Restauranteurs See More Business as Texas Reopens

Many eateries stick with mask mandates and capacity limits as they welcome customers back.

March 16, 2021

Restaurant Tables

AUSTIN, Texas—Like other businesses during the pandemic, Texas foodservice operators have struggled to stay afloat, introducing food takeout, pickup and delivery services as dining rooms closed in accordance with state mandates, reports CNN. Now, they’re walking a tricky road as they determine which precautions they will keep and which ones will go.

As reported in NACS Daily last week, those operators were given the chance to return to normal after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott eliminated the state's mask mandate and reopened the state to allow businesses to operate at 100% capacity.

Mike Nguyen’s San Antonio restaurant, Noodle Tree, was vandalized after he appeared in the local media criticizing the governor’s decision to lift the mask mandate. On Sunday morning, he discovered that vandals had written racist messages in red spray paint on the building. Local police are investigating the incident.

"Honestly, to me it's a piece of cloth that goes over your face," he said. "I don't understand why they took it this far, but I guess they wanted to send a message that masks are ridiculous or whatever."

Despite the incident, weekend operations at Noodle Tree went well. Nguyen continues to require masks for customers unless they're seated at their tables and is maintaining the dining room at 60-70% capacity. Nguyen told CNN that people had been approaching the business throughout the morning to help clean up, and "I'm very humbled," he said. "But I'm not surprised. This is what we do as Texans, this is what we do as San Antonians—we help each other out."

Chef Nicola Blaque owns two San Antonio restaurants. Mi Roti is in a food hall where the property manages COVID-19 restrictions. That means no indoor dining and masks for everyone. Despite the restrictions, Saturday’s business was "really, really good," she said. "And we didn't have any backlash or anybody not following the rules."

Her second restaurant, The Jerk Shack, has outdoor dining, and weekend business was largely the same as it has been during the pandemic. Following the governor's announcement, Blaque gave customers the option of wearing masks—a decision that earned her a couple of one-star reviews from customers who were upset she wasn't requiring them. Blaque said the decision was made for her employees’ safety.

For months, the Riel restaurant in Houston followed all COVID-19 safety requirements. Chef and partner Ryan Lachaine said the dining area has been scrubbed down so many times that the varnish is coming off some of the seats. When given the first chance in a year to open at 100% capacity, Lachaine and his business partners made the tough decision to remain at 50% capacity.

This past weekend, Riel was still operating with masks as a must. The decision to remain at half capacity and require masks resulted in the business seeing the same amount of traffic it had been before. "It was pretty much a regular Friday and Saturday night for us," he said, adding that with reduced occupancy, the restaurant was as busy as it could be.

Lachaine compared running the restaurant during a pandemic to walking a tightrope, balancing the desire to bring in revenue with prioritizing employee safety. "You can't have one without the other," he said. "If I don't have any staff because they're sick or scared to go to work, I can't produce food for people who come in. If I don't have patrons eating, I can't pay my staff."

Lachaine wants to return to 100% capacity, but he said he’ll wait until his employees are fully vaccinated.

Arnaldo Richards, owner of Pico's Restaurant in Houston, opened his business to 70% capacity and said, "business has been incredible," after 12 months of operating at a loss.

Richards, whose restaurant and employees received threats after he announced customers would still have to wear masks, believes the rise in business was due to community support, not relaxed COVID-19 restrictions. "Sales have increased tremendously," Richards said. "We've had people coming in and saying, ‘I saw this on social media’ or ‘I saw this thing on TV and we're here to support you,’" he said.

Overall, Richards and others are optimistic about the future, based on how members of the community have reacted since Abbott's order went into effect. It’s “really not making people go out and be irresponsible," Richards said. “Because after 12 months you should know how to protect yourself."

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