After years on the Arizona food festival circuit, Preston White and his mother, Anna Heinbach, finally decided to take the risk and open a brick-and-mortar location. Hot Bamboo opened in February. The co-owners were successfully running the Chandler restaurant while continuing to serve their popular steamed buns at festivals and events. Then, the pandemic hit.
With restaurants under strict takeout-only orders, Hot Bamboo has been forced to cut the majority of its staff and reduce its operating hours to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. In another blow, all of its scheduled food festivals are canceled through June. Sales are down 90 percent.
“We want to stay open as much as we can and as long as we’re making money," White says. "But it’s not easy.”
The entire restaurant industry is feeling the effects of COVID-19, yes. But new restaurant owners face the added challenge of pivoting business to takeout before having a chance to establish themselves in the dining scene. New Phoenix-area restaurants like Josephine, uptown's Revolu, the Biltmore's Bamboo Sushi, and countless others have temporarily ceased operations until the pandemic blows over. Some might never reopen.
White is finding new ways to get the word out about his food, which includes delivering for first responders, adding Hot Bamboo to third-party services like DoorDash and Postmates, and blasting specials on social media. He’s also working with local food bloggers to find new customers, even as the eatery's regulars continue to show up for his food.
“I would say like 90 percent [of our customers] know us from festivals or events or just seeing us on social media,” he says. “So we have a large following.”
Like Hot Bamboo, uptown’s Persepshen has amassed a sizable fanbase from its years as a vendor at farmers markets around the Valley and its local, organic, and sustainable menu. But even so, “We’re doing in a week what we did in a night,” says chef and owner Jason Dwight.
Persepshen, which opened last October, typically offers a memorable experience with its distinct dining room and shared community table, allowing customers to enjoy a rotating seasonal menu with strangers. Now, it must rely on the food alone. “Having that taken away, I guess we’re just still fortunate to have such excellent quality of food that people appreciate,” he says.
In addition to word-of-mouth referrals and offering its full menu for takeout, Persepshen is using social media and its website to reach people. The mom-and-pop restaurant has added a Sunday night family meal to its menu: wood-fired pizza, fresh fettuccine with pork ragu, a large salad, and a bottle of malbec for $65. Dwight is also gearing up to offer Saturday farmers market-style lunches on the restaurant’s large patio.
However, Persepshen refuses to cut costs and is continuing to buy whole animals and organic produce from local farms. “It's about just bringing people together,” Dwight says. "Building community through our community of food."
Thai Chili 2 Go is a fast-growing, fast-casual chain in the Valley with its latest location opening in Tempe this past October. But a brand with a significant presence in Phoenix, even with takeout implied right in its name, isn’t immune to COVID-19. The Tempe location is in a high-traffic spot at Elliot Road and Loop 101, but with many working from home or opting to cook, sales are down. The restaurant is still running, but on the barest of bones.
Owner Akshat Sethi says he believes the to-go chain’s 10 locations — including one full-service, sit-down restaurant in Gilbert — will ensure Thai Chili 2 Go’s continued success. “Having multiple locations has helped us tremendously to kind of offset some of the downturn we’ve seen in one or two locations of ours,” he says.
In addition to relying on a robust email club to inform customers, Sethi says the chain is working on installing banners and flags at all locations so customers have no doubt the restaurants are open. Thai Chili 2 Go is also running weekly promotions, like customers getting 20 percent off when they order on the website or through the app.
“It’s hard for everybody and we’re trying to do our best to keep the food as affordable as we can,” Sethi says.
While he works to get his own business ready for reopening, he is conscious of the fact that Phoenix’s maturing food scene is suffering right now. But he also sees a lot of support in the community.
“I personally think takeout food is really a symbol of hope right now,” he says. “I think the food industry will thrive once again.”