Local Restaurants Pivot to Survive the Pandemic
Updated: Aug 13, 2022
by Mara Soloway
First published April 2021 in Fulshear-Katy Community Guide
The restaurant industry in Texas went through one of its worse economic disruptions with the onset of changing COVID-10 restrictions in early 2020 though them being completely being lifted in March 2021. The Texas Restaurant Association found that by January 2021, 14 percent of Houston restaurants had permanently closed.
It took creative solutions and customer support for local restaurants to make it through this economic roller coaster. We spoke to three restaurateurs about their experiences.
EMPLOYEES FIRST Employee health was consideration #1 for Pepperoni’s, Anthonie’s Market Grill and Victor’s Mexican Grille.
Ray Salti is the owner of four local Pepperoni’s pizza places (Aliana, Cinco Ranch, Firethorne and Fulshear), along with 12 other Houston-area Pepperoni’s; 21 more franchises are opening soon. He also owns Bollo Woodfired Pizza in Houston.
“The first thing we did was buy 200 COVID-19 tests. We were hearing that employees of other restaurants had COVID-19 so I decided to test all my Pepperoni’s employees. I hired a nurse who went from one store to another testing them,” Salti said. “I wanted everybody to feel comfortable working there. If my employees can’t make it to work, then we can’t serve the customers.”
At Anthonie’s Market Grill in Fulshear, weekly testing of employees was required in the beginning and gradually became biweekly and by choice. It is still available once a week at the restaurant.
“I think we were one of the first restaurants to close after the initial reopening in 2020 at 25 percent capacity because of an employee with the coronavirus. We closed for 17 days. After we had more than one case, we were committed to making sure our employees got over it and that everybody was negative,” said Joseph (Joey) Cottle, Anthonie’s general manager and beverage director.
Victor’s Mexican Grille, which has locations in Fulshear and Richmond, had a policy of daily temperature checks for on-duty staff.
“We set guidelines for employees to follow. If they felt ill, they had to report to management. If they had COVID-19 symptoms, they were required to get tested,” owner Juan Garcia said. “If positive, they had to self- quarantine and get tested again until the testing was negative.”
GETTING CREATIVE Pepperoni’s had instituted some changes for in-house dining even before the pandemic. “We kept in-store dining but put everything in a to-go container. We started doing that because we thought it was safer and more sanitary,” Salti said. The food is now sealed inside the box so the customer who gets a pizza delivered knows whether the food has been touched.
“We use contactless delivery but we don’t leave the pizza on the doorstep because I feel that is unsanitary. My drivers wear masks and ring the bell,” he said. Customers can also get their food via curbside pickup or the drive-through window at certain stores.
Anthonie’s Market Grill is fortunate that it has so much outdoor space. “For six months we had picnic tables on a concrete slab on the side of our building for guests who wanted more social distancing. We realized how popular that was and decide to create the extended patio space we now have,” Cottle said.
“After Anthonie’s reopened after our 17-day closure, we focused on to-go only. Although we only did 10 to 20 percent of our normal business, it kept us afloat and allowed us to pay employees without permanently laying anybody off.”
For eight months the restaurant delivered meals in a limited area until outdoor dining increased. One popular item was Anthonie’s Frozen TV Dinners, which were a smaller portion of regular meals. The restaurant stopped both delivery and the TV Dinners when outdoor dining increased.
Curbside pickup may become a permanent fixture with five dedicated parking spaces in front. “People feel comfortable that they can park easily and someone will bring their food out. I have minimum of one, most days two, people dedicated to answering the phones, taking to-go orders and walking them out to people’s cars,” Cottle said.
In February 2020, Garcia’s intuition was telling him that measures were coming that would limit his restaurants’ business. When neither restaurant was as busy as normal on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2020 – just a few days before state restrictions took place – he took action.
“I called all my management in for a meeting and told them we were going to offer a limited menu of family packs – enchiladas, fajitas, tacos – and alcoholic beverage to go,” he said. “I realized we had to change our operational mode, and so we got creative and found what worked.”
Family packs weren’t a new concept. “We’ve always done bulk packs to go. Most restaurants don’t really do them, we always have and have been successful at it. We typically get last-minute phone calls from people who have company and need fajitas for say 15, 25, 30 people. We’re blessed that people use us.”
TECHNOLOGICAL UPGRADES Viruses and bacteria don’t stand a chance with new UV filter machines and a fogging machine that periodically is used with a food-grade sanitizing solution at Pepperoni’s, and electrostatic sanitization at Anthonie’s. Victor’s is thoroughly sanitized every day.
Salti feels the use of technology in online ordering was on the rise before COVID-19, but it’s being used more and improving out of necessity. “It’s all about technology in this time. We had to make sure our technology was perfect with things like online ordering and touchless credit cards. With a good presence online, the easiness of ordering and third- party delivery options in place before COVID-19 hit, our to-go business kept going, even though we closed the dining room.”
Anthonie’s has online ordering, but its main audience is people who come to the restaurant to enjoy the food and the environment. During the pandemic, its social media presence expanded. “Our social media marketing is much more that it used to be. Now it’s really exciting to see our Facebook metrics showing 175,000 people recently looked at our page,” Cottle said.
“We’re very blessed that the community supported us through all of this, especially at the beginning and they stuck with us up until now and continue to. Without them we can’t survive. ...”
Garcia feels that Victor’s online ordering also was in good shape before the pandemic. “We’ve used Toast ordering software for several years now and that helped us. I think a lot of restaurants panicked when the pandemic happened and they didn’t know what to do. You had to put yourself out there – you have to use services like DoorDash, UberEats and Favor Delivery and you have to use social media to stay in front of the customer.”
Salti and Garcia lost catering revenue when people stopped congregating for events. As of May 2021, Garcia is seeing an increase in catering requests with the majority for 50-plus people.
SBA ASSISTANCE The Small Business Administration (SBA) made assistance available for certain businesses. Both Pepperoni’s and Victor’s Mexican Grille utilized Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans; Anthonie’s took PPP. None of the restaurants had to permanently furlough any employees and each continues to keep the work environment safe for them.
GIVING BACK The two-way street of community support helped these restaurants stay open – both their efforts in helping their employees and wider society, and their customers who continued to order food for takeout or to dine in.
Salti’s organization is one of the partners behind Houston Shift Meal, a nonprofit that feeds unemployed hospitality workers. Early in the pandemic, it gave meals to about 4,000 people every week. “We were donating 75 packaged meals from both Pepperoni’s and Bollo every week, and the other restaurants were doing the same thing.”
Salti collaborated with Chef Chris Shepherd to help Shepherd’s nonprofit, Southern Smoke, which supports food and beverage industry workers in times of crisis. “Chris and I created a pizza using his signature sausage called Southern Smoke Pizza. We sold it for $12 and all profits of around $6,000 went to Southern Smoke. We do this sort of thing because we were fortunate to be in business. We helped out in a couple other small ways. It was the least we could do.”
Cottle feels the restaurant’s customers helped them survive the pandemic thanks to their appreciation of Chef Anthonie Dekker’s history of philanthropic efforts for mostly local and military-based organizations. In a recent several-day period, the restaurant hosted fundraisers for Christ Clinic in Katy and the Military Warriors Support Foundation. (Cottle and Dekker know each other well, having worked together for ten years, originally at Dekker’s in Fulshear.)
“This company gives well over $100,000 a year to these nonprofits by letting them fundraise here, providing food, donating wine dinners, donating dinner certificates and other ways,” Cottle said.
Due to Covid 19 there were no requests for donations at all from Victor’s. It also made fundraising nonexistent, which is not the norm.
“We’re very blessed that the community supported us through all of this, especially at the beginning and they stuck with us up until now and continue to. Without them we can’t survive,” Garcia said.
ONWARD AND UPWARD The restaurateurs reflect on how fortunate they are to still be in operation.
“The first three months of 2020 were tough on us,” said Salti. “People were buying more groceries and cooking at home. Then after three months, people felt more comfortable ordering out, and we starting getting increased business.” Fewer people are dining in the restaurant, which Salti attributes to an increase in customers opting to pick up their food. “Overall, the restaurant’s sales have steadily been climbing as we adjusted for the necessary changes. We love our customers and are so thankful for their support during this difficult time. “
“Anthonie’s Market Grill has been doing really really well since September 2020 mainly because we had the ability to expand our outdoor area. People are more comfortable outside, and they have been since May, maybe June of last year – once the initial shock of the pandemic wore off. Since then we have been doing better each month than in years prior,” Cottle said.
“The two Victor’s Mexican Grille locations are different. Fulshear has been thriving since the pandemic began due to the demographics there. Richmond is different but the numbers are starting to rise. It’s a little more of a challenge with several Mexican restaurants in a one-mile radius, but we’re sticking it,” Garcia said.
“I’m just glad that we’re able to adapt to everything that happened this past year, and the guests were, too. There are two sides to this – the panic side of being in a pandemic and the side that we have to continue to live and get back to normal,” he continued. “A lot of the older generation of our clientele didn’t like wearing masks. Even now that we’re still wearing them, they ask us why. We’re trying to make people feel safe. We’re doing it for you and to make other guests feel at ease.”