Restaurants Getting Back to Business in Houston Face a Multitude of Challenges

Ziggy Gruber, with one of his massive deli sandwiches.
Ziggy Gruber, with one of his massive deli sandwiches. Photo by Houston Press

Houston restaurants are trying to get back to functioning normally ten days after Hurricane Harvey unleashed its torrential downpour and flooding on the city, but one thing is certain. That's going to take time. The hospitality industry is facing numerous challenges in day-to-day operations right now, and what the future might hold for many remains unclear.  Each eatery is basically operating under its own special set of circumstances.

Some restaurants were damaged, some not. Many workers in the industry have been affected by the flooding, but there are others who have not been at all.  For restaurants that rely on the almighty dollar to survive, things are still looking shaky. There are still supply issues, with a priority being placed on feeding evacuees in shelters and those in need, though open roads and access to delivery trucks does not appear to be much of an ongoing issue at this time.

There is the possibility, though, that many people simply won't be focused on spending extra dollars on dining out while trying to rebuild their lives. Business hasn't been steady for many places. There are restaurants that aren't even back open yet, and more still that have been devoting their kitchens to feeding first responders and evacuees. Restaurants that rely on weddings and private events to get by have seen major cancellations for the months ahead.

Overall It's an uneasy time, but still morale remains high among many in the restaurant industry right now. Some restaurants will extend Houston Restaurant Weeks for the month of September. Some are offering portions of their proceeds to benefit Harvey relief or holding special events to raise money for victims.

But as for getting back to business as usual, here's what a few restaurant owners had to say about challenges they're facing right now.
Inside Kenny & Ziggy's, where lunch service has been a little quieter than normal.
Photo by the Houston Press

At Kenny & Ziggy's in the Galleria, owner Ziggy Gruber was able to reopen on Tuesday, August 29, and things were mostly back to normal as of Friday, September 1, except for one ominous factor.

"Lunches for the past two days, they're quieter. I think everybody is dealing with repairs to their houses, filing for insurance and all that. Usually there's a wait. But right now you can walk in, sit down and there's not a wait."

Gruber isn't complaining. He knows how lucky he is. "Nighttime is still pretty booming," he says, and neither location of Kenny & Ziggy's suffered any damage.

Miraculously, of his 125-plus staff members, none had any significant damage to their homes. "I’m very fortunate; most of my people, we’ve had no tragedies. Kind of rare, not sure how that ended up being. Not one person lost their home. One person had maybe half an inch of water, and tile floors. So we have all our staff."

Gruber was also able to source his products, which he says is due to good relationships and being loyal. "I'm one of the best payers in the city." His only complication was with a New York-based purveyor who supplies his smoked fish. Last week the airports were closed and would only be taking in emergency items, so he couldn't get his fish. "About a week ago, I threw in the freezer about 40 sides of smoked salmon and sturgeon to prepare. But I'm starting to run low on white fish."

Ouisie's Table fears for loss of revenue due to event cancellations.
Photo by Houston Press
At River Oaks eatery Ouisie's Table, the concern was much greater for the weeks ahead.

"Pretty much half of the month's revenue is gone right now," Wafi Dinari told the Press on Friday. Numerous weddings and events had already canceled on the restaurant for the upcoming month and as of Friday, guests weren't coming in. It was pretty much dead. His staff and supplies remained limited. It wasn't back to normal, not by a long shot. "There's no telling when it will come back 100 percent normal. Not only sales, but labor. Paying employees and what have you. We’re filing insurance and all that. They don’t pay up or anything until down the road."

Ouisie's Table had a few leaks, but no major damage to the extent that it had to close, but it still had a loss of revenue through being forced to toss out food. "We lost power for about a day — threw away a lot of stuff that needed to be thrown out." But, says Dinari, "when you put things into perspective and think of others, we’re still blessed."

Bistro Provence, a Memorial-area staple, ran a smaller menu over the weekend.
Photo by Houston Press
On September 1, restaurateur Genevieve Guy was finally able to make it out of her home, stranded as she was by complete road flooding in her community, Georgetown Colony, which also trashed her car. She was able to pull some strings at American Express to get a rental from Hobby Airport and drive to check on her restaurant, Bistro Provence. Despite some minor roof damage, she was able to reopen her longtime Memorial eatery for the Labor Day weekend. "If my staff doesn't work," she said, "they don't make money. And they're ready to serve."

Of 59 employees, only two had water in their apartments, and Guy noted that she was doing everything she could to help. "We help each other as much as we can right now," she said, and even handed out bottles of wine to staff that worked on the Saturday night when Harvey's rains began pouring down, because "what else can you do?"

As for getting operational, Guy made it easier on herself because she put a lot of her food on ice. Everything in the fridge, including seafood, had been thrown out. "But we have three big freezers, so we'll just do a smaller menu, no specials."

As for any potential challenges Guy was facing, she remained optimistic. “There’s no challenge. People were calling us to make sure we’re okay. And we’re open. We’re in a neighborhood and have been for 18 years." The guests, she says, will "come and make sure everyone is okay.”

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Gwendolyn Knapp is the food editor at the Houston Press. A sixth-generation Floridian, she is still torn as to whether she likes smoked fish dip or queso better.