Operators at Houston-based gastropub The Hay Merchant had to get creative in the days following Hurricane Harvey. Upon reopening, their foremost priority was to pay the pub’s rent and employees, says Managing Partner Kevin Floyd. “We concentrated our focus on getting Hay Merchant back open and drew from three staffs’ worth of people,” he says. Those employees also came from Underbelly and Blacksmith—sister restaurants of the gastropub that were unharmed by the storm. “Those first few days were crazy,” he says. “We had anyone working for us in the restaurant doing anything they could. Our PR director and events coordinator were waiting tables, and I was working the bar. It was hectic.”
Although fundraising and a strong social media presence have helped Hay Merchant attract consumers, Floyd says focusing on the basics will have the greatest effect on regrowth. “At the end of the day, there’s not much else we can do besides be fundamentally good at our jobs—providing good service and being welcoming,” he says. “As people recover, they’ll go out more and more.”
Here’s how operators are keeping their businesses going in the midst of Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath.
1. Lean into fundraising
In the past week, Houston restaurateurs have partnered with local charities to help feed the community, as well as to regain their own footing. Italian joint Coltivare held a kolache sale, donating 50% of its profits to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund and using the other half to pay the diner’s employees. “We’re trying to help in as many ways as we can while continuing to operate our business to keep our employees fed,” says Ryan Pera, Coltivare's chef and co-owner. Additionally, the restaurant collaborated with fashion designer Billy Reid for a food and clothing sale, which collected over $40,000—all of which went to hurricane relief.
Xochi, a Mexican-themed spot in downtown Houston, hasn’t shied away from fundraising to attract guests. The restaurant has a $20 lunch special this week, and 10% of its daily profits will go toward the Houston Food Bank. “It’s important that people know we’re supporting the community,” says Sean Beck, Xochi sommelier and beverage director. “Money spent in local restaurants supports [us] and the community. [And] if you don’t have customers, you can’t continue to operate.”
2. Utilize social media
As many eateries reopen, operators have used social media to relay messages to customers concerning restaurant hours, fundraiser specials and more. Ricky Craig, founder of Houston burger joint HubCap Grill, hasn’t stopped tweeting since the disaster struck. On Aug. 28, he informed followers that all locations would be closed until further notice. Two days later, he tweeted out their reopenings, using the #TexasStrong hashtag.
Ashley Ingle, VP of marketing at Chuy’s, says that word of mouth on social media has helped the Tex-Mex chain reel in consumers since reopening its doors. “Every one of our locations has gotten a Facebook page in the past year,” she says. “People follow us and know we’re back open, and we’ve been busy since last week.”
3. Focus on restoring normalcy
Returning to pre-Harvey operating procedures remains a challenge, and recovering from the disaster will take time for consumers, Floyd says. “People will gravitate towards their favorite bars and restaurants because they want to get a sense of normalcy, but they’ll soon pull back once they process what just happened to us,” he says. “All restaurateurs can do is provide a sense of comfort and service to help the mental recovery that’s going to take place over the next few months.”
John Baydale, president of Hai Hospitality, which owns Houston-based sushi joint Uchi, says Harvey hampered the delivery process of the restaurant’s main ingredients. As a result, Uchi—which remains closed—wouldn’t be able to function even if it were to reopen, Baydale says. He emphasizes that reaching a normal routine for scheduling and food prep will give consumers an opportunity for solace. “This is an epic tragedy,” he says. “So if we can help feed the people who got it the worst, that’s the least we can do.”
Coltivare’s Pera recalls the aftermath of Hurricane Ike seven years prior, which resulted in multiple fatalities. Despite its hurdles, Houston bounced back, which he says will happen again. Pera credits consumers’ healing as being the stepping stone that will help restaurants once again thrive. “Each and every day is one small step closer to returning to normalcy,” he says. “The quicker we help people get on the road to recovery, the quicker we’ll fully open our doors.”