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Facing the Pandemic: Ground Control continues flying amid turbulence

Owners find new ways to serve growing base

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Sometimes, a restaurant’s survival comes down to the strength of its following, innovative staff, good timing with technology and the popularity of a specialty chicken sandwich.

That’s a simplified version of what has kept Litchfield Park’s popular Ground Control restaurant, beer, coffee and wine bar afloat since the COVID-19 pandemic turned Arizona businesses upside down in mid-March. But those things, coupled with owners Ian and Stephanie Harwell’s ability to adapt in the face of unprecedented challenges, have helped make up for losses.

The Harwells purchased Ground Control, 4860 N. Litchfield Road, from founders Sean and Tara Rassas in September 2019. In January, they switched point of sales providers to Toast, a cloud-based platform used by many in the restaurant industry.

“We had no idea it would benefit us” so profoundly when the pandemic hit, said Mr. Harwell, who was Ground Control’s “beer guy” for eight years before the couple bought the business. “All we had to do is hit one little button and take online orders.”

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That was a life-saver, the couple said during a masked and socially distanced sit-down Nov. 24 in their large, high-ceilinged dining and tap room. They talked about numerous hits to their business, and what they’ve done to survive.

Catering opportunities became non-existent. On-site events like the Red, White and Brew Craft Beer Festival, which draws several hundred people and serves as a fundraiser for the Fighter Country Foundation, are a no-go.

In July, the restaurant shut down for 10 days after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Then the Harwells had to replace four pieces of equipment that broke. The cost of ingredients, such as bacon and other meats, have risen dramatically.

It’s also not cheap to have the entire place disinfected weekly by Enviro-Master, but the Harwells said the expense is worth it because staff and customers feel safer. That’s their ultimate goal in addition to serving great craft foods and drinks.

In the middle of Major League Baseball’s 2020 spring training season, a major source of revenue Valley-wide, restaurants suddenly were limited to takeout and delivery.

According MLB’s Cactus League, the 2020 season generated an estimated $363.6 million economic impact in the Valley before the March 12 shutdown, compared with $644.2 million in 2019. Visit cactusleague.com/Economic-Impact-2020.pdf for more information.

Ground Control’s dining room and patio were closed for three months, but customers were ravenous for takeout and delivery.

“We had a ton of support. A lot of customers donated gift cards and paid it forward on coffee and meals,” said Ms. Harwell, who comes in after putting in a full day in Arizona Central Credit Union’s marketing department. In turn, the Harwells donated meals to first responders, health care and other front line workers every Wednesday while their dining room was closed.

“If I had to look at it, obviously we lost a lot of money not being able to serve for spring training, but for an average month, it wasn’t bad,” Mr. Harwell said of the weeks just after the shutdown. “People were tipping like $50.”

During that time, the couple was able to keep six cooks and four baristas on full-time, with their other 12 employees working about 12 hours per week. Tips were divided among all 22 employees, and delivery fees were divided among servers.

Ground Control, which doesn’t use delivery services such as Uber Eats or DoorDash, charges a $5 fee for deliveries within 10 miles, but Mr. Harwell and his staff have and will deliver pretty much anywhere in the state.

“You name it, I’ve been there. Yuma, Gilbert, Scottsdale, Tonopah, Tucson,” Mr. Harwell said.

That’s where the specialty chicken sandwich comes in.

“Sales of the Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich skyrocketed (after in-person dining shut down). People were buying like 10 at a time,” Mr. Harwell said.

Some were longtime customers, others had never been to Ground Control but they heard about the $14.95 sandwich through word of mouth and online raves. Once the dining room reopened, many traveled to Litchfield Park to chow down in-house.

“I never thought I would see the day that chicken would be the headliner at Ground Control while the unbelievable craft beer selection would take a back seat,” patron Kenneth Voiland wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page in September. “Until, that is, this sandwich changed the game.”

The deep-fried chicken breast dipped in hot oil, then topped with a sweet and spicy pickle and creamy coleslaw on a toasted brioche bun comes in regular, extra and crazy hot. It prompts raves like “today, I saw God and spent 25 minutes in fiery, spicy hell” and “try the crazy hot Nashville chicken if you want the hottest chicken in AZ.”

Customers who think they can handle the crazy hot can tackle it in Wednesday’s hot chicken challenge if they dare. Vegetarians craving heat can substitute cauliflower for chicken.

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The Harwells are confident they, and Ground Control, will weather the pandemic storm. Employees have been back full-time for months, and the couple recently hired a former employee, Megan “Boo” Parent, as general manager to take some pressure off Mr. Harwell, who was working 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily with few breaks.

In addition to a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, Ground Control has 26 beers on tap plus one occasionally used for in-house roasted cold brew.

Saturday and Sunday brunch was added in October. Beer and wine takeout allows customers to run in, grab their desired beverage from coolers just inside the door and go. Weekly trivia nights and live music on Fridays also are popular draws.

The couple promotes new tap, food, dessert and drinks offerings, merchandise and specials on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Over the summer, Ground Control was named Best Taproom in Phoenix Magazine’s Best of the Valley Readers’ Poll for the second time in a row, and Nextdoor users deemed it a neighborhood favorite in October.

The Harwells received an economic disaster loan, and $19,000 from the CARES Act’s payroll protection program, which covered a fraction of the company’s payroll.

“Had it been the whole three months, it would have been $60,000, but free money is free money,” Mr. Harwell said.

The couple also has applied for a $10,000 grant through the city of Litchfield Park’s COVID-19 Business Assistance Program, and hoped it would be approved during the City Council’s regular meeting scheduled for Dec. 18. The restaurant wasn't included in the list of businesses considered, but the council is expected to consider more grant applications in January and February.  

“Even if we had to shut down again, I’m not worried,” Mr. Harwell said. “Our cooks are awesome. Our coffee is fantastic. The community is amazing. Our customers are so supportive. I only see us getting busier.”

Editor’s note: The Litchfield Park Independent is running a story on a local business as part of a project on YourValley.net highlighting the people behind the companies and their struggles in the ongoing pandemic.  Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at kosullivan@newszap.com or 760-963-1697.

Ground Control, Litchfield Park, Ian Harwell, Stephanie Harwell, Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich, restaurant, taproom, coffee bar, wine bar, small business, COVID-19, pandemic, spring traning, coronavirus