With Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement on Monday that bars will be allowed to reopen today at 25 percent capacity, also came the news that restaurants would be permitted to bump their capacity from 25 percent to 50. Many restaurants are adopting their own approaches, staying cautious as they play the delicate game of controlling variables in what is a complex equation. What’s clear is that even for seasoned restaurateurs, the gradual roll-out opening is like no other opening they’ve had to face.
For George Itoh at Ichigoh Ramen in Deep Ellum, opening at 25 percent capacity earlier this month helped sooth diners’ apprehension to dining out again. Regulars who had gravitated toward his takeout ramen had expressed longing for dine-in, but also fear. He allowed customers to come in “only if they called in and asked, or only friends and family,” he says, describing what in other times might be dubbed a soft opening. “We were just serving regulars and friends that we knew, in hopes that it would be a little bit more appeasing for everyone, and it kind of worked.”
The 15-seat dining room became a test case. Not insignificantly, it allowed him to control variables and build confidence. This weekend, then, they’ll ramp up, doubling to 30 seats. Itoh hasn’t asked more staff to return—it’s just him, his wife, and a minimal kitchen staff—but with the prospect of dine-in, he’s able to think about developing cold ramens for the summer.
In many ways, though, the slow rollout has also reminded Itoh of the benefits of staying small, an operation that can run on bare bones. “I’m very grateful that we didn’t open up at the scale I wanted to, which was a much bigger restaurant,” he says. (Initially, he’d set to fill out the 100-seat space left by the previous tenant, Tanoshii Ramen, a capacity he didn’t reach before the shut-down curtailed expansion.) “I realize that even moving forward in the future, smaller is probably better.” Small and scrappy, these times have taught him, may be the better fighting stance.
At Knife, for John Tesar, the concern was never occupancy, but safety. (He’s not the only one. Jon Alexis recently cofounded the COVID-19 testing business SafeWork.) For curbside, the restaurant was slow to open, making sure measures were in place. Knife was also a slow adopter of 25 percent dine-in, opening only last Friday. “We’ve gone through every safety precaution we could. We deep cleaned the entire restaurant. We tested employees. They wear masks.” All of these things had to be in place before he and the Highland hotel management felt comfortable bumping capacity up to 50 percent. The restaurant has sanitizing misters coming, of the sort used in airports, says Tesar, in addition to hand sanitizing stations. And over the weekend, a plexiglass divider shielded the bartender from patrons who could order drinks at the bar, “like a bank teller.”
“It’s been absurd,” Tesar says, “but we had a good vibe Saturday. Everyone was more than six feet apart, and the servers were wearing gloves and masks, and the customers didn’t have a problem with it. I think people just appreciate getting out of the house.”
The bump to 50 percent starting today is allowing Knife to return to dinner seven nights a week. This weekend, they will feature the full spring menu, minus the famed house charcuterie boards, which as shared and touched items, remain off-limits—too tempting as a shared-food gamble.
At Billy Can Can, ramping up staff hasn’t been an issue. “A couple of weeks ago,” says executive chef Matt Ford, “we reached back out to all of our staff, and asked, ‘Hey, we’ll be able to start bringing people back on. Who would feel comfortable?’”
Already, for the shift to 25 percent, the whimsical retro saloon had rearranged the dining room, seating stools six feet apart at the long bar (enough for five couples at a time) and pulling decorative items out of the back, like candleholders, to place on tables alongside witty cards to indicate no-sit spaces in a 38-seating dining room. Now, at 50 percent, they’ll be able to reopen a side room, seating three tables there, bringing the total to around 75 in the dining room. That will take the restaurant to capacity, as any more would mean flouting the six-foot social distancing. To keep patrons six feet apart on what became a makeshift patio once they repurposed out-of-commission tables from inside, they’ve interspersed Jim Beam barrels to extend the saloon ambiance.
Though the dine-in and takeout menus mimic one another, Ford will be able to start running features, bringing back items like the silky venison tartare as well as fresh oysters, which would be inconceivable for takeout.
But, for the staunch farm-to-table restaurant, securing top-notch seasonal provisions has been the most significant challenge so far. Numerous local farmers have pivoted to retail-only. Fishermen aren’t fishing; oyster farms are on hiatus; processing is backlogged, Ford says. And all of this means that inventory is unsteady. Or the doubling of the cost of clod heart he ground into his Billy Burgers has doubled, and he’s unwilling to charge $25 for a burger.
Ford understands the burden on suppliers, who are trying to protect themselves or are short-staffed, but this makes operations “a nightmare” in addition to the razor-thin margins for everyone. Any semblance of a steady supply chain represents a two-to-three-hour a day grind of phone calls.
Many restaurants are waiting until June to reassess reopening. Some are nervous about having their employees come off unemployment only to face refiling, if they face a dining public not quite ready to brave in-room dining.
Another thing is clear: Takeout is not going away. It is, rather, part of a new normal. “That’s the only way we’re gonna be able to grow sales without getting people in the building,” says Ford. “We’re able to bring in good revenue, but we don’t have to cram the [dining room] and make people feel unsafe.”
When I spoke with Matt McCallister early on in his curbside pickup operations (from which he will be shifting today to in-room dining), he suggested takeout was the only way many restaurants would be able to carry on through the great hiatus and hopefully reemerge without having it be like opening a whole new restaurant.
It’s not as easy as snapping your fingers, though, and having it all come back. As Ford said just before I got off the phone with him, “We’re flexing.”