Houston’s Meals Halls face specific challenges in welcoming diners

Texas Governor Greg Abbott allowed the state’s restaurants to reopen their dining rooms on May 1, but it took a little longer for Houston’s dining rooms to prepare to welcome diners again.

Downtown Finn Hall, home to nine restaurants and two bars, faces particular challenges when it comes to meeting the guidelines the state and Centers for Disease Control have put in place to prevent the spread of the disease Contain coronavirus. One of those challenges is the fact that each of the restaurants operates independently: with Finn Hall reopening today, only four of its restaurants – Craft Burger, Lit Chicken, Odd Ball Eats and Pizza Zquare – will be served.

Finn Hall’s culinary director David Bührer says the court is reopening to keep its vendors in business. “As the operator of a food hall, we have to look at the ability of small businesses to make their own decisions,” explains Bührer. “As the operator, we try to create a safe environment and comply with state regulations.”

These efforts include sourcing biodegradable materials to reduce the waste of disposable cutlery and packaging. Limitation of table seating; Installation of hand disinfection stations; and stationing staff at the entrance to open doors for users to reduce contact with “touch sensitive” surfaces such as doorknobs, which are most likely to spread the coronavirus.

In addition, Finn Hall vendors who have chosen not to reopen will not be charged rent. “Internally, these are the discussions that we had,” says Bührer. “We have a percentage wage rate anyway. So if they choose not to open then they don’t have to pay rent, and that’s fine. Let them choose. Because of the language and the rental agreement, it really is an easy conversation whether they decide to open up or not. “

At the Underground Hall, founder Daut Elshani said he had started preparations for the reopening as soon as Governor Abbott made the announcement on April 27th. With the exception of Crisp, whose owners will be closing the store, some of the Underground Hall’s vendors have already delivered and taken out the pizzeria Underground Hall’s outpost to focus on their main location on the heights.

The first day of business was busier than expected, says Elshani. He has decided to limit the underground hall’s capacity to 20 percent, a tighter restriction than the state’s recommendations. The hall has also put up signs warning guests not to enter if they want to “visit elderly grandparents or other immunocompromised people” and installed glove disposal and hand sanitizing stations.

The biggest challenge for Underground Hall so far has been to re-staff the restaurants, mostly because some staff have to stay at home for various reasons, including lack of childcare. “Quite a few of them are still worried about getting back to work, and some really want to get back to work,” says Elshani.

The Bravery Chef Hall is even more dramatic in the city center. Although the room is once again dining on-site in the outdoor seating areas, guests must order and pay over their phones and are only allowed to enter the building to use the toilet. Customers wishing to enter must wear masks and have their temperature checked before entering.

Only one of the largest grocery halls in Houston has decided to remain completely closed: Politan Row, the Rice Village food hall that opened in November 2019, isn’t even open for takeout or delivery. “We are determined to do all we can to help our employees, suppliers and the wider community,” states the Politan Row website. “That means accommodating the best for the general public while making sure our guests are full, happy and safe.”

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