Dallas-based restaurateur Jon Alexis is so focused on testing staff members for COVID-19 infections that he formed a company to do it for his restaurants and to help others.
Alexis, who owns two TJ’s Seafood Market and Grill Units in Dallas and three fast-casual Malibu Poke restaurants in Dallas and Austin, created SafeWork Health in late April to do onsite testing for restaurants and other businesses.
“I have seen that patrons understand that it's impossible for restaurants to prevent COVID-19 from entering their premise,” Alexis said. “Their job is to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Testing and symptom screening, social distancing and masks ... these things work.”
When the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic in March and state and local governments began shutting down business to stop the spread, Alexis turned to friends who owned urgent-care centers.
“My best friends own a chain of urgent cares,” Alexis said in July. “When the crisis hit, they quickly pivoted to COVID testing and became one of the largest testers in Texas. When they began being approached to come do on-site testing, my friends and I co-founded a company to provide that service.”
Nick Badovinus, owner of FlavorHook LLC in Dallas and operator of such popular restaurants as Neighborhood Services, Montlake Cut, Town Hearth and others, uses the SafeWork service to provide proactive, weekly COVID-19 testing onsite.
“While it’s easy to take someone out of the restaurant who isn’t feeling well, being proactive will help us do our part to identify asymptomatic cases within our restaurants,” Badovinus said
SafeWork’s online portal allows workers to consent to testing, which is done by medical professionals. Employers pay for the tests.
At TJ’s Seafood, for example, tests are conducted in small white tents pitched in parking spaces in front of the strip-shopping-center location. The transparent and visible effort lets customers know that the restaurant is focused on the safety of its employees — as well as its guests.
“We serve numerous restaurants in DFW,” Alexis said. “While we don't publicly discuss our clients, many restaurants have been public about hiring SafeWork in social and print media, and I think they've seen it help build trust with customers.”
One challenge is the cost to the restaurant operator.
“Very few restaurants are able to offer their staff benefits, so paying out of pocket during the most difficult time to operate a restaurant in recent memory is ... challenging,” Alexis said. “I'll also admit it's a real challenge that our country is not enacting the testing best practices that have worked in other nations.”
“Helping my restaurant brothers and sisters employed in tough times has been great,” he said. “Restaurants that test can stay open and keep people on payroll. As far as our work family, we've managed to keep four of our five restaurants open and now we employ just under 50 at SafeWork, so I'm happy to be paying people in a tough time.”
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