Jeff Walters and his family have had their ups and downs since their recent jump into restaurant ownership.
Mr. Walters has long been a fan of the Jimmy John’s brand — their sandwiches and their involvement in the community — so much so that owning one has been a long-time a goal.
His sons, Nick and Zack, worked for various Jimmy John’s franchises in Michigan and Washington as they grew up through high school and college.
The accomplishment of running a family business became a reality when Mr. Walters and his wife, Kelly, moved to Peoria last August, and took over ownership of two Jimmy John’s stores in Glendale.
Then the coronavirus happened.
To be good stewards of the community, they have been adhering to the takeout and delivery-only model since President Donald Trump’s guideline of 10 or less people gathering in any one place on March 16.
Pickup orders have gone up, however not enough to supplement the loss of overall customer traffic, Mr. Walters said.
Still, he will push on in running a business he has believed in for a long time.
“We felt it was important [to stop sit-down dining] before the city and state mandated it, because we wanted to do everything we can to help keep our customers and our staff healthy and protected,” Mr. Walters said. “We reduced the operating hours of one of our locations by one hour, and are considering closing a bit earlier if business is still slow at night.”
Like Mr. Walters, restaurant and other business owners in Peoria and across the nation are experiencing an astounding drop in customer volume and revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some experts say it could devastate the industry. Still, many business owners struggle to keep the doors open but are inspired by those who give extra during this difficult time.
The average number of sit-in diners across the nation is down roughly 85 percent compared to this time last year, according to recent statistics from online restaurant-reservation service OpenTable.
Restaurant consultant and Peoria resident David Scott Peters said up until the pandemic, restaurants across the nation were seeing their best year ever, but now the industry is being crushed.
He said independent restaurants will suffer greater than chains, but restaurants that already provide delivery or have a drive thru, like Dutch Bros and fast food restaurants, may sustain or even surge. However, restaurants like Oregano’s, that have switched to takeout service but are known for their sit-down service, are struggling.
“Oregano’s is excellent at what they do, but takeout and delivery are not how people think of them,” Mr. Peters said.
At least 75 Peoria restaurants have now put their efforts behind takeout and/or delivery. As many as eight restaurants in Peoria have closed since the COVID-19 virus took hold in Arizona, most of which are in the Arrowhead mall area.
With such a drastic downturn in sales, Mr. Peters said businesses were forced to either alter their model or close, whether temporarily or permanently.
Mr. Peters said 25% of restaurants could shutter and never reopen as the pandemic progresses.
But he said a 12-week cash flow plan could help restaurants ride out the pandemic.
“Cash pays bills, profits don’t. Most people are not spending money. If people are not spending money and payroll is too high, there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “It is crippling and it breaks my heart. The roots of community are restaurants.”
To provide immediate outreach and support to Peoria businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, officials launched a small business task force in partnership with the Peoria Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Development Council and ASU-Peoria Forward.
Members of the task force have come together to provide resources on the immediate and mid-term levels for businesses in need.
To assist in communicating the shift from dining in to pick-up or delivery models, the city is providing signs to Peoria food service businesses free of charge.
West Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance is surveying businesses to see how the COVID-19 outbreak has affected them. Results were not available by press time.
Peoria Chamber of Commerce CEO/President Scot Andrews said his team has created web content to support and help business members through this time.
“We will continue to meet, and work tirelessly, every day to help our business community until this crisis abates,” he said. “We ask our businesses to follow our website, complete the surveys and reach out to us as they need to. We will be there to help.”
Even the most popular of Peoria restaurants are not immune to the extreme drop off in revenue. The Haymaker locations in Goodyear on Litchfield Road and in Peoria on Thunderbird Road, as well as The Social on 83rd in the P83 Entertainment District have been closed until further notice.
Owner Joey Lucidi said the Haymaker location in north Peoria on Lake Pleasant Parkway remains open for take out.
“Right now, we just need all of the support we can get from our communities. We want to able to sponsor your kids soccer team, your church, the military group, as well as all the schools again. And to do so, we need to cash in some of that past goodwill,” he said. “We are very blessed to have our community in Peoria supporting us and we will get through this.”
The Walters family is also trying to remain positive during this tough time, and they are experiencing the good that can come out of a difficult situation.
A man recently ordered three sandwiches to go at their Jimmy John’s on 59th Avenue and Union Hills Drive.
After collecting his order, the man left a big surprise.
“Before he exited our restaurant, he left a $125 tip for the workers to help them in their time of need,” Mr. Walters said. “It is those acts of kindness that make me proud to be in this community, especially when the news cycle of the day is primarily negative, ranging from the virus to people hoarding supplies and more.”
Mr. Walters said nothing could have prepared his family or employees for the current situation.
“We consider our employees an extension of our family and it troubles us when they are struggling,” he said. “Like many other small businesses, we have had to scale back on employee shifts and hours. We have asked for relief from the bank that services our small-business loan, as well as our landlord in order for us to survive during these difficult times. My sons and wife are working for no salary so we can make it through.”
But Mr. Walters said the gratuity raised spirits immediately and that others have been generous as well.
“Obviously his gratuity was very substantial, but we’ve noticed the majority of people really stepping up and giving a little more to our drivers for tips, as well as our in-shop staff. It’s refreshing to see the community doing their best to help us and our staff during this time,” he said. “I would just encourage everyone, no matter what restaurant or business they support, to continue with their generosity and helping each other out. We will all get through this if we band together and help each other out in times of need. Hopefully when this is all over, we can continue this strong sense of community and generosity into the future.”
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.