Vecina is one of many restaurants still open for curbside takeaway.EXPAND
Vecina is one of many restaurants still open for curbside takeaway.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Against Long Odds, Valley Restaurants Fight to Survive the COVID-19 Storm

We first checked in with Phoenix-area restaurants about COVID-19 in mid-March. Then, the Arizona virus count was still low. Many restaurant operators predicted disruptions. Some were feeling early ripples; others had seen small sales declines. All surveyed were still open. But by now, the picture has changed and darkened.

Even the best, most lauded restaurants face a hard present and a brutal future.

Mandated by the state, restaurants have pivoted to takeout and delivery. Faced with the prospect of completely new business models, many restaurants have closed, maybe for now, maybe forever. Others have closed out of fears of accelerating the virus’s spread. Selling food involves human contact. It requires that people venture into public spaces, whether picking up dinner, delivering a meal, or cooking one.

Short-term, the sharp turn to takeout and delivery has proven challenging. “That has been really difficult for us to navigate,” says Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery. “Most of us aren’t set up for that.”

For Hashimoto and her small team, the challenge has been not just navigating an unknown, but an unknown that rapidly changes. “It has probably been the longest month of my entire life,” she says, referring to March. “From one minute to the next, you don’t know what’s going on. You’re trying to do the best to keep up with what’s happening.”

Pizza and pasta maestro Chris Bianco voices a similar concern. “Things are changing by the minute,” he says. “We are called to be Swiss army knives in this situation.”

Restaurants still open have seen business dive to a fraction of former sales. Moreover, there are fears that the present wave of goodwill, the ground swelling of community support for local eating, may erode in the weeks or months ahead. Even if it doesn’t, chefs and cooks still can’t sell enough food using the new model.

In north Phoenix, Jose Flores of Seydi’s Pupuseria & Grill has trimmed the number of workers to three: his mom (Seydi Flores), himself, and another cook whose hours have been reduced. “It’s been a little harder,” Jose says. “People like to go out and dine for the experience. The food is fresher at the restaurant. You open the pupusa and the cheese is all gooey.” They used to close at 8:30 p.m., but lately it has been “slowing down so badly by 6:30 we’re forced to close by 7:30.”

Momos, now available to go from Sherpa Kitchen.EXPAND
Momos, now available to go from Sherpa Kitchen.
Chris Malloy

In Gilbert, Subash Yadav of Sherpa Kitchen, newly opened. says business has been “slow.” Sherpa Kitchen has also cut its staff to three: Subash’s wife and co-owner Chandra Yadav, himself, and an operations manager. “I’m just glad we’re able to do what we’re doing,” Subash says.

In Queen Creek, the food truck Rhema Soul Cuisine has seen declines, buoyed here and there by press. “If no one’s coming to get the food you’re cooking, you’re wasting food and you’re wasting money,” says Ron Childs, who runs the truck with Via Childs, his wife. “For us to go out for five or six hours and we make $100 or $150 because people are scared, you just sit back and evaluate whether it’s worth going out.”

Recently, they parked the truck at an event by a shooting range. “People were so frantic buying the guns that food wasn’t even an option,” Via says. They did roughly $140 in sales that day, nothing like the gun shop. “They bought the whole shop out, but they didn’t stop for wings,” Ron says.

Cost-cutting has followed. One way: widespread layoffs across the industry, hard but necessary. Layoffs often double as a means for hospitality workers to get unemployment benefits, but undocumented workers, highly prevalent in the industry, lack this option.

Even nationally acclaimed places have cut staff. “We tend to have a big team and pay well because we believe service is worth having the best team in the world,” says Jonathan Buford, co-captain of Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company. “This [virus] drifts us down to a fraction of what we were.”

Bianco expresses a related sentiment, contrasting the Valley-wide, pre-virus shortage of hospitality workers with today’s reality. “A month ago, we couldn’t find employees,” he says. “Now, our hearts are breaking as we tell them we don’t have any answers and they might not have another check coming.”

Many changes to the food and beverage industry are more unseen, including broken supply chains. Small farms, their restaurant clients closed or selling at a trickle, face uncertain sales channels. The distributors who act as conduits between producers and restaurants have been slumping, too, as their clients on both sides grapple with rife uncertainty. Simple ingredients can be harder to get, and many have changed.

"We're keeping what we can on the menu,” says chef James Fox of Vecina, who now, with a smaller staff, also takes on tasks like washing dishes. “Some of the items are harder to get now. I was getting some no-antibiotic chicken thighs, but now they've put that stuff in the freezer, so I'm having to get in frozen chicken thighs." Another Vecina supplier had to freeze rib-eyes, because fresh cuts weren’t moving. "Everyone is doing what they can to protect what they have," Fox says.

COVID-19 has both kindled and killed creativity. Enormous financial pressures have birthed clever short-term adaptations. Hana is now selling raw gyoza, ginger pork, and other dishes for cooking at home, having created how-to videos. Bianco is baking new pies and even freezing some, while his trattoria, Tratto, has added raw pasta, bulk cooked sauces, and bottled cocktails.

At Sherpa Kitchen, Subash is launching a recipe program. With evolving boxes provided by Rhiba Farms, the Yadavs will include Nepalese recipes using the produce inside. “My goal is to eventually add recipes and just a base sauce, so people can just cut up the veggies and put in the sauce,” Subash says. He’s thinking about getting into YouTube videos and selling kits for making Nepalese preparations from scratch, like chai.

As businesses close or shift into survival mode, long-term creativity is likely to suffer. For one, consider all the cutting-edge restaurants that have closed, places that, with each service, were pushing food steadily further toward new horizons.

Arizona Wilderness Brewing owners Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware at Camp Coolship 8.EXPAND
Arizona Wilderness Brewing owners Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware at Camp Coolship 8.
Chris Malloy

On the beer end, Arizona Wilderness has had to scratch ambitious projects, including collaborative brewing in Australia and New Zealand. "Those things are not only out the window, I don't know if they'll come back for quite some time,” Buford says. “There's going to be a reverberation for some of these projects. We're not going to get back to business for months when this is all over. It could be months. It could be years."

At this point, nobody is making any real money from staying open. Local restaurant leaders like Danielle Leoni have been lobbying state government, pushing for protections like rent stays and tax breaks, as even closed restaurants are still getting hammered with bills. Leoni and other operators who have shuttered have done so out of concerns for public health. Though they're for the public good, the closures have clobbered their bottom lines.

“We're used to working hard in this industry for very little,” Leoni says. “If we can all stop, stay home, and be safe, really focus on flattening the curve, then our local government, our federal government, our state government is going to realize the magnitude of this."

If our pre-virus restaurant scene is to live on in any recognizable way, that government realization will have to spur proportionate action. Though restaurant operators still open and those who have closed are often at odds, they tend to agree on this. So far, the federal government has opened a channel to loans through the CARES Act, and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has started to take a few measures, such as stays on liquor license fees for 90 days and on small business evictions until June.

In early April, staying open has become about more than money. It’s about employing staff, about providing for community, about feeding. Staying open might make sense for some places now, for those toiling against long odds, but it might make less sense as the weeks of pandemic roll on.

Going dark can be frightening. As Hashimoto puts it, “A lot of people aren’t closing their doors because they might not reopen.”

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