By R.V. Baugus
Last Friday we here in Texas were granted permission for our restaurants to open to no more than 25 percent capacity. It came as Phase 1 as the state slowly reopens businesses and hopefully the economy.
Being the investigative journalist that I am, I considered it my job — nay, my obligation and duty — to frequent for lunch on that day a drive to a local El Fenix Restaurant (est: 1918 by the Martinez family) to sample the finest in Tex-Mex fare and get the temperature (so to speak) of the establishment on the first day back in dining-room business after a shutdown of several weeks.
Mind you, there are a number of El Fenix Restaurants across the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but only a handful reopened their dining rooms, which meant the closest to me was a drive halfway across Dallas. Hey, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.
To avoid wasting a drive and the $1.19 per gallon of gas (there are some advantages in the midst of all this!), I called the restaurant to be sure I would not be stuck in some crazy line of people who like me were having Mexican food withdrawals and could not wait to bust through the restaurant’s doors. The friendly lady on the phone assured me that my planned arrival around 3 pm should allow me fast seating. That was good news in light of the fact I had heard stories from coworkers about how some other restaurants in nearby cities that opened earlier by local proclamation before the governor’s order eventually superceded local ruling endured long waiting lines to enter.
I arrived on time and indeed there were some cars parked outside the restaurant. The curbside and takeout options enjoyed brisk business with people loading up on tacos, enchiladas, and salsa. The first thing I noticed upon entering El Fenix was distinctive arrow markings on the floor to show ingress and egress. I was seated in a small seating area and noticed a couple of tables with “closed” signs on them, all to maintain social distancing. Hand sanitizing stations were also very evident.
My waiter, Javier, took my order from a very scaled down and disposable menu, a good move to avoid reusing menus and the many hands touching them. Javier, of course, wore a mask, as did I upon entering the restaurant.
I don’t have to tell you how a tear nearly came to my eye when the fresh plate of chips and hot sauce arrived. Never mind, I just did.
I brought a magazine along for some reading and catching up and was pretty much glued to it while waiting for my food to arrive. After a few minutes I looked up and could not help but notice that, hey, I don’t see anyone else in here, save for the four or five waiters and waitresses just standing around all wearing their masks.
Suffice to say not only did I have my own personal waiter, but it turned out I had my own personal restaurant for the hour that I ate. Cars continued pulling up to pick up food orders, but I did not see one other customer enter in the time I was there.
The entire dining experience felt surreal. As this past week has sped by, I have noticed that other restaurants near us have opened, but the parking lots are not full as a part of me thought they might be.
Moral: this is going to take some time, folks, for people to feel comfortable and want to go to restaurants, for the most part. It could be that, or due to so many people out of work the money is not there to go out and spend. Or it could be a combination.
I read a story recently about habits. For weeks now, we have transitioned to new habits, mainly stay safe, stay home. Once in those routines and dining in the comfort of one’s home, it takes some time to return to the habits of yore. So maybe factor in habits as a third reason.
How this will transition to our industry and the habits of people going to events of mass gatherings is yet unknown. As many have said about the many states who are reopening businesses, this is not like a light switch you just flip on and people storm down the doors. This takes time. How much? Who knows, but it will take time. Jobs need to be gained, comfort levels have to be met, and habits have to be retrained.
As for me, I would not have minded a few more customers and hearing their voices inside El Fenix. Plus, it would have kept Javier busier with other tables and made it not so easy for me to ask for that second bowl of chips and hot sauce from him.