COVID-19 has been brutal on the restaurant industry.
From restrictions that limited business to supply chain issues to workers falling ill with a life-threatening illness, restaurants and other eateries in the Valley have struggled to find ways to prepare, serve and sometimes to deliver food in a healthier and safer way.
While restaurant business models often require owners to innovate to keep their business alive, stealing tips from others and examining a facility or method in different ways has created new solutions.
And the benefit of the pandemic is that it has given restaurateurs a forced new perspective to look at their business and see what would work. This involved going beyond packing customers into tight spaces and reducing touchpoints such as menus and utensils.
The look of post-COVID restaurants
Many restaurants are built around the dining experience, thriving on location, decor and ambiance, often for large meals and entertaining with family and friends.
Many restaurants have changed this to deal with a pandemic. Some continue to do so while others have returned to a pre-pandemic situation.
Michael Rusconi said he left his glass partitions at Rusconi American Kitchen’s North Tatum Boulevard location.
Conversely, Tim Vasquez, owner of Someburros, said his chain removed the dividers when they were no longer needed because customers and staff found them a barrier to communication.
Although almost all seats have been returned to the dining room, it is difficult to serve all potential customers who wish to dine.
“The amount of time people tend to stay and dine seems to have increased, and I don’t know if that’s going to change,” Rusconi said. “After the chance to have dinner with family and friends was cut off, people were really grateful to get that back.”
Rusconi said he hopes customers will limit their stay to no more than two hours so smaller restaurants can maintain reservations and continue to shift the flow of customers waiting outside.
John Stidham, owner of the original Original Breakfast House on 32nd Street in Phoenix, said he was down to 95 from what was around 110 seats before the pandemic. A few seats at the counter have been sacrificed to make way for an expanded delivery service.
“We have a covered patio for those waiting outside,” Stidham said.
A former owner of several restaurants, Stidham said some health-related changes to a venue can be decorative. As part of a major renovation to the breakfast house over the past two years, antique windows have been installed between the cabins.
Among the big fast-casual chains, seating has also changed. Vasquez said the small Someburros chain decided to stick with limited indoor seating oriented to a 6-foot distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of a virus.
“It’s easier to keep fewer tables clean and sanitized,” Vasquez said.
The 12-restaurant chain Someburros – which will soon add locations in Goodyear, Peoria and two in the North Valley – used to have silverware bins for dine-in customers.
“Now we have pre-packaged napkin/silverware packages,” Vasquez said.
Using hard, washable plates and silverware is a 10-year-old concept at Someburros. However, Vasquez said, while water usage is a concern, it feels good not to put more paper and plastic on restaurant customers when takeout and delivery are on the rise.
Stacy Young, Senior Artistic Director of the Cafe Rio chain, said the easiest way to keep up with the patchwork of COVID-19 spacing, cleaning and customer interaction is to simply follow the strictest rules at the United States.
“A lot of things, we’ve just been part of company policy, until further notice,” Young said. “For example, we still require masks for all staff.”
Rusconi, Stidham, Vasquez and Young all mentioned spending more on hand sanitizer for guests and staff. Young said vaccination is strongly encouraged by Cafe Rio.
Dine in vs drive-thru or take-out
One of the biggest changes has been that most restaurants are adapting more take-out and drive-thru services if locations allow.
Vasquez said Someburros’ four newer locations will be equipped with full drive-through and take-out service, while some older locations will be upgraded to layouts.
Rusconi said he appreciates customers who take advantage of Rusconi American Kitchen’s specialty take-out menu — so much so that he offers food on that menu as a token of appreciation to customers.
Stidham said he had sacrificed some seats at the well-known counter in his Original Breakfast House to create a larger take-out station.
He said his team ‘didn’t even answer the phone’ regarding take-out orders before the pandemic, grew to ‘substantial’ when his restaurant was closed at the restaurant, accounted for about 15-20% of overall business once reopened. and is now down to 5-10% over the past few months.
Young said Cafe Rio’s mobile app and website made it easy to order ahead. She also said that while drive-thru and take-out services make things a bit safer, it only matters if employees are as clean and safe as possible when handling food.
“We’ve always focused on cleaning and disinfecting, constantly,” Young said.
Finances and personnel policy
Rusconi said rising wages made it difficult for him to stay in the black. Rising costs prevented him from opening another location or increasing hours of operation at his current location.
However, he said, COVID-19 has reminded him that restaurant life is more than just a race for more profits.
“It’s very emotional,” Rusconi said, describing the toll the company takes on all employees. “I gave everyone a week off with pay in July just to rest. And we have been as liberal as possible in allowing staff to use paid leave.
Rusconi said taking a COVID-19 test immediately after showing symptoms is a dramatic change that seems permanent.
Stidham said he was lucky to have been in a good financial position as a businessman when COVID-19 restrictions began in early 2020 – and he knows many business people who don’t. were not. He was able to pay the staff to stay home for a few periods and was lucky to keep his staff virtually intact.
Young said Cafe Rio employees have a hotline to call with health concerns. There are weekly meetings where management communicates any new health information or policies to all employees.
If someone gets sick after being in a Cafe Rio store, Young said, that store is immediately closed for at least the rest of the day for a deep cleaning.
Rusconi said he knows some restaurant workers, especially younger ones, are often just looking for a job. Many others, however, make a career out of it; it’s a big part of their identity.
“Some jobs are tough if you don’t try to have fun every day,” Rusconi said. “We all have high expectations. We all have pride. It’s easier to be good at something when you like it.