Restaurant Owners Say Reopening is a Tough Choice
By Laura Laughead
Photography By Laura Laughead
HOUSTON – While restaurants across Texas can now partially reopen, owners are faced with the choice whether to let their customers come back and dine inside.
An early poll from the Texas Restaurant Association shows that restaurants are about evenly split on reopening during the first wave that started May 1.
A restaurant in Harris County, one of the communities most impacted by the coronavirus in the state, said that the choice to reopen is not as easy as it looks.
“We just don’t feel it’s safe yet. We’re watching people get sick every day still” said Kim McHugh, owner of McHugh Tea Room and Gifts in Houston, Texas.
McHugh has decided not to reopen her tea room to in-person dining, citing safety as her number one concern. But it’s also a matter of space.
“Normally we could seat six [in our party room], but in here [with the regulations], we could seat two,” McHugh said.
Reopening at the required 25 percent capacity would mean the McHugh Tea Room could only use four tables — a decision that McHugh emphasized would make no sense financially.
However, with Mother’s Day, a major business day for the restaurant, approaching this weekend, not opening was still a tough choice.
“It’s a sacrifice of doing this. Sacrificing my employees’ paychecks, sacrificing what [business] we could have coming through our door. [We’re] nail biting, but in the end, it’s worth it,” McHugh said.
She decided that the potential income from those four tables wasn’t worth risking her customers and her employees’ safety. So to survive during this time, she and her staff got creative and adapted.
“We actually have our regular menu and an entirely new menu created specifically for this situation, so it’s been rough,” McHugh said.
Most customers know McHugh Tea for its in-person multi-course high tea experience, but that’s not possible during a pandemic.
To appeal to a greater range of customers, the restaurant has added a new list of comfort foods to the menu and has even created a “high tea” to go.
“The cooties are out there, but the casseroles are in here,” McHugh said.
Besides homemade casseroles, the tea room is making jumbo-sized quiches, pies and more, and it’s sending them all home with customers through takeout and delivery, which is new for the restaurant.
And surprisingly, McHugh said that business has actually been good.
“Well over 90 percent of my customers have thanked me for not opening,” McHugh said.
While her customers admit they miss their afternoon tea, they say they support her decision.
College freshman Amy Krull has been a customer for three years since she had her 16th birthday party at the tea room. On a quick trip to pick up some scones and tea from the restaurant, she told Reporting Texas TV that she thinks McHugh is definitely making the right choice.
“I appreciate that they’re putting our safety first,” Krull said.
She added that when McHugh feels it’s safe to open her doors again, she’ll be one of the first in line.
“I’ve already made plans with some of my friends,” Krull said. “Like ‘when they reopen, we’re coming right? We’re dressing up and coming to tea?’”
McHugh said she’s hoping that her restaurant can reopen in the second wave at the end of May. Until then, she’ll be sticking to her team’s pandemic-approved plan.
“I would love to be able to see my people again and my customers and staff working. You don’t realize how much you miss normal until you don’t have it,” McHugh said.