In a world without the novel coronavirus COVID-19 spreading from community to community, we would be tracking the openings of restaurants across the Houston area. But the global pandemic has caused the restaurant industry to completely re-imagine itself overnight, and that means no first looks at exciting new dining rooms, no expansive menu roll-outs, no grand openings to attend.
Those who were hoping to open restaurants this spring find themselves in an unprecedented state of limbo.
For example, a new Flower Child was set to open this March on Shepherd Drive in the Heights, but that was put on hold. Currently the space is ready for use, but it remains empty with no set open date in sight. Over at The Galleria, upscale Indian restaurant Musaafer waits, as well.
"It's extremely disappointing and frustrating," says Mithu Malik, co-owner of Musaafer, which had set an April opening. "It's been in the works for two years now, and we're seeing the finish line, and yes, it's frustrating."
Mithu and husband Shammi, also owners of the Spice Route Company with restaurants in Nigeria, were announced as new tenants of the 11,000-square-foot space inside The Galleria VI Wing in 2018. Musaafer is aimed to be a creative dining experience with shining Indian-imported decor, the kind of restaurant that translates much better when you're sitting in the dining room for a meal. The Maliks don't necessarily want to open and immediately operate as a take-out-only restaurant, but they're considering all options.
And they have to. They're renting the space and are worried about being able to keep up payments if they can't fully open it, though they've reached out to Simon Properties, which owns The Galleria, for whatever help they can get.
For now, they're hoping to be finished with interior work this week. They're also training staff, and while they started three weeks ago with in-person training, they pivoted to online as COVID-19's spread became a reality in America.
"We didn't want to create a situation and didn't want anything to spread," says Mithu Malik. "We just felt like it was safer to do online."
So chefs, at home with individual packets of Indian spices, explain characteristics of the spices over the Zoom video meeting platform. Then team members learn the pronunciation, history of, and other crucial information about menu items, then are quizzed via video.
Right now, Musaafer is trying to make the best of a potentially disastrous situation. But the Maliks know it could be worse for them.
"When you look at the bigger picture and see what's going on in the world, it humbles you," Mithu Malik says. "You've got to put your head down and deal with the cards that are on the table. We're just hopeful that this whole thing passes."
Things are different at Mico's Hot Chicken. What started as a small Galleria-area trailer with a take-out window in 2019 became an overnight sensation, leading to a brick-and-mortar location in the Heights. That was supposed to open in full in April, but the spread of COVID-19 actually pushed their opening up a few weeks.
"It hasn't really affected us much because we were already considered take-out as a food truck," says Kimico Frydenlund, co-owner of the business with husband Chris. "We're still using the same limited menu that we had as a food truck."
It's just instead of a truck, Mico's is serving up The Sammich, animal fries, and its tenders basket from its take-out window at the brick-and-mortar spot on 1603 N. Durham Dr. You can't sit there and eat, but that just means little has changed for Mico's. In fact, it seems more people than ever are visiting for hot chicken. Many are from the Heights, and more than a few are walking up, crossing busy Durham and Shepherd drives to get there.
"A lot of people are actually looking for a to-go option right now, so we haven't really had that much of a downturn," Frydenlund says.
Employees are still getting paid as they're working the window and training, though the longer quarantines are enforced, the more uncertain plans will become.
"We don't know how this will go and continue," Frydenlund says. "We're just taking it day by day."