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How Arizona's Dining Rooms Are Reopening With Smaller Crowds in Mind

The newly arranged dining room at Beckett's Table.EXPAND
The newly arranged dining room at Beckett's Table.
Justin Beckett

Many Arizona restaurants are ready to invite the public to be their guest once more. They're opening their doors to diners for the first time since mid March, when Arizona’s shelter-in-place order hit the pause button on the restaurant industry. And many industry members are changing the dining experience as they monitor coronavirus headlines and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Local First Arizona has been helping its affiliate restaurants navigate both the economic reality of surviving without a steady income for the last few months and the new guidelines for reopening. LFA founder Kimber Lanning has been busy talking to restaurant owners about what they're facing.

“The needs that we’re hearing from these businesses are quite diverse,” Lanning says. “Some of them need capital. Some need assistance with negotiations with landlords. Some need more guidance on how they can set up their dining rooms and, more importantly, how they can set up their staff to be safe.”

Lanning says several entrepreneurs have adapted their business models to operate during the shelter-in-place order. Jobot Coffee on Roosevelt Street offered weekly pick-ups for community supported agriculture (CSA) baskets, while Torta Paquime sold bulk grocery packages with food and cleaning supplies. But Lanning has some advice for patrons, too.

“If you go into a business that has decided to open its dining room and they only have half their tables full and they only have half of the staff, you may not get the service you are accustomed to,” Lanning says. “Be patient. Leave a good tip.”

Many restaurateurs are now trying to balance the need for safety with their customer commitment. We spoke to three.

Patio seating at CiBO Urban Pizzeria has been cut in half.EXPAND
Patio seating at CiBO Urban Pizzeria has been cut in half.
Michael Krassner

CiBO Urban Pizzeria

CiBO owner Michael Krassner remembers the excitement of the dinner rush crowd at his downtown restaurant. “There would be tons of people waiting in line and trying to get a drink at the bar,” he says. “Those days are over, for a while, until at least there are treatments or a vaccine.”

As of today (May 26), CiBo is open for patio dining only. Krassner says reservations are required because of the need for crowd control. The patio normally seats 30 people. Krassner’s changes have cut that number in half.

“It’s for cost and safety,” he says. “When you walk into the restaurant, you will see I’ve been able to do more than the recommended 6 feet between tables.”

There’s also an option for diners to order their meal online and pay for everything in advance to avoid touch during transactions at the restaurant.

Krassner says strict sanitation measures are already built into the business. He is committed to following health guidelines for the sake of his customers and his staff.

“We have to protect ourselves. I have bad asthma and we have employees here who are moderate risk,” he says.

But before reopening, Krassner says he took this break to recalibrate his vision for CiBO.

“Chef Guido Saccone is my business partner. We’ve been eating dinner together every night, just talking and coming up with new ideas,” Krassner says. “This has given us time to be a little creative, even though it hurts now. We’re in the hole. We’re in a little debt. But we’re fine. We will be able to continue. It’s going to be a better experience for everybody.”

Spacious patio seating at Schmooze in Scottsdale.EXPAND
Spacious patio seating at Schmooze in Scottsdale.
Tony Hamati

Schmooze Bar & Breakfast

This Scottsdale bar and breakfast spot opened for patio dining in mid May, but owner Tony Hamati says his staff has been working on reopening plans since closing in mid-March.

The pandemic was an unexpected challenge for this veteran chef, who's been in the industry and opening new dining establishments since 1985. “It’s not like coming up with a new dish," Hamati says. "It [the coronavirus] is an invisible thing that could be around us or next door.”

Based on social distance guidelines, there are currently 95 seats available for patio dining, down from a full capacity of 270 when Schmooze could use both patios and the indoor dining section. Hamati is also working with a smaller menu in order to provide efficient service. He’s offering seasonal items based on what he can get from suppliers.

“More seafood is coming up, like smoked salmon next week,” he says. “But no more croissants, unfortunately. Everyone keeps asking about them, but we can’t get shipments from France.”

Like most restaurants, Schmooze staff have followed strict cleaning guidelines. Staff members have been split into two teams for their shifts, and temperature checks are done before the start of shifts. They also wear masks.

According to Hamati, the restaurant is also offering plastic utensils and plates for diners. And he worked with an outside developer to produce an app for ordering menu items.

“We’ve seen about 35 percent of people ordering through the app,” he says. He also joins weekly calls with colleagues from other restaurants to share experiences and give each other a morale boost. He says it all seems to be working.

“We have a beautiful patio," Hamati says. "It’s the perfect distance for everyone. With the flowers and the garden, it’s a beautiful setting for the situation we are in.”

Inside the dining room at Southern Rail.EXPAND
Inside the dining room at Southern Rail.
Justin Beckett

Beckett’s Table and Southern Rail

Chef Justin Beckett's two restaurants, Beckett’s Table and Southern Rail, opened on May 20 for dine-in service. But before that, Beckett says it seemed like he had an endless list of things to do — from new safety measures for guests to keeping track of food for classic menu items and new, lighter items for the summer.

As of now, reservations are highly recommended for both locations.

“If our patios were open along with the dining room, we are probably close to 60 percent seating — so we’re losing a significant amount of seats,” he says. "Our goal was not to eliminate the X percentage of seats. Our goal was to rearrange the dining room in a way that makes people feel like they’re at a safe distance from other tables.”

Beckett and his kitchen staff spent the last eight weeks getting used to working with face masks as they prepared takeout orders. More changes at his restaurants include keeping tables free of salt and pepper shakers as well as water glasses. Everything, including silverware, will be available as needed.

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Beckett (who has opened 18 restaurants in his career) says he’s treating the reopening like starting two new restaurants. And he expects to be thrown a curve ball or two.

“We're going to be fluid and do what makes sense for the community, what makes sense for the restaurant, and what makes sense for the safety of our employees,” he says.

But Beckett seems to have a sunnier outlook than most. For instance, he thinks this summer could be a busy one for Arizona’s restaurant industry.

“We are thinking this may not be as slow as a typical summer because a lot of summer plans may have been canceled,” he says. “So we’re open, hopefully not only to gain back some of the revenue that we lost over the prime season, but also to be a consistent neighborhood spot."

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