Local restaurants trying to work through challenges as Coronavirus fears keep customers away

Cynthia Salazar wipes down a table at El Burrito with sanitizing wipes.

Liberty County restaurant owners are trying to be optimistic, but as each new day brings more restrictions related to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, staying positive is a challenge.

Joe and Wendy Medina, managers of the family-owned El Burrito restaurants in Liberty and Cleveland, say they are worried about their own losses but are more concerned for their employees, particularly if they are forced to close for an extended period of time.

Each night before bed, Wendy makes the next day’s cuts in staff and then worries that she might not be adequately prepared for the day. Will a new day bring a steady stream of dine-in and take-out orders, or will customers stay away altogether?

Through Facebook social groups, she hears of what is happening in the hospitality industry in other states and she worries.

“I keep seeing all these restaurants in our groups close, and it’s horrible,” she said.

They say some of their employees have been with them for decades and are more like family members than employees, which makes the thought of cutting hours or losing staff members more unbearable.

“I have a whole bunch of families to worry about,” said Joe.

Hoping to ensure their customers have peace of mind and to stop the potential spread of Coronavirus, local restaurants like El Burrito, Pueblo Viejo in Cleveland, Ranch Hand Cafe in Tarkington and JAX Hamburgers in Liberty say they are doing what they can to provide a safe environment for customers by stepping up cleaning procedures and wearing gloves, in some cases.

“We are cleaning the tables thoroughly throughout the day,” said Juan “Pepe” Lozano, one of the family owners of Pueblo Viejo and La Costa restaurants in Cleveland. “We clean these areas on a regular basis anyway, but we are doing it even more now.”

At El Burrito, employees are wearing disposable gloves. Menus and any surface that may be touched by a person is being wiped down constantly. Every table top, salt and pepper shaker, chair or bench is sanitized after one group of customers leaves and before another group is seated there.

“We are not letting anyone stand idle,” Wendy said. “If they aren’t waiting on customers, then our staff is cleaning.”

In between serving food and cleaning tables, Pueblo Viejo’s wait staff are applying hand sanitizer in an effort to stop the spread of Coronavirus. Pictured is Lucas Lopez.

Many local restaurants also are stepping up their curbside delivery options. Customers can call in their orders, wait until the designated pick-up time and then call again when they have arrived. An employee will bring the order outside and take payment.

“We are still working it all out. I am considering putting up a tent outside where customers can pick up and pay for their orders,” Lozano said.

At Mike’s BBQ, Catfish and Steaks in Dayton, the popular buffet is closed and only menu items are available.

El Burrito is offering local delivery on an semi-regular basis. The delivery orders may be placed by calling either location or through the restaurants’ Facebook pages, but only on the days when the delivery service is available and when the restaurants are adequately staffed.

With the response to Coronavirus rapidly changing, social media platforms like Facebook are being put to use to share changes in hours.

Paul Young, who has owned JAX Hamburgers in Liberty for 18 years with his wife, LaVisa, said Wednesday afternoon that the restaurant was reserving tables and keeping them empty to provide “social distancing.” However, by Wednesday evening, a message on the restaurant’s Facebook page said that the dining room was being closed temporarily and only to-go orders will be available from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

The decision to close the dining room may be prophetic as Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Wednesday requested mayors and county judges to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people as well as other steps that will encourage social distancing. This includes restaurants, bars, entertainments venues and any other social gatherings.

Liberty County Judge Jay Knight, who took part in a conference call with the Governor on Wednesday, said that restaurant drive-through and take-out service is still encouraged.

Knight is hopeful that these new limitations will be lifted in two weeks. These restrictions do not include critical infrastructure, such as healthcare services, pharmaceutical and food supply.

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