Perhaps no Valley industry was decimated as swiftly and pitilessly by the coronavirus pandemic than our restaurants and bars. Doors shuttered and livelihoods dashed, instantly it seemed, as if sucked up by a tornado. From the Valley’s premier artisan baker to one of its best-known boutique farmers, these six food pros talk about their current challenges, and their anxieties for the future.
House of Tricks
Friday, March 20
Chris Frasca has worked at House of Tricks for nine years, as a server, bartender and now a member of its management team. The Tempe fine dining restaurant closed in March and won’t be participating in any curbside pickup or delivery because “we’re pretty serious about our food, and we don’t want to compromise,” Frasca says.
In other words, the restaurant’s close to 40 employees have been furloughed. And since Tricks typically closes for a portion of the summer, it’s unlikely the doors will open again before fall.
Frasca is optimistic the restaurant will reopen in due time. “House of Tricks has been through 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, so I’m confident,” he says. “When it comes down to paying bills, I’ve saved, but it will only go so far. If it’s two or three weeks, I’m all right. … If it goes for four months, I’ll use all the assets I have available. I just hope that doesn’t happen.”
The day House of Tricks closed, management set up a food bank for its employees with the perishables they had on hand. “Everyone got a care package, and what people didn’t take home, we took to the Salvation Army,” he says.
Frasca is trying to have a positive attitude about his job and maintain a “pep talk” mentality to inspire others. But mainly, he’ll be lying low. “I’m going to use this time to reset.”
Cotton & Copper
Thursday, March 19
Before making the decision to close south Tempe’s Cotton & Copper gastropub, owners Sean Traynor and Tamara Stanger experimented with taking out half of the restaurant’s 50 seats to force social distancing. “As the hours went by, things started changing drastically, so we shut the doors,” Stanger says.
Founding chef Stanger is worried about the restaurant’s 17 employees and is brainstorming solutions to help them navigate a layoff. For now, she’s given them access to Cotton & Copper’s kitchen to grab ingredients so they can cook at home.
“I’m going to figure out a way to get my employees the support they need so they don’t lose their homes or cars,” Stanger says.
In the short term, Stanger is home-schooling her 12-year-old son, who has autism, writing some long overdue cookbooks and trying to stay healthy.
“The long-term plan is to restructure our business and figure out how to make it work in a sustainable way,” she says.
At press time, Cotton & Copper was initiating a trial curbside pickup run in which customers ordered on Saturday and picked up their food on Sunday. “We’re small and we don’t have any investors,” she says. “It’s a real fear that if we go blindly into this without being smart, we might not be able to open up again.”
Tracy Dempsey Originals/ODV Wines
Wednesday, March 18
When baking kingpin Tracy Dempsey heard the news about restaurant closures, she quickly put together a short-term plan to continue serving her customers. Dempsey, owner of Tracy Dempsey Originals and ODV Wines, a combination bakery and wine shop in Tempe, will continue to offer baked goods, wine and cakes for curbside pickup. She will also remain a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) pickup spot – essentially an informal farmers market. “We’re trying to go forward as usual, but I don’t know beyond tomorrow or even today,” she says.
The bulk of Dempsey’s business depends on supplying restaurants with desserts, many of which are now closed temporarily and have stopped ordering. She spent the day going through coolers, wrapping items that could be saved and frozen and shutting down most of her operation. “But the utilities are going to keep going, my landlord is still going to want his rent and I still have to pay taxes.”
With less revenue coming in, Dempsey has had to significantly reduce hours for her four employees. “I don’t get a paycheck,” she says. “I never have.”
At this rate, Dempsey says she can manage financially for about two months, but resources will go fast. She hasn’t been able to sleep and her emotions are raw. “We can’t hug or touch people anymore. Making desserts is the last way of expressing myself. That’s how I make people happy.”
Wednesday, March 18
As a partner or investor in 14 Valley restaurants and entertainment venues – including Valley Bar, Crescent Ballroom and all locations of The Vig – Tucker Woodbury is most concerned about the welfare of his nearly 750 employees. “We have a lot of long-term and loyal employees, and that’s the emotional struggle for me. It’s one thing to make a decision in the office and another thing to look them in the eye,” the Genuine Concepts chief says. In the interim, Woodbury’s restaurants are providing family meals for laid-off employees and/or those who are struggling. “They can come in daily to have a meal in the restaurant even if they’re no longer on the payroll,” he says.
Woodbury is joining many Valley restaurants in offering food pickup and is also working with Postmates and Uber Eats to keep some skin in the game. “We’re hoping it goes well. We believe in our businesses and we’ll do everything we can ultimately to be in a position to reopen.”
The indie restaurant scene in Phoenix is a tightknit community and owners look out for each other, Woodbury says. “I pray we all make it. Little one-offs and cool spots are what makes Phoenix great.”
The restaurant business is difficult enough, even if you’re a good operator, he says. Throw in temporary closures and limited takeout options and the stakes are even higher. “We’re just trying to live to fight another day.”
Editor’s note: Citing insufficient sales, Genuine Concepts ceased pickup service in early May.
Two Wash Ranch
Thursday, March 19
In the age of coronavirus, Dave “The Eggman” Jordan says he feels like he’s living in a dream state. Jordan, who raises poultry on his 5-acre Two Wash Ranch in New River, says a week ago it was business as usual. Two days later, about 80 percent of his customers, primarily local restaurants, canceled their orders. He also has a stack of overdue invoices that might never be paid.
Unlike produce farmers who fill orders with what’s available, Jordan grows his birds specifically for 30 restaurants, many of which are closed now. Since this is high season for tourism, Jordan has about 6,000 meat birds and 1,000 egg layers on hand. “If you have a pig or a cow, you can hang on to them for a couple of months and harvest later, but these chickens continue growing and growing and growing,” he says.
Jordan supplies Arcadia Meat Market and will probably identify other access points where people can purchase his birds. There will be no direct sales because of biosecurity measures prohibiting public access to the farm, he says.
While delivering his final orders last week, he witnessed firsthand how restaurants are coping with the pandemic. “I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it was to see these people,” Jordan says. “We have a giant tragedy going on and we can’t even comfort each other. That’s the hardest thing for me.”
Huss Brewing Co.
Wednesday, March 18
Leah Huss knows realistically that the coronavirus shutdown will last longer than the initial two-week forecast. “We’re trying to get in front of this as opposed to reacting,” she says.
Huss and her brewer husband, Jeff, own taprooms in Phoenix’s Uptown Plaza and Tempe. Taking both taprooms into account, the Husses employ 50 people, with the majority working at the Tempe brewery, including brewers and sales staff. At Uptown, they’re shifting to curbside pickup orders. “We’ve moved to get some of our servers and bussers to be the people doing deliveries so we can keep as many people on the payroll as possible.”
In terms of distribution, the Husses have shifted their focus from restaurants and bars – traditionally their sales bell cow – to grocery stores, where the majority of their product will move going forward. In addition, they will also sell glass growlers, six-packs and 12-packs to go at both taproom locations.
As the shutdown drags on, the Husses, like so many others, will be reliant on the local community to support them by ordering food to go, buying gift cards and picking up Huss beer at the grocery store. “It’s the little things that are going to keep us afloat,” she says.
The situation reminds Huss of the time following 9/11. “But then we were able to congregate in brew pubs and taprooms. People want to be out. They’re looking for human connection.”