Coronavirus Chronicles: A Food Critic’s Case for Takeout Food

Nikki BuchananApril 14, 2020
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PHOENIX magazine dining critic Nikki Buchanan on the shutdown, curbside dining and the specific, special challenges faced by Valley restaurants.

As a person who has written about restaurants for decades and enjoyed more fabulous restaurant meals than anyone has a right to, I have a special little worry-place in my heart right now for restaurants and all the people associated with the industry. Restaurants across the country are closed indefinitely, putting 15.6 million cooks, bartenders, sommeliers, servers, dishwashers and other restaurant-related folks out of work and facing food insecurity, an idea both ironic and unacceptable. The people who have routinely made us comfortable and happy, those who have cooked for us, mixed our cocktails, poured our wine, cleared our plates and cleaned up the whole mess so we don’t have to are now in serious trouble, and it’s heartbreaking. I’m sure you’ve heard the projection: we stand to lose 50 percent of our restaurants as a result of COVID-19. Can you imagine Phoenix without your favorite restaurants? I cannot.

And to make the wicket even stickier, Phoenix restaurants will be in worse shape than their counterparts in other parts of the country because of the timing of this thing. For us, the shutdown started March 19, but many customers had stopped frequenting restaurants the week before, around the time the NBA announced it would suspend its season (March 11). That’s when people began taking this thing seriously (and rushing to buy toilet paper), 11 days into Phoenix’s biggest money-making month of the year, the month of gorgeous weather and spring training and hordes of tourists. The revenue restaurants make during this season is the revenue that carries them through a dismal summer that lasts at least four months here in the desert (mid-May to mid-September, give or take). If we’re lucky, we’ll come out of this thing in the summer, the worst time of year for restaurants, the time that many of them routinely close for two weeks anyway because staying open in the dead of summer just isn’t worth it. So if everybody’s back in business in July (and that may be optimistic), how’s that gonna work?

Lots of restaurants — restaurants I love, in fact — have done the math and decided that the best way to survive this crisis is to close immediately and save what little reserve funds they have for a reboot. Temporary closures include (but are certainly not limited to) FnB, Little Miss BBQ, Nobuo at Teeter House, Rancho Pinot, Shinbay, The Delta & The Larder, Virtu and Yasu — all wonderful restaurants run by talented chefs. Two of them (Nobuo Fukuda and Charleen Badman) are even James Beard Award winners. Will they be able to come back? Who knows? It’s a crapshoot, but I can tell you right now: I don’t want to contemplate our restaurant landscape without them.

The fact is, nobody is really sure what to do, or if what they are doing is the right thing. Chef-owner Gio Osso of Virtu admits that even after he shut down the restaurant he debated re-opening to do pizza — just to bring in a little money. But his daughter has asthma, and in the end, it seemed too risky. He tells me it’s “hard to explain the roller coaster of emotions” owners feel as they scramble to figure out how best to survive.

Many restaurants have decided to try the takeout/curbside service route to stay afloat. Brandon Gauthier, chef-owner of Restaurant Confluence in Carefree, says that he and his wife Tori are making a go, but it’s a lot of work. He has pared the staff down to just the two of them, which means they do everything, including scrubbing down the kitchen and washing the pots and pans. They put in long days for very little money. It’s “sickening,” Gauthier says, to see his profit and loss statement this year compared to last. Business, he says, is down 80 percent, a horrifying number for a small businessperson.

Other restaurants are understandably reluctant to share their bottom line with me. However, Justin Beckett, chef owner of Beckett’s Table, is straightforward about the hardships he faces. He’s doing a pretty brisk business in takeout — all things considered — but admits that revenue is down 85 percent. “We make in a week what he used to make in a day,” he says, adding that there’s a learning curve in switching from a dine-in restaurant model to takeout. Suddenly, he’s buying loads of takeout containers and instead of plating food, he’s boxing it.

Lori Hashimoto, chef and co-owner of Hana Japanese Eatery, expresses the same sentiment.  “Takeout,” she maintains, “is a very different beast.” After laying off 10 employees out of necessity, she says, “It’s pretty much only the family working now. I’m so tired.”

Meanwhile, Linda Scorzo, wife of chef-owner Giovanni Scorzo of Andreoli Italian Grocer, admits they’re doing “a fraction” of the business they did before this whole calamity got underway. Still, they’ve had a loyal customer base for years, and they’re hanging in, offering pretty much the same menu they’ve always had, which includes specials that change daily.

Other restaurateurs appear better positioned to weather social distancing. Cat Bunnag, chef-owner of Glai Baan, is doing more than okay. Her Thai street food naturally lends itself to takeout, and she’s doing what other chefs (her neighbor Kevin Binkley, chef-owner of Binkley’s Restaurant, for one) consider a whopping business. She says her days are different now. She gets free time in the middle of the day but goes nonstop for the three hours when people come by for pickup. Everyone mistakenly believes that restaurant owners have the luxury of free time these days when, in fact, those that are open are working just as hard, if not harder, than ever.

And they’re trying just about anything and everything to win our business. Some have scaled back their regular menus to keep things streamlined and simple, while others have gotten creative, adding new dishes to sweeten the pot. Confluence, for example, is selling Chateaubriand, a romantic, old school splurge (a large center cut filet mignon for two, cooked inside a lesser cut of meat) that seems just right for sheltering in place. Restaurants famous for their cocktails (Vecina and Restaurant Progress, to name two) are selling them sealed and ready to go in various sizes. Restaurants known for their wine selection are offering great discounts too. Binkley’s Restaurant, for example, is selling its wine list at 50 percent off, a screaming deal.

Some restaurants have nimbly moved to new business models entirely. EVO in Old Town Scottsdale has become a hybrid takeout restaurant, grocery store (yes, they sell toilet paper) and procurer of just about anything you might want — a special wine or hard-to-come-by cheese, for example. Ask and ye shall receive.

Chris Bianco is keeping all his restaurants open but streamlining most of his menus — salads and sandwiches at Pane Bianco, salads, pasta, and pizza at Pizzeria Bianco. However, at Tratto, he offers $60 family meals as well as pasta by the pound, fresh sauces by the pint, pantry items (bread, jam, olive oil and vinaigrette) and a handful of individual entrées. He’s pretty much covering all the bases.

Meanwhile, TJ Culp, chef-owner at Restaurant Progress in Phoenix, says that as an avid Instagrammer who follows restaurants in progressive cities, he saw this coming and acted quickly, briefly shutting the restaurant down to regroup for a menu overhaul and new approach. His new menu features a different entrée for each of the four days he’s open (Th-Su), along with bread, butter and the customer’s choice of side dish for $25. He’s managed to keep on his staff, and while they’re not making a killing, they’re surviving, and bonus: his fried chicken dinners sell out early every Sunday.

That’s no surprise to Justin Beckett, who claims that “everyone wants comfort food,” which he provides in the form of menu mainstays such as deviled eggs, mac and cheese, burgers and pot pie. Owner Mark Tarbell of upscale Tarbell’s understands that better than anyone. Like Culp, he saw the pandemic coming and revamped everything in a 48-hour turnaround, keeping on his staff to take phone orders and (dressed in crisp uniforms, mind you) drive the rental cars that he has procured for delivery. “It’s very expensive and very complicated,” he says, adding that they’ve moved 65 percent of the business to curbside pickup, following safe practices by wearing gloves and practicing social distancing. He was astonished to find that his famous “Mr. Fish of the Moment,” a top seller for 25 years, dropped like a rock once the shutdown began. “I never thought we’d be a fried chicken place, but that’s what we are right now,” he says with a quick, somewhat rueful laugh.

You wouldn’t think a sophisticated restaurant like Binkley’s would fare well in such a hibernational, carb-eating climate, but Kevin and Amy Binkley’s five-course prix fixe menu, priced at $65, is a hit. On the weekends, they, too, are selling out without worrying how to get 27 courses in 27 teeny-tiny containers (Binkley credits Beckett for the streamlined price fixe idea). Even better, customers are buying expensive add-ons of caviar and wagyu beef. Binkley has kept his staff and reports that his customers have been unbelievably supportive, leaving huge tips and saying things like, “Let us know how we can help.”

Such heartwarming stories are a comforting common denominator among Valley chefs and restaurateurs. Justin Beckett relates that one customer bought $500 worth of gift cards, then told him to “put them in the safe,” suggesting he might never use them. Jason Dwight of newly opened Persepshen – who is chugging along, offering his regular menu with one sous chef to help him – admits that he was blown away when a longtime customer from the farmers market days handed him a $3,000 check just to be helpful. Dwight refused to take it at first, but the customer insisted, and in the end, everybody cried.

News programs are filled with feel-good stories of people helping, supporting and uplifting each other in whatever ways they can. I suspect we’re going to need to keep it up for a good long time. If we expect to go back to our favorite restaurants when all this blows over, we need to support them right now and to consistently offer support in the months to come. For me, that will mean takeout two or three times a week. I can’t spend 100 bucks a pop, but I can order something. If eating wonderful food out of boxes is the biggest sacrifice I have to make, I’ll consider myself very, very lucky.

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