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Atlas reopened its Houston restaurants. Here are CEO Alex Smith's takeaways.

Servers in masks and gloves. Tables and bar stools spaced six feet apart. Mandatory reservations. And lots and lots of demand.

That was the scene in Houston over the weekend, where Baltimore-based Atlas Restaurant Group reopened its two Texas eateries after restaurants there were given the green light to resume in-house dining service — albeit with new limitations aimed at guarding against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Alex Smith, the restaurant group’s CEO, wasn’t sure what kind of response there would be as Loch Bar and Ouzo Bay prepared to open May 8.

“I was expecting it to be extremely slow, and people to just be very hesitant about coming out,” he said. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

By the end of the weekend, the two restaurants had served more than 1,000 people between them, even with new rules limiting dining rooms to 25% capacity. Smith estimates the Houston eateries had to turn away another 200 people hoping to dine there.

The experience could be a hint at what’s to come for Baltimore as restaurants here begin to think about what it might look like to reopen their doors. Gov. Larry Hogan has said eateries are part of the second phase of a three-phase plan to gradually reopen the state, which has been under a stay-at-home order since March 30. Even before that — since March 16 — restaurants statewide have been limited to takeout and delivery service.

Hogan last week eased restrictions on some low-risk activities, such as golf, tennis, boating, fishing and camping, and also indicated the stay-at-home order could be lifted in the coming days if hospital and intensive care unit admissions in the state continue to trend downward.

The governor has said restaurants and bars will be subject to social distancing and other restrictions when dining rooms are allowed to reopen. In Texas, eateries are limited to serving tables of six people or fewer and must keep the number of diners at a quarter or less of the restaurant’s capacity. Tables must be spaced at least six feet apart and valet service is banned for everyone except disabled guests.

Atlas adopted these regulations and added a few of its own, Smith said. Though servers and bartenders aren’t required to wear masks and gloves in Texas, for example, the restaurant group decided to make personal protective gear mandatory for all of its employees.

The company put together a list of 10 best practices it’s enacting to keep diners and staff safe. Smith said Atlas’ Baltimore properties will adopt the same rules when they eventually reopen, too.

New requirements include:

•Daily employee wellness checks. Staff members will be required to log their body temperature each shift, and any workers with “symptoms of elevated body temperature or excessive coughing and sneezing” will be sent home for at least 72 hours.

•All common areas and kitchen surfaces sanitized and cleaned hourly.

•A switch to digital and disposable menus.

•Adding designated sanitation stations at the restaurant’s front door, restroom entrances and employee-designated kitchen entry.

Atlas also required guests in Houston to make reservations at Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar in order to limit interaction among diners and to prevent crowds from forming. Tables scattered throughout the restaurant bore signs letting diners know they were “reserved for social distancing.”

Smith said the restaurant group decided to err on the side of taking more than the mandatory precautions in order to reassure customers that safety was being taken seriously. Though Texas restaurants were allowed to reopen starting May 1, Atlas took an extra week to teach employees about the new procedures.

“Coming out of this pandemic there’s only one way to do things, and it’s above and beyond what the state and local government mandates,” he said.

Operating at 25% capacity long-term isn’t a money-maker, he said, but it’s enough to keep the business running until the Covid-19 outbreak is more contained. Smith said his Houston restaurants made about half of their normal revenue over the weekend, with customers choosing to dine earlier or later than usual if reservations weren’t available during what would traditionally be peak dining times. Outdoor seating was especially in demand.

Smith said the response in Texas is a hopeful sign for Baltimore-area restaurants.

“I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” he said. “I would just tell other restaurants, if you’re a restaurant owner or manager, keep your head up.”

By Amanda Yeager | Baltimore Business Journal

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