At the start of 2020, Julio Garcia—founder of Ambriza Social Mexican Kitchen with his wife Amber—was looking forward to the first few weeks of May as what he thought would be the busiest time of the year for his restaurants, with Cinco de Mayo and Mother's Day taking place back-to-back.
The Ambriza location at the Boardwalk at Towne Lake still ended up getting booked for both of those events, Garcia said, but due to statewide limitations put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, they were only booked at 25% capacity.
"For us, this week is supposed to be a huge week," Garcia said. "This is supposed to be by far the busiest week of the year."
Ambriza was able to reopen for dine-in service under statewide guidelines that went into effect May 1. Previously, restaurants across Texas were only allowed to provide to-go and delivery services. Some Houston-area restaurants have opted to keep their dining rooms closed, but for Garcia, the opportunity to reopen them was well-received.
"The majority of our business has always been dining in," he said. "Although the guests were very supportive through carry-out and delivery, dining is huge. Those first three days, sales doubled from the week before."
As public health officials in Harris County continue to confirm new coronavirus cases every day, Garcia said he and his staff are doing everything they can to enforce social distancing and keep the eatery sanitized, an effort that involves taking the temperature of all guests before they enter and hiring a "sanitizer" whose sole job is to go around the restaurant and keep surfaces that customers interact with sanitized.
Garcia was one of several Cy-Fair area restaurant owners who said he should be able to keep his doors open through the duration of the pandemic, even if it means staying at 25% capacity. Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hinted that restaurants at some point will be able to expand capacity to 50%, Garcia said separate guidelines that require six feet of distance between tables would render that expansion irrelevant at Ambriza.
"I think that for a lot of restaurants, even if you allow 50% of your dining room to be open, you still cannot safely seat 50% of it," he said.
For Joe Duong, owner of The Shack Burger Resort on Cypress Rosehill Road in Cypress, space is not an issue. With an indoor seating area, large outdoor patio and additional seating along the side of the venue, Duong said there is plenty of space for people to spread out.
However, Duong cited another challenge for restaurants trying to reopen: many customers still do not feel safe eating out.
"It’s not up to me; it’s all about the customer and what they want to do," said Duong, who said sales have increased by about 10% since he reopened his dining room May 1. "I think, as we go, we’ll get more people coming in knowing we are doing our best to keep everything sanitized and safe for everybody."
Because he owns the land, Duong said he thinks The Shack will be able to survive the pandemic. Many staff members had to have their hours cut, but Duong said he increased pay for wait staff who normally rely on tips.
"We’re just trying to hang in there and be positive," he said. "We’re part of the community, so whatever we have to do to make it happen, we’re going to do it."
Andy Correa, owner of Andy's Kitchen on Mason Road in Cypress, is one of the restaurateurs who has opted to stick with delivery service and curbside pickup. Due to the size of his restaurant, Correa said he thought it would be best to keep the dining room closed for now.
"It's a smaller space, and we wanted to be able to respect the fact that we would be having people in an out [for pick-up]," he said.
Correa said his sales numbers have taken a hit, particularly because catering was always a big part of his model, and catering jobs have dried up during the pandemic. However, he said the support from the Cypress community has put him in a decent position.
"It’s basically just going to be more of a due diligence type of thing for us, with the sanitizing and the cleaning," he said. "With the response we’ve had with our community coming in and supporting us, we have no doubt that well be fine."
Cypress restaurateurs talk reopening, future outlook, as new rules go into effect
At Ambriza Social Mexican Kitchen, where tables overlook the water at the Boardwalk at Towne Lake, the ability to reopen for dine-in service has been well-received. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)