Restaurant Operators Try to Make Sense of Conflicting Safety Guidelines

courtesy Niwa BBQ
A platter at Niwa Japanese BBQ during happier pre-virus days
Most agree restaurants should follow heightened safety protocols during the coronavirus pandemic, but from there, things get complicated.

Texas has its official guidelines for restaurants. The Centers for Disease Control has its own set of recommendations, as does the Food and Drug Administration. The Aspen Institute released an independent handbook prepared by prominent food writer Corby Kummer.

Making matters worse, some of those guidelines are updated constantly. So what is a restaurant owner to do? Aside from meeting the legal minimum, what other procedures should a business follow?

I asked seven Dallas-area food and drink service veterans for their perspectives, ranging from a celebrity chef with a high-end steakhouse to a fast-casual shawarma shop owner. Here’s what they had to say.

With all the different conflicting guidelines out there from federal and state governments and researchers, how do you choose what standard to set at your business?

Sawsan Abublan

Co-owner, Shawarma Press

We are going with a combination of everything, to the extent that is practical. We’re going to follow the strictest practical guidelines that we can have.

I’ve been printing what makes sense and laminating it and leaving it in various locations for my team. And also for my customers — honestly, some people don’t know. They walk in with no masks or no distancing, or we put in barriers and people move them. Sometimes you have to educate the consumer as well as the employee.

The most important thing that people don’t know about restaurants is that even before COVID-19, we are required to follow really strict sanitation guidelines. As a restaurant, we are one of the safest places people can be because of the requirements that are already there. We already sanitize left and right. All I can do is to put it in writing that you are more frequently required to do the door handles or the light switches.

The worst part about a mask is that people can’t see your smile. If someone gets close and I back off, when I’m backing off, I try to smile, but people can’t see your expression, so you have to verbally express in a tone that won’t make anybody upset.

click to enlarge Shawarma Press, owner Sawsan Abublan - KATHY TRAN
Shawarma Press, owner Sawsan Abublan
Kathy Tran

Jimmy Contreras

Owner, Taco y Vino

It’s a lot. I think Texas is more concerned about the economy. While that certainly benefits operators, I think if we all operate with a focus on the well being of our “three guests,” we will all be better off.

The Rule of Three Guests [is about] the guest that walks in the front door, the guest that walks in the back door — delivery drivers, sales peeps — and the guest that works at the restaurant. The belief is that everyone is at the restaurant because they choose to be. They can patronize, sell or work anywhere.

I’m not opening my dining room until I absolutely cannot afford to keep it closed. I’m rolling solely on a socially distanced patio as long as Texas weather will allow me to. I can’t bring myself to subject my Taco y Vino family to the possibility of getting the ’rona.

Adrian Cotten

Co-owner, Pegasus City Brewery

We didn’t just choose one and stick with it, we followed the CDC guidelines for the industry and also the governor’s stuff. Those are different documents completely. We’re doing things from multiple guidelines, instead of choosing just one and missing something from another. We kind of have the do-more-rather-than-less mentality.

Some other breweries in different states that opened earlier than us, we saw what they were doing, too. A lot of our regulars are in the medical profession or work at UT Southwestern, so we’re also very lucky that we could ask for their feedback.

We went with as much as we could. Not easy, though. It was not necessarily a fun filtering process. We ran through about 32 different scenarios.

Rodolfo Jimenez

Co-owner, Maskaras Mexican Grill

Before we opened, I started to research to see what were the regulations and suggestions to be offering the safest environment to our employees and to our customers. We pretty much practice all of them.

Also, even before, we have been practicing, since day one, a lot of sanitation and keeping a really clean place. That’s something my wife and I decided to do because that’s our philosophy — we are inviting you guys to our house, our customers are our friends coming over to our house.

The city comes every day. They take videos and photos of the restaurant. The inspector first came and was giving me a bunch of papers, handwritten pages with the regulations. Then he brought in his camera and he took videos. I don’t really know why, maybe to show other business owners or to show his boss — he said some other businesses were having more difficulty with it.

Jimmy Niwa

Owner, Niwa Japanese BBQ

It’s been a roller coaster of trying to keep up with all the rules and advice. We honestly don’t know what standard to use exactly, except for common sense. Because of this, I’ve chosen to bring back less staff at the moment and focus on making sure we are not the cause of any type of spread.

The worst part to me is the politics now involved, and everyone taking such strong opposing stances. In other countries where a clear rule has been set, there seem to be much better results.

click to enlarge John Tesar in the dry-aging room at Knife - KATHY TRAN
John Tesar in the dry-aging room at Knife
Kathy Tran

John Tesar

Executive chef, Knife

First of all, I take politics out of the equation. You have guidance from people like Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, friends I have in town, customers who are doctors who I’ve found out what they do for a living. You have to use your common sense in these things and listen to people who really know things.

With this virus, information has changed basically minute-by-minute. You know — first, don’t touch stainless steel, now it’s not so bad.

It’s about educating myself as a businessman, as a parent, as a member of society. I’m going to wear a mask in the restaurant. I’m going to show customers that I’m healthy. We still have misters, we’re still going to sanitize, we’re going to do everything we possibly can to make the consumer safe without ruining the experience.

You gotta make an environment that’s safe for your customers and your employees right now and that’s hospitable. Part of being hospitable is that they are safe: Safe in that, is there a virus in the room? And safe in that, is their money safe? Because you took the time to make sure that their food and experience is amazing.

Jennifer Uygur

Co-owner, Lucia and Macellaio

All small business owners have really been left to their own devices to determine what level of risk they’re comfortable with. You stick to your guns. We’re following the science versus following what we are allowed to do.

We want to do what we can do to minimize the risk to ourselves, because we’re owners who actually work at the restaurants. We’re not sending people to work. We are there. We are part of the people who would be exposed. We’re paying very close attention to the CDC guidelines, and we’re reading all the time. CDC is one, but if you pick up any major paper and you read something by an epidemiologist, they’re not dining in right now.

It would be lovely if we had federal guidelines that followed the science a little harder. It would be nice to point at them and say, we’re not opening because the guidelines say this, instead of being the only people (not open), and having everyone ask us why we aren’t doing what someone else is doing.

I think that’s the hardest part, the conflicting nature of everybody’s understanding, because what I would consider high risk, other people might be asking, Why aren’t you doing this?

It’s hard because so many things are changing on so many fronts, and it can be politicized, and you want to provide people with what they want. You’re left to come up with your own compass of safety.