Matt Brice may be Houston’s most controversial restaurateur, but he still feels comfortable with his decision to reopen his restaurant for dine-in service, despite orders from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Texas Governor Greg Abbott that prevented restaurants from serving customers in their dining rooms. On Monday, Abbott announced that those restrictions would end April 30, and that restaurants could begin operating at 25-percent of their normal capacity beginning May 1.
Brice resumed sit-down service at the Hedwig Village location of his restaurant, Federal American Grill, on Friday, April 24. Enough customers requested reservations that the restaurant hit the 30-percent capacity limit he set on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Brice tells CultureMap.
“The atmosphere was pretty amazing. People were just so grateful to be out. I didn’t get any tense, nervous people or anything of that nature,” Brice says. ‘They don’t seem afraid. They’re just ready to get their lives back. They saw what we were doing, which puts peoples at ease.”
In addition to limiting capacity, Brice developed extensive health and sanitation procedures that include checking each employee’s temperature before they clock in, requiring all employees to wear face masks, an attendant to ensure only one customer uses the restroom at a time, and regular sanitizing of surfaces such as tables, door handles, and chairs.
Developed through a combination of his own reading and with input from proposed guidelines from the Texas Restaurant Association, Brice’s protocols have put in the middle of a national debate about the procedures restaurants should follow when they reopen. As noted in a recent article in the New York Times, a lack of clear regulations from the government means restaurateurs are largely on their own in developing new standards.
Choosing not to follow the state and county orders has come at a cost. Although county officials have not prevented the restaurant from operating, Brice has seen the criticism of his decision on social media and says protestors have shown up at his restaurant with signs.
“I just ask people to do it respectfully,” he says. ‘There’s been a lot of naysayers, calling us murderers. We take it in stride. At the same time, Walgreens is open, Walmart’s open, and I just say don’t come out if you don’t want to come out.”
Despite the criticism, he’s received support from a number of local restaurant owners. JCI Grill president Darrin Straughan sent hot dogs to feed Federal’s employees. Taste of Texas owner Edd Hendee spoke in Brice’s defense to Fox 26, and Gringo’s owner Russell Ybarra tweeted that Brice “had no choice” other than reopening the restaurant.
That support, along with the positive response from customers, has him feeling optimistic about the future.
“I feel really confident now that we’re at day three,” Brice says. ‘Every night has been a great response. I’ve had nothing negative yet, and I’ve been asking every single table what they think, is there anything better we can do.”