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Neches River Wheelhouse opens back up, shares expansion plan & schedule

PORT NECHES — The Neches River Wheelhouse opened its doors to customers for the first time in six weeks Friday.

The tropical oasis located right on the water of the Neches River weathered the coronavirus pandemic by using the opportunity to speed up production and expansion of the popular outdoor tiki huts.

Co-owner Bert Lamson said the Palapa is now three times its original size.

The Neches River Wheelhouse expanded the outdoor Palapa by three times previous capacity.

“This thing stayed packed,” Lamson said. “When we built this restaurant, it was a lot busier than we ever anticipated. We started having a waiting line, then people would drive by and see that we were packed and leave. We were losing people.

“We decided to build a little bar area where customers can wait and have a drink. That’s what this was built for, but it didn’t take long before it became a destination point. People started coming out here just to come to the Palapa. It’s amazing how popular it became.”

The outdoor space quickly outgrew its 40-person capacity. The expansion project brought that total to roughly 100 people. It now also includes a covered band stage, outdoor restrooms and an enlarged bar.

“We’re excited for people to see this,” Lamson said. “More than that we are just excited to be open again.”

While the new Palapa will not be opening until mid-May, Lamson said the rest of the Wheelhouse is operating at the government mandated 25 percent capacity rate.

The new space will open to the public in two weeks.

The interior restaurant can hold 25 customers, but the deck and upstairs patio brings the restaurant’s highest capacity to 120.

Lamson said this is where the outside patios come to benefit.

“It’s a total advantage,” he said. “It provides good weather and people want to be outside when it’s a nice day and the sun is up. Second, because of the virus, people feel more comfortable sitting outside than inside.

“It spreads our sitting out. If we just had our dining room, we would only be able to seat 25 people at once and we would probably be one of those restaurants saying it’s not worth opening.”

The restaurant is also following strict hygiene guidelines with a sanitation station presented at the front of the restaurant for customers entering the area.

There are several sanitizing stations throughout the inside and outside of the restaurant.

All tables are also spaced at least six feet apart and will be cleaned and disinfected between uses. The same goes for the restrooms and common areas.

“Anywhere you turn, it’s going to be in your face,” Lamson said. “We have posters listed and signs everywhere to remember cleanliness.”

The Neches River Wheelhouse, 720 Lee Ave., will be open Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Seating will be by reservation only with a maximum party of six. All members of the party must arrive at the same time to be seated.

Walk-ins are welcome upon availability, but reservations will be given priority.

Lamson said an additional rule states that all customers must order food before being served alcoholic beverages.

“We’re hoping that it will free the tables up quicker so we can turn tables and allow our servers to make more money despite the fewer tables,” he said. “We are trying to do hour to hour-and-a-half shifts. It will keep people from just sitting around drinking and help our servers make more in tips. We’re hoping that the community will help us and understand that.”

Nearly 80-90 percent of employees returned to work Friday. Lamson said morale is high among returning servers, bartenders and staff.

“Everybody is so ready to get back to work,” he said. “The ones that are here want to be here. We’re excited about that and they seem to be, too. We’re a neighborhood restaurant, people know us and we want people to know we are excited and ready to see them.”

To make a reservation, call 409-853-1249. Curbside service is still available.