The B.B. Lemon patio last year. Benjamin Berg, owner of B.B. Lemon, says once his restaurants can re-open, he'll be bringing in cabana-style furniture for the patio while leaving enough distance between parties. 

Image: Daniel Ortiz

On Friday evening, Federal American Grill in Hedwig Village will open its dining room, the first Harris County restaurant to defy orders and attempt to serve dine-in guests. A half-mile up the road at Jonathan's The Rub, owner Jonathan Levine won't do the same.

"I love Matt to death, but I don't agree with what he's doing," Levine says about Matt Brice, owner of Federal American Grill. "I don't think we're at a level of containment with the coronavirus that we can re-open. It's still out there. It's not just in my comfort level."

But Levine, who called Brice's announcement "a wake-up call" that it was time to meet with management and staff about re-opening procedures, is preparing for the moment the state says restaurants can re-open dining rooms. 

Of course, if just one government entity gives the go-ahead, what about the others? Confusion remains one of the major obstacles for restaurateurs.

"If there's good news on Monday, we'll start opening," says Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality Group (B&B Butchers and Restaurant, The Annie Cafe & Bar, and others), who's speaking about Gov. Abbott's planned press conference, and who imagines restaurants could start re-opening before mid-May. "The problem is the irony of what makes our country good, our states good, and what makes it bad. The governor can say 'OK, you guys can open like May 4, but the city and this county judge can choose not to listen to that. You're not really sure where you're at."

Still, plans are coming into place. Berg Hospitality is producing a video to help train its staff to work in a world where COVID-19 still looms. He has already removed tables in his dining rooms to ensure people are kept at least six feet apart when dining. He has stocked up on disposable menus and hand sanitizer, buying it from liquor stores. 

Of course, there are details to iron out. "Our dispensers are foam, but liquor stores only sell the alcohol-based sanitizer, so now you gotta find a dispenser for that."

There are costs, too. Touch-less sanitizing stands will run for around $200. Restaurateurs need gloves for their employees, which they have to constantly change; a case of just over 10,000 gloves will cost about $112. Want a disposable glove dispenser? That's $82; the separate adapter is $13. Everything is more expensive than it was before COVID-19, too.

Once Berg starts bringing staff back to his restaurants, their temperatures will be checked daily. Door handles will be cleaned constantly, and he's investing in handles that are installed with sanitizing dispensers.

Levine is creating his own sanitizer for his restaurants.

"Alcohol, glycerine, aloe, and we're gonna follow a recipe and make our own, just like we make our own food here," Levine says.

He's still weighing whether everyone should be wearing gloves, but masks will be mandatory, and everything will be sanitized constantly. All dishes will be run through the dishwashing machine twice. Soon, Levine will begin training his staff on these new procedures, but nothing is official yet.

"We're just going by the state mandate," Levine says, also referencing the Monday press conference. "When they say 'Open,' we'll open. We just want to be prepared."

Staff training isn't the only challenge in getting restaurants running again. Berg said it might take a week or so to get going in full because the food-supply chain has to strengthen first.

"You can't buy specialty vegetables—they're all gone," Berg says. "The liquor companies, the warehouse, all the food distributors have furloughed their truck drivers. That's a big system that has to get moving."

Berg, like most restaurateurs out there, just wants a little lead time to set in place new strategies and re-stock his kitchens. Even then, nothing is assured. Will guests show up? How nervous will the dining room be? Those are questions nobody can answer.

"The guests are gonna tell us what they're comfortable with," Berg says. "If you listen to your guests and employees, I think you can be successful. But if you think you know better, that's when you're gonna fail."