McALLEN — The first customer to eat a ribeye at Santa Fe Steakhouse on 10th Street in the past six weeks and six days sliced into their steak at 6:06 p.m. Friday evening.
Like restaurants across Texas, Santa Fe Steakhouse was allowed to open its dining room Friday for the first time since Gov. Greg Abbott shuttered eateries across the state on March 19 due to the coronavirus pandemic
Earlier this week the governor announced that restaurants, along with malls, retailers and movie theaters, would be allowed to reopen to the public, contingent on keeping their occupancy to a quarter of capacity.
Some Rio Grande Valley restaurants, like Santa Fe Steakhouse, took that opportunity Friday; others remained closed, some citing concerns over operating their dining rooms in a way that’s economically viable under the new regulations.
Sony Rego, Santa Fe’s co-owner and operator, watched anxiously as that first steak came out of the kitchen Friday evening. She’s run the restaurant for the past 14 years, and she wasn’t exactly nervous, even with all of the additional hygiene and social distancing standards her restaurant is required to adhere to. She was confident her staff was up to that challenge.
Maybe, Rego said, it was just how weird life is right now. She fidgeted with her facemask as she watched her waitstaff flit around the mostly empty dining room. Operating at 25% of capacity made the fine dining establishment seem cavernous, like those scenes in the old mobster movies where half of the restaurant is reserved for the Don; or like a dress rehearsal.
In many ways, Friday’s reopening and operating at 25% capacity is a dress rehearsal for Santa Fe. Serving 20 customers at a time, Rego says, means the restaurant won’t make a profit, but it’s still an important step toward normalcy.
“We want to get back to normal, we want to feel normal again. It’s not about making money in the restaurant; this is an opportunity to start getting ready for what is coming, and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.
That step towards being normal involved jumping through an awful lot of hoops for Santa Fe Steakhouse and other businesses that opened Friday.
“For two full days we’ve cleaned every inch of the restaurant, every piece of equipment, every utensil. Sanitizing everything with FDA approved sanitizers and disinfectants,” Rego said.
Employees at Santa Fe were pre-screened for COVID-19 symptoms; Rego is responsible for periodically checking and logging their temperature. Salt and pepper shakers on tabletops have disappeared and been replaced with disposable packets, accompanied by disposable menus. There’s no more refills; every drink comes in a fresh glass. One employee’s job is to clean doorknobs and counters and anything else a customer might touch when they enter or leave the restaurant. Rego issues her staff masks and gloves.
“We have a timer that rings every hour to remind everyone that’s working in the whole building to replace the gloves. They need different colors so I can make sure that everybody’s following that,” she said. “It is a lot of work to do, but I do have a great staff that’s been working with me for a long time. It’s a little more strict, but this is something that restaurants have to do all the time … it’s not a burden, really.”
Many McAllen businesses are willing to reopen on a similar basis, according to a survey from the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. Responding to a question about what guidelines a business was willing to abide by while reopening, more than half of the businesses surveyed said they could stomach things like requiring occupants to wear face masks, enforcing handwashing for employees and providing hand sanitizer, implementing social distancing measures for employees, and other sanitization and monitoring steps intended to fight COVID-19.
A narrow majority, about 58%, said they would be willing to check employee’s temperatures, like Rego is doing. Less than half said they would be able to install barriers separating customers from employees and only a third said they would be willing to check the temperature of clients.
Rego is currently doing most of the things the chamber surveyed businesses about and she’s confident in her team’s ability to keep up with the work; she wouldn’t be so confident, however, if she had to implement the changes while serving a full house.
“I would feel very overwhelmed if we had to open 100% in June,” she said.
Rego says so far customers have greeted Santa Fe’s return warmly; they’re usually curious about how the restaurant is adapting to life under the pandemic.
“I did have some regular customers who were very happy we were doing this,” she said. “I’m a person with faith, and we’re going to be fine.”
Santa Fe Steakhouse also began curbside service Friday.
“Santa Fe’s perception is a little bit more fancy food,” she said. “I felt in the beginning that it was more going to be toward the fast food market. For the type and quality of food that we have over here, I thought that it was going to be a little more difficult.”
By the time Rego decided to-go food was a viable option, dining rooms were opening up and she decided to start doing both at the same time.
Other restaurants jumped on the curbside bandwagon earlier in the pandemic. New York Deli, also in McAllen, is one of those restaurants. Unlike Santa Fe Steakhouse, the deli decided not to allow dine-in service Friday, although owner Gilbert Rendon said you’re welcome to have a tea and wait for your to-go order inside.
“We’ll play it by ear, you know, but at least for the next few days we’re not going to open the dining room,” he said. “In my case, my occupancy at full is 85, which would go down to 21 at the 25% regulation. For me, to have 20 people in at a time is not going to be worth it. I just need to focus on doing takeout and curbside only. It’s more of a distraction, we’re just trying to pump stuff out quickly, so we’re just going to wait till they open it up more.”
Part of the reason Rendon said New York Deli decided against dine-in service was that the restaurant has been able to adapt to to-go service fairly well.
“It’s not too bad. Maybe we’re a little more geared for it, but so far it’s been ok. We’ve been able to keep most of the guys working,” he said.
Rendon said he might consider opening up based on demand, but he’ll probably be waiting for the state to OK more customers before he lets people in again.
“I didn’t have a lot of calls for it today,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes tomorrow and kind of gauge it next week, but as of now we’re going to try to hold out for that 50%. Hopefully, numbers are better and things will go back to more normal.”