Texas Governor Greg Abbott is getting guidance from a new Texas Restaurant Recovery Task Force as he decides when and how to reopen dining rooms ordered to shut down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re assuming 50% seating is going to be the rule. We don’t know that. The governor is gonna talk to us, I think on Monday. And we’re eager to hear what he has to say,” said Lisa Perini, a member of the task force and who along with husband Tom owns Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap. Husband and wife have both served as president of the Texas Restaurant Association.
In anticipation of reopening, the TRA designed an agreement between restaurants and guests called The Texas Restaurant Promise.
The latest news from around North Texas.
“The promise works two ways. We also want our employees to be safe. So if customers are not feeling well, we want them to please decide to stay home. But we will promise to them, that if we have somebody who is under the weather, they’re not gonna be at work. We’re gonna take every step we can to make sure everybody stays safe,” Lisa Perini said. “To stress to the customer, to have trust in our industry.”
Restaurants must agree to certifications in safe food handling, health checks for staff, hand sanitizer upon entry and exit among other things. It could mean certain employees would wear gloves and/or masks, tables limited to 10 or fewer guests and buffets temporarily closed.
On the part of customers, the promise asks them to use contactless delivery if exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms and follow social distancing guidelines.
“Our servers are going to be in really good shape ‘cuz we may need to send them further out, but we can spread people. It’s a beautiful spring, wildflowers and using that outside space will be important to us,” Lisa Perini said.
Sanitation, though, is mission-critical.
“That’s our livelihood is to be clean,” Lisa Perini said. “So, I think that’s all very important. Just explaining to the consumer and creating that trust that is is safe to go to restaurants is what we’re really excited about doing.”
Restaurants are a driving force of the Texas economy and suffering under the shutdown. The TRA warns of dire consequences if they stay closed much longer.
"Texas restaurant owners and employees are in a desperate situation. We're looking at the potential extinction of the Texas restaurant ecology. What else has to happen to demonstrate to the government that a mandated shut down, a PPP program that reached fewer than 7% of restaurants, and nearly 700,000 unemployed Texas restaurant workers will lead to a permanent closure of many Texas restaurants?" Dr. Emily Williams Knight, President and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association said in a news release. "When this all began, we thought the worst-case scenario would be up to 500,000 jobs lost – and as we sit here today, without knowing when dining rooms will be allowed to open again, it means the end result will be much, much worse."
“We’ve gone through some things in 37 years - oil pricing, cattle pricing - things like that really affect us but nothing like this,” said Tom Perini.
He opened the restaurant on his ranch in 1987 and with his cowboy cooking and cowboy charm, grew it into a dining destination that draws people from Abilene, which is 15 miles away, Dallas-Fort Worth and all over Texas and beyond.
“The steakhouse is basically closed except for takeout. Our catering is 100% closed. And our guest quarters are down 90%. So, we’re just holding onto what we got,” Tom Perini said. “But all of our employees have good attitudes and we’re trying to keep this positive.
A grant of roughly $400,000 under the government’s Payroll Protection Program will allow the Perinis to keep the paychecks coming for eight weeks for their 57 employees.
“As all restaurants know, there are so many more expenses that are part of keeping things going,” Lisa Perini said. “It is certainly a great help, but is not the end-all solution to the problem.”
Mail orders for tenderloin and brisket along with take-out are keeping some income flowing. The famous Perini steak is offered every night for take-out along with daily specials.
“You can get a steak and we cook it and they drive out, and we actually walk out to their car and deliver it, that’s with mask and gloves,” Tom Perini said.
With the downtime, the Perinis are doing maintenance around the restaurant such as new restrooms and walkways. Staff is getting more training in hospitality, food and wine, “details that you say, ‘I’m gonna get that done next week,’ and next week never comes,” Lisa Perini said.
Weeks of uncertainty will take a toll, but the Perinis put themselves in the right frame of mind from the start.
“At the beginning of this, Tom said, we just have to do the best we can and have fun and try to keep an upbeat attitude. So, we have come up with all kinds of crazy ideas,” Lisa Perini said.
One of those crazy ideas? Tom colored his wife’s hair.
“The gray is gone. He did a really good job,” Lisa Perini smiled.
“When you have to do things, you have to do it,” her husband said. “That’s just part of it.”
The part of it all that Tom Perini has missed is the people he meets and the hands he shakes of diners who come to his restaurant and want to meet him.
“Over the years you develop these friendships that are not there,” he said. “In the hospitality business, you love people. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong business. That’s the thing that bothers me the most.”