Do Arizona restaurants resume dine-in services now, stick with takeout, or just ... wait?
We spoke to four Valley restaurant owners — the 2019 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southwest, a husband-and-wife team running a well-loved sandwich shop, and one chef/owner operating two popular restaurants — to see how they're thinking about reopening after the coronavirus shutdown.
FnB Restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale“I guess that’s my biggest fear now, that we’re opening up into the summer with so little to back us up,” says Charleen Badman, the James Beard Award-winning chef who owns FnB Restaurant with Pavle Milic.
She's referencing the fact that not only have Arizona restaurants missed out on a few months of business, the months they missed are also historically the most profitable ones for restaurants in Arizona.
FnB was one of the first restaurants to voluntarily close its dining room. The team quickly switched to takeout, doing up to 100 orders a night. But the owners worried about exposure to staff and guests.
FnB closed completely the weekend of March 14. Badman and Milic gave their staff groceries from the kitchen and $1,000 checks a piece, totaling $24,000.
Badman says FnB will reopen May 20. But that date is fluid. [FnB's opening date has since been pushed to June 3, and will be open for takeout only to start.]
“While we’re moving forward with cleaning and plugging things back in, nothing is set in stone,” she says. “The worst thing that could happen is opening and then having to close again … You can’t afford doing that all over again.”
FnB is going straight into its summer schedule — four days a week from now till August. It will also have a very modified menu. “It’ll probably look like when we first opened and didn’t have any money,” she says.
Badman says seatings after the COVID-19 shutdown will create a third element to customer satisfaction in dining rooms. A restaurant must have great food, great service, and now, a level of comfort that makes them feel safe.
“If people had a bad experience with the food or service, they weren’t’ coming back,” she says. “Now if they had a bad experience because they did not feel safe, that we weren’t doing the best that we could to make them feel secure, they’re not coming back.”
Of course, that element will be mostly dependent on workers. Badman says a thermometer gun is in the mail for staff temperature checks. Everyone’s forehead will be zapped upon entry, and the temperature logged — though Badman says team members will hopefully just call ahead if they aren’t feeling well. And as someone with more than 30 years in the restaurant industry, Badman recognizes this as a major shift in usual food worker behavior.
“This is the business where … you work sick, you suck it up,” she says. “Those days are over.”
Badman says FnB staff will also now offer envelopes, or small bags, so guests may safely store masks while eating. There will be hand sanitizer stations. And they may hire someone to just handle takeout — something the Scottsdale’s restaurant didn’t necessarily do too much of before but could maybe make up for a least a third of the lost occupancy business.
FnB’s new floor plan was set as of May 7.
“We’re going from 90 seats — including the patio — to 40 to 45 seats, which is like little FnB,” Badman says. “Except it’s going to be very spread out.”
The patio and dining rooms are getting a major downsize. The middle chamber will seat larger parties but be capped at six. The bar area will have two seats at one end, two seats at the opposite, and a two-seated table. That’s it.
“I don’t see us going back to a 90-seat for quite some time,” Badman says.
Worth Takeaway in Historic Downtown MesaFor others, the pressure to reopen the dining area is just not there. Worth Takeaway, the chef-driven craft sandwich shop in downtown Mesa, has done better than expected with just the “takeaway” part.
“We had systems in place from day one that allowed us to shift pretty seamlessly, so there’s not a sense of urgency on our part to [reopen],” says co-owner Kelsey Strothers. “We know that everyone is going to have their own reasoning ... but for us, it just doesn't feel right to open up quite yet.”
Strothers says the Worth team didn’t lose any staff or make major changes. In the first weeks, she and co-owner/husband Jim Bob Strothers were waiting for a plummet that never arrived. That’s not to say it's been all rosy, though.
“Our margins aren’t quite as good because a lot of our business shifted from dine-in to the delivery platforms, which do take a fee,” Kelsey says. “So, we’re not quite as profitable, but we’re just happy to have cashflow at a time like this when a lot of people don’t.”
“We refer to that as the gravy, the extra that helps us get through the summertime,” she says, explaining how sales see an uptick of 20 to 30 percent during February, March, and April. “We equate what we’ve seen in the past few months to a January — not quite as busy as the holidays or spring training season, but not what we see in the summer months either.”
Worth’s bigger challenge may come in how the dining room can reopen. The space is slim — just 28 seats.
“With our spacing the size that it is, we don’t feel like we can confidently reopen and keep people social distanced from each other while they dine with us. Or, if they did, it’d be like the smallest number of people,” she says.
“Like, four people,” Jim Bob adds.
But the Strotherses are also concerned about the safety of their staff. “We don’t think we’ve necessarily seen the worst of things and by opening up our dining room, we’re just increasing the odds that our team is going to get sick,” Kelsey says.
With all the data gathered — the restaurant doing okay, the small dining space, and trying to limit exposure for team members and others — the Strotherses say they don’t have a great answer to when dine-in services will resume.
“We’re probably going to wait at least another three weeks and see what the ripple effect of these decisions might be throughout the Valley,” Kelsey says.
However, they’re confident that customers — which the Strotherses say have humbled the Worth team with their support in sandwich sales, online and elsewhere — will quickly return.
“In terms of filling our dining room, which granted that's not a huge feat to do … we feel pretty confident,” Kelsey says. “When the time does come, we feel like we’ll get that support.”
Gallo Blanco and Otro Café, Both in Phoenix
Despite the state of the restaurant industry, some of the Valley’s chef-owners still seem positive, almost reenergized. Doug Robson, owner and chef of Gallo Blanco and Otro Café, sounds this side of cheery.
“Part of recovery is admitting you don’t control anything,” he says. “I just have to accept it and take it one day at a time.”
During shutdown, Robson has been spending time with family, cooking, pushing the garden on his kids. But now, he and both restaurants are starting to reawaken.
Both Gallo and Otro went completely dark early on. They only just picked up the takeout model this week. But an opening date for the dining rooms is not in sight yet. Robson says there’s no question both could open now, but he feels he and his staff haven’t done everything they can to ensure customers will feel safe.
“We’re not there yet,” he says. “I’m not the fastest at doing things, but sometimes the slow road’s better. So, I’m waiting till July 1 to make real big decisions about what we’re going to do.”
“You have to give people a little bit of leeway with these kinds of things,” he says.
Robson notes that while spring training is great for Phoenix restaurants overall, each of his restaurants were built for the surrounding neighborhood — Garfield and Uptown, respectively. Still, the shutdown was a major bummer for the business.
“2020 is definitely not going the way we mapped it,” he says. “We were on track to have the best year at both places.”
Robson says he doesn’t know how the dining rooms and patios will look like yet, but there will be temperature checks, limited seating, and continued takeout offerings. That, along with some hopefully relaxed laws on to-go alcohol sales, may help sustain the operations, though not enough to get them to where they were before. That will take time.
“When this is all over,” he says. “It’s still going to be a long haul for restaurants.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated from its original version.