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12 Days of Favorite Houston Food & Drink Experiences in 2020, Part 10: Innovations

Grocery selection at Local Foods Rice Village's Pop Up Market.
Grocery selection at Local Foods Rice Village's Pop Up Market.
Photo by Lisa Gochman.
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Welcome to the tenth part of a series where we showcase the noteworthy food and drink experiences of a very weird year. In the spirit of the holidays, it's also a very special collaboration between the food writers of the Houston Press and Houston Food Finder, the online publication founded by former Houston Press restaurant critic and food editor Phaedra Cook. This tenth edition explores some of the innovative changes restaurants made to survive the pandemic. Part eleven will explore some of our writers' favorite stores and products.

Favorite General Store Addition to a Restaurant

Local Foods, multiple locations: To shore up sales and be more useful to customers, many Houston restaurants added grocery sections, offering multiple products for retail sale. In some cases, those products came from excess inventory that was available because of a sharp reduction in dine-in food sales. Local Foods, though, went the extra mile and owner Benjy Levit sought to support not only his own business, but small local vendors, as well. The mini “general store” that appeared at the Local Foods location in Rice Village, for example, offered meats, produce and more from respected small, local producers such as Slow Dough, Blue Horizon, Katz Coffee, Black Hill Ranch, Dairymaids and 44 Farms. Expanding on that idea, for a limited time, Local Foods also offered family-sized meal kits, wines at half-price, deli meats, cheeses and more. Residents could drop by, stock up on wholesome groceries and get ready-made “Crunchy” Chicken Sandwiches and Truffled Egg Salad to munch on as soon as they got home. It doesn’t get much more “local” or “supportive” than this. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher, Houston Food Finder

Favorite Pandemic-Era Restaurant Renovation

To increase social distancing among groups of guests, the owners of Helen Greek Food & Wine in Rice Village made the drastic step of removing the bar.
To increase social distancing among groups of guests, the owners of Helen Greek Food & Wine in Rice Village made the drastic step of removing the bar.
Photo by Tim Faiola.

Helen Greek Food and Wine, 2429 Rice: When restaurant dining rooms were allowed to reopen at limited guest capacity on May 1, smaller establishments faced the additional challenge of safely seating enough guests to at least break even. At Helen in Rice Village, this was accomplished by taking a sledgehammer to the bar and opening up the narrow, shotgun-style space. Once the bar was removed, it was easier for servers to handle curbside and wine sales, plus this major renovation created room to keep tables safely distanced and allowed for a wider walkway to the restrooms. — Sandra Crittenden, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder

Favorite Restaurant Safety Features & Protocols

Shabu House went the extra mile to protect diners during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shabu House went the extra mile to protect diners during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by Eugene Lee.

From hand sanitizer to temperature scans at the door, proper safety protocols were critical to ensuring a safe dine-in experience. While some restaurants took the bare minimum approach, others went the full mile so that diners and staff alike would be protected.

Shabu House, 9889 Bellaire: Located in the heart of Chinatown’s Dun Huang Plaza, Shabu House owner Debbie Chen saw a deep decline in patronage during the early COVID-19 concerns in February. Even so, when the lockdown was lifted on restaurants, she didn’t open immediately, opting instead to perform renovations she deemed necessary to ensure customer and staff safety. Medical-grade UV sanitizers were installed in her HVAC unit to sterilize the ambient air, and clear shower curtains were installed around the tables so that each party would have their own secure, private space. Additional protocols included temperature scans at the door and mandatory mask-wearing for staff and customers when not seated. Plus, the curtains are cleaned between guest seatings. — Mai Pham, contributing writer, Houston Press

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