Restaurant, business and church leaders reflect on year of COVID-19

In the past year, COVID-19 took the lives of over 5,000 people in Harris County, rendered tens of thousands unemployed, shuttered some businesses permanently, and shook even the most tightly knit and well-resourced neighborhoods.

The experience has redefined how businesses run, how people interact and how a community comes together.

For the anniversary of the pandemic reaching Houston, Community Impact Newspaper spoke with business and community leaders to learn how they adapted and what they hope for the future.

Daniel Caballero, Good Dog

Good Dog owners Daniel Caballero and Amalia Pferd entered 2021 finding silver linings.

“Sometimes we just look at each other and breathe a sigh of relief. We made it,” Caballero said.

On March 25, 2020, a date Caballero said is “burned in his memory,” he and Pferd began figuring out how to sustain their two locations. When the lease was up on their Montrose location at 1312 W. Alabama St., the couple decided to close it down Oct. 31.

“It was a bummer. ... The second one, we designed it more, and we put so much more into it,” Caballero said.

Over the past few months, however, Caballero said he and Pferd have enjoyed putting their focus on the original Heights location as well as reviving the food truck.

Meanwhile, they look forward to the day they will open a second location again.

“We hit our 10-year anniversary in March,” Caballero said. “We’re just super happy and proud that we’re still kicking.”

Kimico Frydenlund, Mico’s Hot Chicken

The food truck opened its brick-and-mortar location just as the pandemic hit. While initial fears kept some customers at bay, the business only thrived.

“We were already looked at as a takeout option, being a food truck,” owner Kimico Frydenlund said. “That’s what everyone was looking for at that time.”

Plans to build out a small dine-in area were scrapped; instead, Mico’s doubled the size of the kitchen and took advantage of its generous patio as socially distant lines took up more space. The business was so busy that it stopped taking online orders, and layoffs were never an option. In fact, Frydenlund and her husband, Chris, are now hiring more people as they search for their next location.

When restaurants closed, workers were easier to come by, but it is now becoming more of a challenge.

“We’re vetting people really close because it’s something that will make or break your team,” she said. “It’s not as easy as it looks.”

A former nurse, Frydenlund said she is grateful for being spared the worst of the pandemic.

“We closed once because we had a case with our staff and got everyone tested, and we were always being careful,” she said. “We weren’t hit as hard as many others, fortunately.”

Roberto Diaz, La Guadalupana

Roberto Diaz said he always treats his customers as friends. When the pandemic hit, he said those relationships kept his bakery and restaurant, La Guadalupana, afloat.

One customer connected him to a nonprofit, Feeding the Frontlines, which paid him to supply 130 meals per week for workers at Memorial Hermann. Another dropped off a $200 check, and other regulars left $100 tips once or sometimes twice per week. In January, when the restaurant’s prospects were looking brighter, Diaz found an opportunity to pay his good fortune forward. Violinist Steven McWilliams came into the restaurant asking to play for tips outside and soon became a regular as well, playing anything from Lady Gaga to Michael Jackson.

“He was going through hard times and asked to play the violin on the patio on weekends. ... I said, ‘Go ahead,’” Diaz said. “And he’s been a hit.”

As more customers begin returning in person, Diaz said he is looking forward to fostering relationships.

“When I talk to them, I let them know, ‘We’re still here today because you supported us in one way or another,’” he said.

Li Luong, Teaspresso Bar

This year, Li Luong lost one of her favorite aspects of her Heights tea shop, Teaspresso Bar.“For a long time, every table would be filled with students or people playing board games,” she said. “That was my vision, and then it got taken away.”

The guidelines on COVID-19 safety requirements for restaurants, however, have not swayed her decision making, she said.

“The rule of thumb we’ve been keeping is, ‘What is the highest possible standard we can hold ourselves to?’” Luong said.

Although she now relies on to-go orders, Luong found a way to breathe some life into the dining area. In January, Luong began inviting local vendors to pop-up events in her shop twice a month. Customers coming to pick up tea, coffee or smoothies in person can browse succulents, cakes and other wares.

“It’s just been so nice to support other local businesses, and at the same time, we’re both benefiting from it,” she said.

Despite her success keeping the business afloat and help from the Paycheck Protection Program, Luong faces the added challenge of worrying about the year’s rise in anti-Asian racism.

“I’ve been keeping up to date, and I do personally feel scared because I am Asian-American,” she said. “But I haven’t had any major or violent incidents at the shop, and I feel very lucky to be in the Heights.”

Dustin Teague, Relish Restaurant & Bar

Dustin Teague, co-owner of Relish Restaurant & Bar, said he stuck with strict safety measures even as it cost him business.

Holding back on reopening when restrictions were lifted in May 2020, Teague eventually began accepting guests at 50% capacity and said he plans to maintain those restrictions for now despite the state’s reopening to 100% capacity.

“It’s hard when you’re turning people away and you know other restaurants aren’t doing the same,” he said. “But we see this as a test of how we can make our employees and customers feel safe, and they will remember that.”

Although the restaurant saw a dip in revenue of as much as 43% in 2020, Teague said he credited two Paycheck Protection Plan loans, the restaurant’s location in affluent River Oaks and the loyalty of frequent customers for keeping him afloat.

“Our employees are our biggest asset,” he said. “The PPP loan kept us from having to can almost all of them.”

Entering its fourth year in business, Teague said Relish had the advantage of an established customer base and business stability heading into the pandemic. After suffering 2020’s setbacks, he is seeing the restaurant staying just below pace of its 2019 revenue and hopes it will experience an influx over the summer. The restaurant’s lease is up in September, and Teague said he is doing as much as possible to rebuild the business before potentially facing a rent hike, but he remains optimistic.

“We’re a family-run restaurant, and I think no matter what that’s been the coolest part about this,” Teague said. “No one turned and ran. We stared it right in the eye and said, ‘Let’s do what we have to do.’”

Jason Gawlik, Bellaire Shoe Repair

While businesses closed down around him in 2020, Bellaire Shoe Repair owner Jason Gawlik was in the midst of an expansion.

Gawlik and his team were looking to build out a consignment store in a vacated space next door.

“We fearlessly took on a new endeavor that was locally driven, community oriented, and it was like a call to fill in a niche that, based on our customer base from shoe repair, we wanted it to be another kind of offering,” Gawlik said.

Bellaire Shoe Repair was able to take on the risk because the industry has always remained resistant to economic recessions; as Gawlik pointed out, some customers spend less on new shoes and more on repairing what they have when times get tough.

“When the market was crashing and shrinking, we were inelastic,” Gawlik said. “Our demand didn’t decrease, but it increased.”

The shoe repair shop succeeded and March 20 hosted a celebration officially commemorating the new expansion, offering a boutique, haberdashery and emporium.

As the shop looks forward, its team wants to serve as a community hub and help support local businesses that may be struggling.

“We’ve worked hard; we’ve been through a lot emotionally, but we’re excited about what’s in front of us,” Gawlik said.

Kim McHugh, McHugh Tea Room & Gifts

The owner of Bellaire’s McHugh Tea Room & Gifts and the True Leaves Tea Co. has been rolling with the pandemic’s punches.

“Revenue cannot be the same because we haven’t been able to serve the same,” Kim McHugh said. “Every business I know is in that same boat of catching up and just creating new things.”

The tea room added new take-home casseroles, family-style offerings, a catering business and a to-go afternoon tea kit to its repertoire.

“We have never heard of a tea room ever producing an afternoon tea experience to take on the road or have in a park or a treehouse—which someone literally did that,” McHugh said.

Meanwhile, McHugh and her staff redesigned the website for True Leaves Tea Co., which sells tea in bulk. With online sales up, the company also began offering virtual tea tasting events as companies sought new ways to keep employees engaged.

The tea room has also managed to stay afloat through the generosity of its customers.

“I had a local doctor—a super wonderful man—purchase $1,000 in gift cards from us to make sure we stayed open,” McHugh said. “It’s like, ‘God, what an amazing community we have.’”

Aj Coffee, Rice Village

Aj Coffee’s first concern amid the early business shutdowns was how locally owned retailers and restaurants would survive.

“The initial concern was losing mom and pop stores, but then next thing you know, national stores are closing,” said Coffee, a senior general manager for REIS Associates, which manages the Rice Management Co.’s holdings in Rice Village.

Rice Village has endured the economic downturn caused by the pandemic in part because of strong leasing activity. Of the 14 new businesses in negotiations with Rice Village prepandemic, only one chose not to come, Coffee said.

“I think the reason for that is because we are an outdoor village,” she said. “It’s not a mall, where you have hundreds or thousands of customers just walking up and down passing you.”

Some businesses in Rice Village saw their revenues drop as much as 80% during the pandemic, but many are now seeing sales slowly recover, although they still remain below what would be expected, she said.

Meanwhile, Rice Village also launched a new farmers market in December on the first and third Sundays of every month.

However, even with the recent successes, the next several months are difficult to predict.

“The question is if we will get a surge again post-spring break,” Coffee said. “If we don’t, we have two big holidays, Memorial Day and Fourth of July. Once we hit the Fourth of July, we’ll have a sense of where things will stand.”

Guy Streatfeild, British Isles

British Isles pivoted to curbside and deliveries amid the March 2020 shutdown orders, but this practice extended into September.

“That was just enough to get us kicking over, but only just,” Streatfeild said. “It was difficult, but we survived.”

During that period, British Isles pushed social media and internet sales like never before and cut positions to make ends meet.

“We did everything we could to become leaner, meaner, and more efficient,” Streatfeild said.

December, however, marked a turning point.

“We had a good Christmas season,” Streatfeild said. “The community was glad to have an option that reminded them of something British or Irish. It was gratifying that they were so encouraging.”

Meanwhile, optimism seems to have survived.

“It isn’t over yet, but people know what to expect, know how to care for each other, what’s in store,” Streatfeild said. “People are pretty confident that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Benjy Levit, Local Foods

During the most strict lockdowns, restaurants could not operate, but grocery stores could. So more than a few restaurants became bodegas, offering supplies at a time when essentials were flying off store shelves.

For Local Foods owner Benjy Levit, whose family used to be in the grocery business, the marketplace concept is now a permanent fixture.

“The neighborhood appreciates it,” he said. “I see people walk and bike to us for their everyday needs as well as those more foodie destination products that we offer.”

By leaning into the markets, emphasizing flexibility and spreading tips equitably, Levit said he retained all 150 employees despite closing two full-service restaurants—Benjy’s next door to Local Foods in Rice Village and The Classic in the Rice Military area—a decision he said was a health-focused choice, not financial.

“To operate a full-service restaurant over the past year where you have more customer-guest interaction was concerning,” he said.

The team is more coordinated than ever before, and even the relationship with customers and the community has a new light to it, he said.

“It feels like we’ve endured something together and come out stronger,” Levit said. “There’s this empathy and understanding in our community and customers that really wasn’t there a year ago. That might be pie in the sky, but it feels real. I hope that feeling can last.”

Jason Plotkin, Congregation Emanu El

Jason Plotkin, the program director for Congregation Emanu El, is coordinating with the leadership of the 1,650-family synagogue on its gradual reopening and programming plans.

The synagogue developed a four-phase reopening plan, guided by a series of COVID-19 metrics including the positivity rates, the effective reproduction rate and new hospitalizations.

At Phase 3 in mid-March, worship in the sanctuary was allowed with social distancing; attendance was limited for Friday night Shabbat worship; and families began to have the option to invite more guests to special services.

Programming for both in-person and online audiences proved to be a challenge, and the planning horizon also got much shorter, he said.

“Now we’re being flexible and scheduling a month or two in advance versus having the whole program year already set,” Plotkin said.

Junfeng Tan, Faith Lutheran Church

Junfeng Tan, associate pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, who has helped lead its Chinese fellowship group since 2013, has seen only positivity and acceptance from the church community since the pandemic hit Houston.

While the church has been streaming services, the Chinese fellowship, with 20 households, conducts weekly services and Bible studies through Zoom.

Travel restrictions have imposed challenges, however.

“The Chinese members are not able to travel to China to visit their families,” Tan said. “That’s a big loss. But also their families are not able to come to the United States to visit their families in Houston.”In addition, family events such as the Chinese New Year, which the Chinese Fellowship typically celebrates with 400-500 people, was canceled in 2020 and 2021.

Fortunately, members have not had to face anti-Asian racism, he said.

“We feel blessed,” Tan said. “However, even though we haven’t seen that nor experienced that, that’s a concern for the Chinese community.”