In May during the buildout of their first restaurant, Bludorn, Aaron and Victoria Bludorn took a good long look at the space they were going to use for an herb garden and decided, "Well, forget it."
"We decided it made more sense to put down more pavers and add tables here," chef-owner Aaron Bludorn says. During that early-phase construction, "it's 'How are we gonna be sustainable as a business and be a contributor to the community?'"
These are the things that Bludorn and other restaurants in Houston have be considering as they open their doors for the first time ever or just for the first time in months. They're all adjusting in to the lingering presence of Covid-19, part of a case study for what dining out looks like in a different world. Some have implemented more permanent changes based on the pandemic, such as Bludorn's expanded patio space, while other restaurants are simply operating with CDC guidelines in place. Every joint is a little different, but ultimately, there's no way to know how the future will play out for them.
Bludorn, opening Friday with 212 seats and located at the former Pass & Provisions space in the Fourth Ward, is likely the most Covid-influenced of Houston's newest operations. Along with increasing outdoor seating, the team is opening the restaurant with Plexiglas barriers between tables; more glass separating two banquettes; and a clear, plastic barrier that can be collapsed and adjusted as needed.
"They blend in well with the restaurant," says Victoria Bludorn. "Some of them hang from black chains that go with the aesthetic. I can see right through them clearly."
Then there's hiring and staffing. After an online application and call-back process, Aaron Bludorn interviewed potential candidates through a partition inside the restaurant. If a candidate entered the building without wearing a mask, they were dismissed immediately.
"I wasn't interested in having them in the kitchen if they weren't going to be safe in an interview," says Bludorn.
Employees fill out surveys and their temperature is checked daily. There are sanitation stations, hand sanitizer given out during hot towel service, and drink toppers are placed on glasses after they're sanitized and put away. And takeout service will be available from day one; down the line, there might be meal kits too.
"There have been opportunities for us to get creative during this," says Victoria. Adds Aaron, "The greatest thing we have on our side is no one has ever done things in this restaurant, so we've been able to set our own rules here. We don't know any other way."
Rosie Cannonball has been around for nearly a year as one of Houston's most thoughtful and exciting restaurants. Its Goodnight Hospitality partners were deliberately hesitant to re-open Rosie's dining room once restaurants were given the go-ahead, but once they did, they realized they could try new things.
Specifically, they had the room to try new things because Goodnight Hospitality's honky-tonk bar Goodnight Charlie's was closed next door, essentially growing figurative cobwebs. What resulted was an outdoor-based dining operation at the Charlie's patio and under the Rosie Cannonball name called the Spritz Patio. Here, a Rosie-adjacent menu of Mediterranean mezes, breads, and a few larger dishes is paired with refreshing and summer-friendly drinks.
Masked guests check in with a QR code and agree to receive a notification if during their visit someone at the patio is determined to be sick. Then they're shepherded to a patio table—some are under umbrellas, while others are beneath Charlie's giant outdoor ceiling fan.
The Spritz Patio started a month ago and has proved a success for the Montrose-based hospitality group.
"We're open to everything," says June Rodil, master sommelier and partner at Goodnight Hospitality. "It's unknown what's going to happen to Goodnight Charlie's, but the building is beautiful, and we've kept the staff from Charlie's to integrate them with the Rosie's team. ... We gotta keep all of our options and abilities to adapt ready to go."
In recent days the Spritz Patio received a minor facelift with a little bit of paint. Even on a recent 100-degree day, the space was cheerful and filled with socially distant guests picking at fritto mistos and drinking Negronis and boozy smoothies.
Rodil says the patio will continue as long as the team feels it should, and that could be a while. She and executive chef/partner Felipe Riccio have even joked about changing it up when the weather cools.
"Once the weather turns maybe it becomes an Alpine Northern Italian ski lodge," says Rodil. "I can see Felipe's brain implode."
Learning as they go
Ronnie Killen runs multiple restaurants in the Houston area, and this week he opened Killen's, his long-awaited Heights comfort food concept. His process for this one has been a little different. For one, his opening staff at Killen's has come from his other locations, so there's an assumed expectation as to what policies they should follow. What's more, the restaurateur and James Beard award-nominated chef had a plan in place for more than a year.
Originally he wanted to open Killen's in mid-2019, but the restaurateur had setbacks at the former Hickory Hollow property, primarily regarding city permits. "It's just a work in progress, but I'm happy to be open," he says. "I expected to spend $300,000–400,000 but I went on to spend $1.7 million."
Because of this, Killen's Covid-19 response looks more like what folks are seeing in established restaurants across Houston. At a friends-and-family night before officially opening, Killen and his team all wore face masks, kept hand sanitizer by the door, and used paper menus. Plus, tables were arranged so that no two parties were less than six feet from one another. There are no banquettes that need to be separated by Plexiglas, just four-tops spread out over the dining room.
There also are added behind-the-scenes moves Killen has made to ensure the safety of diners and staff members. For instance, along with daily temperature checks, employees are tested for Covid-19 every two weeks. That's a deep-pocket expense, but he says it's one of the checks he can count on as the new concept gets off the ground.
"It's hard to babysit our staff," says Killen. "But I'm checking their temperature when they come in and it's, 'Okay, do the right thing.'"
Killen says he contracted Covid-19 at the end of February, and he believes it stems from his time at the Houston Live Show and Rodeo BBQ Cookoff. He knows from that experience that nothing is guaranteed when opening during a pandemic, so he's staying diligent while considering small additions or changes to the 178-seat restaurant once it gets settled, all in response to what customers want. For example, he'd like to install a patio out back.
"Maybe it's something we can add on later, but we just ran out of time," Killen says.
Time, however, is what really will dictate how restaurants all over Houston proceed as the coronavirus continues to loom overhead, but that at least is something the industry's used to. Restaurants have been fighting time forever, and employees are nothing if not willing to adapt. If things don't work as well at first, you'll undoubtedly see changes. At the end of the day, the operators need to just open and run their restaurants.