Weeks into the phased reopening of Texas, some bars and restaurants in The Woodlands area are working to recover from the loss of regular business and income caused by shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic while moving forward with reopening.

Capacity limits for eateries and watering holes across the state remain at 50%, up from the initial 25% cap set by Gov. Greg Abbott during his first reopening phase in early May, while the capacity limit for restaurants will increase to 75% June 12. Some owners said a sense of normalcy is beginning to return in their daily operations. Still, the losses incurred this spring and the possibility of another spike in COVID-19 cases leave an uncertain future ahead for the remainder of this year.

“For all restaurants, the profit that we were going to make this year is gone for the rest of the year. We’ve already written off 2020,” said Andrew Neidert, owner of Tapped DraftHouse & Kitchen of Conroe and Spring. “It’s going to take us the rest of the year to recoup what we lost in the last three months.”

Business returns

Neidert said the first full month of closures was especially hard for Tapped, which offered to-go and curbside orders over limited hours while dine-in services were prohibited. While it was not profitable, he said he kept the bar and restaurant operating for its supportive customers and maintained some income for his staff.

“April was brutal. If we had to go through two or three more Aprils, speaking for us I don’t know that we’d still be here today,” he said. “To-go is not a viable substitute by any means, but it allowed us to stay open and keep people employed.”

Brian Corder, owner of The Draft Sports Bar and Grill on FM 1488, said he attempted a similar transition to to-go ordering while his doors were closed but was not able to justify the costs of such limited operation—although he also was able to keep his workforce employed through the partial closure. Since reopening, Corder credited many customers who showed up specifically to support local businesses such as The Draft, although he said business is still well below regular levels.

“People want to go out, but all they hear on the news is you’re supposed to stay home. So it’s kind of difficult,” he said. “The business is not designed to work at 25%. We’re at 50% right now, and it’s much better, but it’s still the same thing; we’re not able to pay the bills. It does seem that everything will get back to normal as soon as the government says it’s OK, that’s the feel, but until then we’re losing money.”

The Blue Lion Pub, which celebrated its grand opening in The Woodlands just days before the first coronavirus-related orders were signed in Montgomery County, was forced to scrap initial plans for food service offerings during the shutdown given its lack of an established menu. Owner Wesley Cordova said the new pub’s finances were almost exhausted by the time reopening began, despite a successful initial launch in early March, although business has gradually ramped back up again into June.

“By the time we were reopening we had $15 left in the bank,” Cordova said. “It’s been a challenge, but it’s a good challenge, a good problem to have. I’d rather do that than sit at home and worry.”

Todd Hayden, owner of Hop Scholar Ale House in Spring, said he understood the need for the widespread closures but that the shutdown period was the most stressful and uncertain time he has experienced with the bar.

“We consider ourself a community space, a community bar, and we have to shut down for the safety of the community,” he said. “Whether you want to or not, I think it was the right thing, but you feel that you’re going to go out of business. And I know other bars that have gone out of business. It depends on where you were in your cycle.”

Adjusting operations

Capacity restrictions remain in place at bars and restaurants throughout the state, along with several sanitary guidelines for restaurant staff and customers. Gregg Harper, general manager of The Westin at The Woodlands hotel housing both Sorriso Modern Italian Kitchen and Como Social Club, said standards at both venues have changed slightly as staff and customers adapt to new standards in social settings.

“New capacity limits called for some restructuring of menus and workflow, all of which are part of our everyday lives now. ... No handshakes or hugs, but now we smile even larger to convey our welcome; but, even that gesture is covered with a mask,” Harper said in an email. “Our customers can sometimes forget about social distancing. They relax, which is what we want them to do, but we do remind them of this best practice.”

Como's live music offerings on Friday and Saturday nights have also proven popular with customers seeking a night out of the house in a social and safe environment, Harper said.

Noel Petrin, vice president of food and beverage at CRÚ Food & Wine Bar, said customers at The Woodlands eatery have continued to return after a six-week period of solely to-go sales. CRÚ reopened at Market Street on May 1.

"Business is pretty good. We saw many of our regulars on the first day of dine in service and have remained steady. We are still nowhere near last years' sales, but hope to steadily increase as we can safely service more guests," Petrin said in an email.

Neidert also credited a cast of frequent customers at Tapped for helping to restart business since May, despite sales remaining well below usual levels.

“Luckily we have a lot, a lot of regulars and a lot of people who support us. I would say that as of right now we’re still down about 25% from where we were precoronavirus, but that’s way better than what was going on in April," he said. “We’re still feeling the effects, but the reopening has gone well, and we see that people are still coming out and supporting us."

Hayden said he has several new precautions in place such as the mandated 50% capacity, extensive cleaning and the use of disposable items for every table. The more tentative mood he initially noticed among customers returning to his ale house has also grown more relaxed, and visitors remain respectful of sanitary and distancing guidelines in place.

“It was odd for people to come back out and be in a public space. People were worried, and now that we’re a couple weeks in they don’t seem so worried anymore,” he said. “It just seems like things have gone back to normal even though they’re not, but I feel like everyone’s waiting for something to spike.”

Looking ahead

At Gadela Winery, located in Creekside Park, owner Franco Knoepffler said he anticipates a full return to operations this year but has remained cautious with his facility so far. After being supported solely by customers placing delivery orders through Gadela’s closure this spring, he now plans to move slowly toward fully reopening.

“When the governor said restaurants can open at 25%, we didn’t decide to open. And when they [increased] to 50%, that’s when we decided to go 25%. ... To us, safety [is] No. 1,” Knoepffler said. “I have to keep an eye on what everybody says, and usually whenever they say, ‘You are free to go further,’ we’re just a step behind.”

Knoepffler also said he may focus more on the winery's online opportunities this year due to safety concerns and uncertainty, despite the focus on basic in-person interactions he said he typically maintains.

Corder noted that COVID-19 cases have remained lower locally than in nearby Harris County, which he said has helped bring customers back to The Draft since early May. And while the bar is following mandated attendance limits, he said many of his customers seem ready for a return toward their previous full-capacity experiences.

“With [coronavirus] not affecting people personally, the desire to get back to normal is very strong here,” he said. "It’s just the government telling us not to open. ... As soon as they say it’s OK to open completely, I think in this specific area things will go back to normal, or very close, in a short time.”

Hayden also said business at Hop Scholar is on track for a return through the rest of the year and credited Abbott and local officials for moving toward reopening this spring.

“I am expecting us to be back to normal. I don't think Houston will be back to 100% normal until there's a vaccine," he said. "I honestly don’t think politicians will close us again in Texas; I think other places might, but I don’t think Texas will, and if they do I don’t think Montgomery County will. Fortunately being north of Spring Creek helps us; we have politicians that want to keep us open."

Cordova said his customers have also been enjoying their return to a new local pub, although he is building up his savings in the event of another viral spike or potential business shutdown.

“Many of the people that would be regulars are not because they're still afraid. The people that are coming out, I think they’re going to get a dose of reality because I honestly believe the spike in cases is going to put a damper on things for a while,” he said. “I really think that there’s going to be another shock to the system in Texas.”