Houston's restaurants have had a rough go of it the last couple of months. In good times, it's a tough industry to make it in, one that's fraught with high turnover and slim profit margins. But life during the coronavirus pandemic has brought even that frenetic and uncertain way of life to a halt.
Since Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered restaurants and bars to close on March 16, we've covered everything, from the challenges restaurants and breweries have faced to how organizations, such as Woodlands Area Foodies Helps and the Southern Smoke Foundation, have stepped up to help to industry reactions once Gov. Greg Abbott finally allowed restaurants to reopen.
Through it all, we've striven to show the human face behind it all. So we asked photographer Marco Torres to reach out to five members of Houston's 300,000-strong restaurant and hospitality industry to see how they're doing.
Chef and owner of Cochinita & Co.
"I started Cochinita four years ago doing pop-ups under a tent," Victoria Elizondo says. "I finally found a home at Politan Row, but now that's on hold until further notice. There's definitely insecurity about the future, but I'm still thankful that I have a roof over my head, plenty of food, and surrounded by family."
Being a small business owner is often a 24/7 job with little time off, Elizondo says. This downtime has given her a time to access her mental and physical health, as well as take care of pending family obligations. She is also working with Fare For Care, a Rice Village District campaign to provide meals for E.R. and critical care teams in the Texas Medical Center.
Pitmaster Joseph Quellar has been growing his BBQ business since 2017, hosting pop ups at local breweries and participating in BBQ festivals, as well as private catering. After all of those opportunities closed, he had to quickly build a website and transition to online pre-orders and pick-up. When he opened his online ordering form, he sold 200-plus birria tacos in less than 24 hours.
"Life has changed. Business has changed. But this isn't the worse situation ever," Quellar says. "Anyone who grew up poor like myself has suffered through much worse. I just hope this leads to a little more compassion from others who are just now going through these hardships."
Quellar says he cherishes this time because he has been able to spend a lot more time bonding with his 5-year-old daughter Penny. He is also using this time to improve his tortillas and his chili gravy for enchiladas.
Ashlie Eubanks is a bartender at PJ's Sports Bar and AvantGarden and has more than a decade's worth of industry experience. Eubanks, who was five months pregnant with her first child at the time this photo was taken, is currently working with Grab Bag Masks, a new company making masks to meet the increased demand caused by this crisis. "I'm trying to stay positive and take all the precautions necessary,” she says. “I'm making masks that could potentially save a life, all while I'm carrying a life. It’s going to be an awesome story to tell my child one day."
Owner, operator, and cook at Alfreda's Soul Food
Because of the crisis, Troy Williams has had to temporarily reduce his restaurant staff from 15 people to only three. Even so, he says he's grateful that they are still able to provide delicious, quality meals to the Third Ward community.
"It takes determination and lots of tough decisions. Long days, short nights, no days off," he says. "This is a time of reflection and prayer, placing priority on both physical health and financial health."
The situation has forced Williams to do a lot of learning on both the business side and the customer side to navigate this new reality. He says he is staying positive and patient with the customers, and he is focusing on being grateful for what is going right in such a challenging time.
"Very emotional and exhausting time, but at the end of the day, but we're still open, the lights are on, and bills are paid. It's a blessing,” he says. "Coffee helps!"
Owner of Mala Sichuan Bistro
Chinese Americans understood the severity of this virus from the very beginning, and were amongst the first to practice quarantine and social distancing, Cori Xiong says. However, she says her business, Mala Sichuan Bistro, which has three locations in the Houston area, has suffered from more than just a loss in business from the shut-down.
"Its a difficult time for Chinese Americans and Chinese businesses,” Xiong says. “It can be hard to deal with the verbal and physical abuse associated with this virus."
Xiong tries to remain calm and rational about this whole situation, keeping up to date with the facts and trying to steer clear of the sensationalism of the news media and social media.
She says she is happy to maintain a strong relationship with her business partners while her company tries to assess the current situation and plan for future. She’s hoping that making smart decisions, such as upgrading technology to online ordering and touchless payment systems, will help them survive. "Previous to this, my plan was to retire early, and now that probably is no longer possible," she says.