On Friday, restaurants across Texas could re-open their dining rooms, so long as they followed guidelines set forth by Gov. Greg Abbott in his executive order. Not every restaurant decided to follow through, though, for myriad reasons, among them the health and safety of their workers and the public, the short lead time given by the governor, a lack of trust with information given by state officials, and the possibility that opening at 25 percent maximum capacity—as per the executive order—would actually hurt a business more than help.
Those who opened, however, gave their own reasons for why they unlocked those doors and let people inside—or on the patio. Chief among them: Those restaurants need the cash influx.
"We're in a tough spot," says chef Jacklyn Pham of her family-run businesses Saigon Pagolac and Jasmine Asian Cuisine. "I haven't gotten any government funding ... it's been a month already and I haven't heard back. We are worried."
So what was it like this weekend, when people were able to first mingle around a restaurant? We asked two local restaurant operators.
Less than 10 parties visited the popular Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown on Friday, though customers also ordered takeout, which is ongoing.
"We were just happy to be open and see people come in," Pham says. "It's slow, but we're just happy to be there."
Along with keeping tables six feet apart, Saigon Pagolac is serving food on their standard plates with regular silverware, though the chopsticks and menus are disposable. Workers are wearing masks and gloves, and changing them routinely, Pham says.
The restaurant, along with its sister spot Jasmine, was going to open as soon as restaurant operators got the go-ahead, says Pham, because financially there was little option otherwise. Even then, what limited business the restaurants now have don't make much of a difference.
"We cannot survive with just this 25 percent capacity," says Pham, who adds Chinatown is still relatively empty despite the executive order. Even people in the community aren't coming out. "Even though (Gov. Abbott) said 50 percent of people can come soon, they aren't coming in. I think it'll take people several months before they think it's safe to return."
Can they hold out until then?
"I don't know," Pham says. "I don't know about that. If it's still 10 tables a night and a few orders, I don't think so."
With multiple locations across the Houston area, Dish Society is one of the more popular food-and-drink brands around, serving casual neighborhood fare in a convivial, informal atmosphere. When Gov. Abbott announced his executive order last week, the team running the brand immediately met to discuss their options.
"There were people that felt strongly that we should open, and some that felt pretty strongly that we shouldn't open," says Aaron Lyons, founder and CEO of Dish Society. "We polled our staff well beforehand, too, and ultimately we decided it didn't make sense to open the dining room, from a comfort and staff perspective, but all our locations have really nice patios and the weather was going to be really nice. So we decided to just treat it like an enhanced to-go feature."
That meant guests would head to a patio table where they'd order on their phones via a QR code. After ordering, their food and drinks would come out in take-out packaging, but they could eat and drink out on the patio. Staff members wearing masks stood on the patio ready to answer any questions.
On Friday, the restaurants were relatively slow, but business picked up Saturday, and on Sunday, locations were quite busy. While the enhanced to-go nature of service over the weekend impressed most guests, Lyons says there were protests from folks who wanted more than what Dish Society wanted to do.
For instance, Lyons says more than a few diners were upset they couldn't eat inside, or that they couldn't eat on standard flatware and with standard silverware, or that there wasn't traditional table service. Some guests, Lyons says, were frustrated with the QR codes. For example, one party ordered food for one of Dish Society's other locations.
"I was at the Katy location going table to table, and I asked a couple ladies if they needed any help," Lyons says. "One said, 'I'm not going to push a bunch of buttons, just bring me a mimosa.'"
Lyons says in those instances, staff would just quickly make a mimosa. But those issues were the minority of what was mostly a trial period for a restaurant brand figuring out how to work through this ever-changing present.
"We're just trying to serve guests the way they want to be served while also asking them to put our staff's safety into consideration," Lyons says. "We're just trying to find ways to please both."
For now, Dish Society is going to play this game by ear. Lyons says the brand was already planning to run with a limited-capacity dining room through May and into June, but whatever happens will come down to a combination of what comes from Austin, how confident and comfortable his team feels, and whether conditions are right to get closer to whatever normal is.
"Some of these things will be permanent forever," Lyons says. "Twenty years from now, restaurants are going to be doing things they hadn't done before. It's just a matter of safety and comfort."