Cover Story

Ghost Kitchens: Notes from Phoenix's Pandemic-Ravaged Restaurant Scene

Stephen Jones of The Larder + The Delta wants government action.
Stephen Jones of The Larder + The Delta wants government action. Jacob Tyler Dunn
In March, when the total number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona crept into double digits, chefs were worried. Fear had chilled the public. Staying home on Friday, Saturday, and other nights was becoming normal. “Business is down drastically,” one chef told me in mid-March. “I can’t tell you how many cancellations we’ve had,” said another. It was as if one day fate had flipped a switch and then, abruptly, restaurants were treading water in cement shoes.

Again, this was when the number of total cases blipped past 10. This was when restaurants were worried about missing a spring boom season and hoping to return to normalcy once the virus was gone, probably by June. Nine months later, testing has revealed 1,000 times that many new cases in a single day, and restaurant owners, chefs, and other professionals are praying, perhaps against the odds, that they will see a fraction of a spring boom season in 2021.

“Nothing is moving,” says Stephen Jones, chef at The Larder + The Delta. “The horizon is grim ... It looks like we’re probably going to miss our season again.”

“You have spectacular food everywhere in Phoenix, and then you have dead or dying restaurants,” says Silvana Salcido Esparza, chef at Barrio Cafe.

“I’m actually the dishwasher,” says Tamara Stanger, chef at Cotton & Copper. “We haven’t rehired a dishwasher. Our GM? Her last day was yesterday. One of our bartenders, her last day was yesterday, too. It’s not enough for them. They’re more stepping away from restaurants altogether.”

click to enlarge There's "no hope in sight with the prognosis we have now," says Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe. - LYNN TRIMBLE
There's "no hope in sight with the prognosis we have now," says Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe.
Lynn Trimble
As 2020 straggles to a close, thousands of independent restaurants are on the brink, with the rare exception of some with food conducive to takeout or delivery. In just nine months, more than 10 percent of Arizona’s restaurants have closed, according to Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association. Of Arizona’s 9,500 restaurants, he says, some 1,000 have shuttered since the pandemic began. Tens of thousands of restaurant jobs have been vaporized.

Each closure marks the devastation of a dream, financial losses (and often a correlating loss of personal stability among owners and staff), the erasure of a community space, and the end of countless small traditions. Many restaurants across Arizona are currently, Chucri says, “hanging on by their fingernails.”

Though independent restaurants have been hit especially hard, not all are staring down imminent doom. It varies, notes Kimber Lanning, founder and executive director of Local First Arizona. “Some are doing comparable to what they were doing last year,” she says. “Others are just being pummeled.”

On the fortunate end fall restaurants like Seydi’s Pupuseria & Grill. With the spread of the virus in spring, “business went down a little bit,” says co-owner Jose Flores. Since then, business has vacillated between high and low, “like a wave.” Overall, Flores believes the future of his eatery in north Phoenix looks promising. “I feel pretty good going into 2021,” he says. “We’re just going to continue doing what we do.”

Similarly, Eric’s Family BBQ in Avondale has had a relatively positive run, though the early road was rough. With meatpacking plants crippled by mid-year outbreaks, food prices soared.

“And that was in the summer, so with COVID, summer, and prices, it was just not a good month at all,” says Eric Tanori, co-owner. Tanori and three of the restaurant’s four partners have had to get outside jobs “to feed the family.” They still have them. But they have trained staff on the ways of their smoker. They also got a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, helping them retain staff. By now, sales have slowly crept back up to 80 percent of February 2020 peaks.

Though Eric’s appears to have ducked the apocalypse, that doesn’t mean life is gravy. “I haven’t touched a brisket for a while now,” Tanori laments.

These are two restaurants with food conducive to takeout — tamales and pupusas, barbecue — that can also feed a family with a pandemic-reduced income at low prices. Fine-dining establishments have tended to face a rougher road. Some have been temporarily dark since spring. Others have endured the erratic customer flows, reduced dining room capacity, and whiplash swiveling to new models, including delivery, takeout, and new menus.

click to enlarge Tamara Stanger, chef at Cotton & Copper, is also now its dishwasher. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Tamara Stanger, chef at Cotton & Copper, is also now its dishwasher.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
The going has been tough. “The ups and downs, the highs and lows, the emotional rollercoaster, the constant gut punchers,” says Jones. “It feels like no matter how we look at it, restaurants are cheated, gut punched. It feels like a gut punch from Mike Tyson.”

Jones says downtown has been empty. He has spoken with two downtown restaurant owners who hope to hang on through the holidays and year’s end, then close. “People are done with it,” he says. “You have nothing left to give.”

In Tempe, Tamara Stanger has seen new patterns of business at Cotton & Copper. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, the first half of the week, everybody I’ve talked to says it’s just nobody,” she says. “And then you have Friday and Saturday, it’s packed.” Some nights, after not getting a single customer for “several hours,” Stanger has sent cooks home. Her restaurant is now closed for three weeks to develop a more affordable “fast casual” menu tailored to “better takeout.”

“Restaurants need a lot more help right now,” she says.

This is the plea expressed by just about every restaurant industry professional these days — in words heated, sad, disappointed, optimistic, hopeful, upset, worried, and enraged. Restaurants, through no fault of their own, face an extinction event, one caused largely by failures of governmental leadership.

In February 2020, New Zealand recorded its first coronavirus case. Today the country, which has seen 25 deaths, is virus-free and back in the grooves of its pre-COVID life. The U.S. logged its first case in January 2020. Since then, we’ve seen more Americans die than in World War II and are staring down a ghastly, skyrocketing virus curve.

The picture is bleak. Next year will likely be even bleaker.

The idiosyncratic seasonal rhythms of the Arizona restaurant scene make the 2021 outlook especially troubling. Last week, the first vaccines reached Phoenix. They won’t be widely administered until early spring 2021 or later. This means that, if vaccines roll out in an orderly manner, Phoenix restaurants might see a partial spring 2021 season before summer — the hot, slow, brutal stretch for restaurants that doesn’t fully end until October. That’s assuming people feel comfortable returning to pre-COVID life immediately following widespread vaccination.

In hard reality, there’s a good chance that restaurants won’t return to pre-COVID business levels until fall 2021 — about 10 months from now. In order to navigate the long months ahead, independent restaurant owners will need more state and federal aid. The governments that have failed them so far will have to step up.

click to enlarge Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery has survived thanks to regular customers and city grants. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery has survived thanks to regular customers and city grants.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery received a PPP loan from the federal government. This allowed her to retain her employees and keep her lights on, with business down but manageable thanks to steady regulars — “that Thursday night customer, that Friday night customer.” These cash infusions were vital to retaining the restaurant’s soul. “I have 12 people that have given me their life for more than a decade,” she says. “There was just no way I was going to cut their hours.”

Broadly, grants from the City of Phoenix have been a blessing to owners. PPP loans have come with some frustrating strings attached (short timelines, spending restrictions, tax hurdles) but have been generally welcomed by the recipients — even though billions of dollars in PPP loans went to chain restaurants and fast-food franchises. State and federal programs like liquor license fee relief and payroll tax deferrals have also helped; most restaurant owners want protections like these extended.

However, facing down the specter of 2021, restaurants will need more of a government boost than they had, especially now that the ability to sell takeout cocktails has been scotched by a state court. The governor’s office’s recent marquee rollout consisted of $1 million for restaurant patio expansion into formerly off-limits spaces — a necessary outdoor capacity amendment but a paltry financial allocation, given the number of restaurants in the state.

“I would like to see him [Governor Doug Ducey] do anything,” Jones says. “And honestly, make a damn decision. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter.”

click to enlarge Subash Yadav closed his restaurant, Sherpa Kitchen, to start a line of prepared foods. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Subash Yadav closed his restaurant, Sherpa Kitchen, to start a line of prepared foods.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
“Seeing [lack of] support from the Congress, especially because restaurants generate over $800 billion a year and employ over 13 million people… has been upsetting,” says Subash Yadav, who recently closed his Gilbert restaurant, Sherpa Kitchen, and has pivoted to starting a line of sauces and momos. “If we could somehow get the word to Congress and make them realize how important this industry is, that would be fantastic.”

Just before press, the U.S. Senate struck a new $900 billion stimulus deal. This deal, while financing an improved round of PPP loans, while infinitely better than nothing, is for less than half of the first stimulus package of 2020. All in all, it under-serves both unemployed restaurant workers and restaurants.

Across the restaurant industry, leading advocates are calling for a restaurants-specific act (one has actually passed in the U.S. House of Representatives but languished in the Senate) that focuses on allocating funds to restaurants. In spirit, this would amount to some version of an industry-wide bailout, something with ample precedent this century.

Dwayne Allen, co-owner of The Breadfruit, is one proponent of such legislation.

“We’re simply saying to our elected officials that — in the same way they step up to the plate to provide relief for the auto industry when they were in crisis, the airline industry, the banking industry — the restaurant industry needs funding,” he says. “We need to get funding that allows restaurants to take care of their obligations, not be concerned about losing their life’s work, their investment. That’s people’s life savings, man, what people are looking for to retire.”

Allen cites estimates that 40 percent of independent restaurants will have closed by pandemic’s end. “We’ve invested in this industry for a lifetime, and just to simply let us languish by the wayside is irresponsible, wrong, and neglectful on the part of our elected officials,” he says.

With help, more restaurants will survive, more people will retain jobs and dreams, and more of our city’s lifeblood and culture will make it to the other side of this seemingly never-ending national tragedy.

The far side looks distant but bright, and not just by virtue of the present darkness. “Let’s not forget that Maricopa County is one of the fastest-growing counties in America,” says Chucri. “It has been the fastest growing the past three years. We’ve got 200 people moving here a day, and everyone’s gotta eat.”

After COVID, the local restaurant scene, though battered and forever changed, will be ready for just about anything.

“For 2020, everyone did pretty much what they could,” Hashimoto says. “Everyone was in a peculiar situation. When you look back at it, it was a good opportunity for all us to look back and take stock of what we were doing, and kind of adjust the way we were operating.”

At the same time, Hashimoto believes, as she was taught by her father, to always be grateful for what you have. Everything is potentially evanescent. “One day you could wake up,” she says, channeling his words, “and everything could be gone.”
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy