare minimums," Fink said. "All good restaurants have always gone above and beyond, whether it’s in food quality or sourcing or safety in general. And I think in a pandemic, you watch those good operators continue to do things like that."
Hestia has also changed its service model, requiring all guests to book tables for their 12-course meals in advance. A chef from the restaurant will then call guests before their reservations and discuss dietary restrictions and menu options. While staff at the restaurants will wear masks and partitions will be in place to ensure guests and workers safety, Fink hopes the restaurant can still offer a special hospitality experience.
"People have become accustomed to not eating in restaurants now. And they think, ‘Oh, my life’s not terrible, I can do this now,’" Fink said. "But there is definitely a reason why we’re in love with the hospitality of it. And it’s not just being served. There’s a part of the warmth that you feel when you’re in an environment like that. There’s a great longing and missing that feeds your soul."
Chef Iliana de la Vega had kept her Oaxacan-inspired restaurant El Naranjo in South Austin closed for both dine-in and takeout since March 17, but on the day capacity limits were raised to 50%, she said she would reopen her dining room the day after Memorial Day. But not without trepidation.
"I’m scared to be honest. There are not too many options we have right now, we had to open," De La Vega said of the restaurant’s financial situation, adding that she may seat a little less than 50% capacity.
A former James Beard award semifinalist, De La Vega said she consulted with her staff before making decisions about reopening. They will add take-out service to complement the business from dine-in service and take things day by day.
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"We don’t know if the people will even want to come out to restaurants," De La Vega said. "It’s overwhelming. That’s the scary part, that you are in unknown territory."
Multiple James Beard nominee Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie was one of the first major restaurant owners to temporarily close his restaurant, turning off the lights March 13, and it appears he will be one of the last to join the move to reopen.
Fojtasek, whose restaurant the Statesman has named the best in Austin three of the last five years, says he is looking at a mid-June reopening. The coronavirus pandemic has turned the chef, like so many, into an amateur epidemiologist as he considers the safety of his staff and guests.
"The metric that our management team has agreed on is the percentage of number of positive cases relative to the number of tests being taken," Fojtasek said. "That’s been going down, so as long as that trend continues, we’re looking at mid-June."
The Texas native says he’s based all of his operating decisions on the comfort level of his staff, and imagines that once reopened, the restaurant will probably offer two seatings a night, with a capacity of about 50%. He plans to email the menu, along with a video welcoming back customers to the restaurant, to guests in advance and will continue offering the refined Southern restaurant’s standard menu.
"We think people want the touchstones and the things they remember from before the pandemic," Fojtasek said.
As for whether he’d be prepared to up the number of tables served if the governor raises the capacity allowances yet again, Fojtasek says he and his staff will serve as their own counsel.
"My primary concern at this point is protecting the team, rather than trying to serve as many guests as we can," Fojtasek said. "The team is going to decide what we feel comfortable with and then we’re going to apply our own metric at that point. Whatever the state chooses to do, I’m not really focused on that."
Even as restaurant owners open their dining rooms to varying levels of capacity and service, they recognize that the future remains uncertain and that they will have to remain nimble in responding to a wide array of factors related to public health and their own business models.
"I think the one thing that we’re all aware of here is that there is not one particular answer. I wish it was that simple, but it’s a very complicated situation and safety is obviously the first awareness and concern," said Fink, who doesn’t think his restaurant Emmer & Rye will be back to full capacity until 2021. "For us, we want to make sure it is something that our team and anyone who comes in feels special, feels warm, feels good."
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