The first six months of calendar year 2020 has been more devastating to the Arizona restaurant industry than any other event that came before it, industry experts agree.
“I have been in this job for 18 years, and I came in just after 9/11, but you take 9/11, the Katrina disaster and you take some of the nation’s toughest times as tough times for restaurants --- but they don’t even stack up,” said Arizona Restaurant Association President and CEO Steve Chucri.
“In way of havoc on the industry, there is no comparison. The global aspect of this is restaurants, two years ago, became the No. 1 trusted industry in America. We, as an industry, even beat out the tech sector.”
Based at the Phoenix Biltmore Talon Center, 3333 E. Camelback Road No. 285, the Arizona Restaurant Association hosts a membership of 1,800 restaurateurs and has been an advocate for the industry for nearly 80 years.
But the Arizona restaurant industry, as a whole, is made up of 10,000 restaurants operating at various degrees of the industry: fast-casual, casual, and fine dining.
Mr. Chucri points out, as a whole, the restaurant industry was poised for a big year in 2020 as central Phoenix and pockets all over the Valley of the Sun are gaining national notoriety as foodie destinations.
“In Arizona, we were seeing gains year-over-year --- from $600 to $800 million per year in revenue as an industry,” he said. “Nationally, we were slated to sell $900 billion worth of food. We are almost a trillion-dollar industry.”
--- Steve Chucri
Mr. Chucri calls the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic --- and subsequent government public health regulations --- a “perfect storm” of destruction.
“The number of losses reported in April was $815 million, $29 million in daily payroll here in Arizona fell to $2 million. We have seen 70% of layoffs,” Mr. Chucri said of the brutal truth of the ongoing economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
But Mr. Chucri says through crisis innovation is born.
“We stood up and created immediately, with relative ease, in only three days, Arizona Takeout Week, which is how we transformed Arizona Restaurant Week,” he said. “That worked very well.”
Beyond industry shifts to weather the COVID-19 storm, Mr. Chucri points out restaurants serve a vital role for thousands of seniors throughout Arizona.
“Embarrassingly so, we are a dependent food source for many of the elderly population,” Mr. Chucri explains. “When you are widowed you often come to a restaurant for one meal a day. It is an essential service for many.”
For many restaurants that are surviving --- ARA officials say about 10% of all restaurants statewide have closed for good --- the recipe for success has one main ingredient: the regular.
Sima Verzino, who co-owns Marcellino Ristorante in Old Town Scottsdale, with her husband Chef Marcellino Verzino, couldn’t agree more with the power of the regular customer.
“We ‘grew’ our business with sheer strength in our passion and diligence in creating and offering the best possible ingredients and food creations,” Ms. Verzino said.
“Chef Marcellino is a distinguished, highly awarded chef who has twice been invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard Foundation in New York, and we’ve been fortunate in receiving rave reviews for his fresh, hand-crafted cuisine.”
For nearly 20 years, Ms. Verzino says Marcellino Ristorante has been striving to provide a one-of-a-kind experience in Old Town Scottsdale.
“We also strive to provide a memorable experience for all our guests, and our commitment to service is one reason Marcellino Ristorante has been in business for nearly 17 years,” she said.
But when the COVID-19 outbreak was first spreading, the global supply chain was an initial concern, Ms. Verzino explains.
“There are different departments of food we must purchase; many daily,” Ms. Verzino said.
“Fresh vegetables, eggs, meat, fish, and ingredients that are used for our desserts. Many are sourced from the United States, and others from Italy. All must pass stringent testing by the USDA prior to reaching us and eventually to the consumer. Once our purchases reach our ristorante, all are scrutinized for cleanliness, freshness, and dates of expiration.”
Chef Marcellino Verzino reports all supply chains for his restaurant have remained intact during the ongoing pandemic.
“As for the supply line, we have not been stunted in our purchases,” he said pointing out his signature dish, Portofino Linguine has ingredients hailing from both Italy and Mexico --- two distinct global supply chain links. “We have always purchased from the most reputable suppliers who are as concerned as all others in maintaining the strictest of protocols for our health.”
--- Chef Marcellino
Ms. Verzino says despite, at times, the uncertainty of the situation amid the global pandemic, suppliers have remained constant for Marcellino Ristorante.
“Our food suppliers are the same as before the pandemic,” she pointed out. “USDA has always been stringent in their inspections. All of our supply companies are approved and certified by the USDA.”
But one hiccup in the supply chain did occur for the Old Town restaurant as Italy became the global focus of the COVID-19 outbreak, which was, of course, a steady supply of Italian wines.
“However, when the global pandemic first hit Italy and coronavirus cases began to rise there, shipments of our Italian wine were delayed by a month,” she explained. “We were fortunate in that Chef Marcellino always purchases extra, so we had enough for our clients. But if he had not been wise with his purchasing decisions, we would have had a huge problem.”
For restaurant goers during the time of the novel coronavirus cleanliness is the No. 1 priority of proprietor and patron, Chef Marcellino explains.
“Our kitchen and entire premises have always been disinfected and cleaned both nightly and throughout prep time and evening service,” he said. “Mondays are dedicated to a deep cleaning of the kitchen where stoves and all prep tables are pulled away from the walls and cleaned and sanitized behind as well as above all exhausts including exhaust fans. The kitchen team has always utilized latex-free gloves and kitchen hats/nets to protect their hair.”
Chef Marcellino confirms all protocols established by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention are strictly followed at his restaurant. Those protocols include:
A big part of a restaurant’s survival, Ms. Verzino points out, is the reputation one builds in a local community. And, more often than not, that’s where Susie Timm of Knife and Fork Media comes into the picture.
“I have been in public relations for 10 years and we specialize in food and beverage public relations,” she said of her PR company. “I represent over 20 restaurants and they range from fine dining to quick service. Most are individually owned, with a few franchises scattered in. I have represented the Arizona Restaurant Association for nine years.”
Ms. Timm says the No. 1 message to the general public: restaurant dining is safe, affordable, and accessible.
“We want to assure our guests that we offer a safe and comfortable dining experience whether you choose to dine-in or carry out,” she said. “We have also shifted a lot of focus to carry-out family meals and carry-out process in general.”
--- Susie Timm
Ms. Timm echoes sentiments expressed by Mr. Chucri regarding the impact COVID-19 is having on the Arizona restaurant industry.
“We have barely scratched the surface of how this pandemic is going to affect restaurants in the long-term,” she said. “As a state, we have permanently lost about 9% of our 10,000 restaurants so far, and you should expect and understand that number is going to continue to rise. If you can afford it, please support your favorite restaurants if you want to keep them around!”
Mr. Chucri and Ms. Timm agree American dining will forever be changed following the global COVID-19 outbreak.
“Dining will forever be affected by COVID 19,” she said.
“It will be a long time before mask-wearing, partitions, etc., go away, if ever. Restaurant owners are understanding that this is truly the beginning of a long term evolution. The vast majority of restaurants spent tens of thousands of dollars out of their pockets to comply with the regulations to reopen back in May, and have worked incredibly hard to communicate those actions to their consumers.”
However, Mr. Chucri is confident the dining experience has a place in America today --- and into the future.
“If you would ask me or put a gun to my head, it would assuredly have been sports that they were missing the most from people’s lives,” he said. “I would have assumed it was all the kids' sports, which was to a degree, but it really wasn’t. Do you know what it was that we missed? Our local restaurant.”
Mr. Chucri says the restaurant industry will always have a place to play in the daily lives of Arizona residents.
“We are a very market-driven industry and I think to-go will become a much larger amount of any restaurant's bottom line,” he said. “For a time period it was 80% dine and 20% to-go, I think we will see that get flipped.”