Grim reality as restaurant business drops in face of COVID-19, forcing closures, shift to take-out only

"We are all doing everything we can to survive right now and waiting for relief from leaders and lawmakers."

UPDATE: As of 12:48 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, the city has mandated the closure of “places where people congregate.

As the novel coronavirus and the disease it’s responsible for, COVID-19, expands its presence in the U.S., restaurants and bars in numerous cities and states have been forced to close dining rooms and possibly shift to a takeout only model.

Various cities and states have mandated bars, restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters close to the public, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington. It’s likely others will follow to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and “flatten the curve” – a phrase coined to illustrate minimizing the spike in hospitalizations that would otherwise overwhelm the nation’s medical facilities.

For bars and restaurants, it’s a shattering blow. While many see the steps taken as necessary, restaurants — who already typically operate on tight margins — are facing serious hardships.

“We are trending down at OBON locations 25-35%,” said OBON & Goodness Partner Brandon Katz. “Considering we were trending up over last year between 10-18% we consider this a 35-50% drop. This drop has happened almost overnight.”

(Editor’s note: OBON and Goodness have since closed dining room operations)

While Tucson and Arizona as a whole have not mandated a restaurant shut down to dine-in business, some have taken it upon themselves to limit business to take out and delivery only.

Diablo Burger, with locations in both Flagstaff and Tucson, made the following announcement via Facebook Monday morning:

“In light of the latest information provided by the CDC we believe it is our moral and social obligation — to our communities and to our staff — to help minimize human interactions and flatten the curve of this epidemic.

To that end, we will close our establishments for dine-in service effective today, Monday, March 16th.

We will transition to take-out and delivery service only, at Diablo Burger Flagstaff and Diablo Burger Tucson, within the next few days.”

Limited testing for coronavirus is possibly to blame for Pima County’s low reported numbers. As of Monday, March 16, Arizona had reported 18 total cases, 4 of which have been reported in Pima County.

Reilly Pizza announced via Facebook Monday, March 16 the closure of the public areas of the restaurant, beer garden and basement bar, Tough Luck Club.

We’ve decided to temporarily close the Reilly dining room, Tough Luck Club, and the Reilly Beer Garden.

We’re shifting to a take-out menu only, and we will keep offering our current menu and bottles of wine to-go. Bottles of wine to-go will be half off the wine list price. We’re also implementing a curb-side pick-up, available from 12 pm to 8 pm. Give us a call to place an order at 520-882-5550. We will also continue to sell gift cards online.

In the coming days, we plan to spend our time finding ways to bring you chef-designed meal kits and ways for you to cook at home, so stay tuned. We look forward to reopening our doors to you soon.

Illegal Pete’s and Tito & Pep have also decided to close their dining rooms and shift to a take-out and delivery only model.

Beyond Bread, a popular bakery and sandwich shop with three locations, Back Dough, and an airport outlet, also made the move to close dining rooms and shift to take-out, call-in, and online orders only.

“It saddens us to have to take these measures,” said Beyond Bread owner and founder Shelby Collier. “But the health and safety of our guests and staff come first. We look forward to fully serving our guests soon.”

Ray Flores of Flores Restaurant Concepts, the team behind El Charro, Charro Steak, Charro Del Rey, Charro Vida, and one of the only operators of a local, USDA inspected facility has been in discussions with local leaders to help provide, as well as gain, insight into how best to proceed not only for himself but for other local restaurants.

“We’re working with government so that we can have clarity on a to-go only program,” said Flores. “This program includes serving safe restaurant food to anyone and everyone using our professional training from the health department and sophisticated setup which includes hand sinks and commercial equipment in the advent that we will be able to bring back full-service dining when the time frame has expired.”

Some businesses are still weighing options.

Ermanos Craft Beer & Wine Bar, who recently completed construction of a cocktail bar at the rear of the restaurant decided to close completely, without offering take-out.

“This has been heartbreaking for us and our staff,” said Ermanos owner Mark Erman. “We are all doing everything we can to survive right now and waiting for relief from leaders and lawmakers. While we are optimistic that we will reemerge, these months of high season carry us through slow summers where most establishments operate at a loss. Reopening at the end of season when the weather is hot and visitors are declining and locals increasingly stay in or travel to beat the heat is a sobering thought, and taking on more debt service may not be enough for small businesses to climb out of a huge hole.”

Monsoon Chocolate announced via Facebook the decision to close to the public while still fulfilling online orders.

No need to draw it out, or sugar-coat it— today we made the painful decision to close our cafe to the public until further notice. These times are weird and every day brings more uncertainty, but it is certain that we must make this decision.
Our web-store is still open and we are still fulfilling wholesale orders. Currently, we are considering the possibilities of curb-side pick-up and/or local delivery within a certain radius. We’re taking this day by day, and will keep you all updated here (Instagram and Facebook).

With little guidance from city, state, and county officials, many establishments have decided to remain open until a dining room closure is mandated.

Wild Garlic Grill announced dining room seating limitations more in line with the latest CDC guidelines of no more than 10 people publicly gathering.

Wild Garlic Grill will remain open during our normal business hours Tuesday through Sunday. However, in light of additional guidance from our state and federal government, we will be moving to a take-outs. Tables and chairs will still be available outside, but we we will minimize seating inside. In addition, we will be asking that no more than ten guest be inside the restaurant at any time. We want to do everything we can to remain open for you and our employees, but we want to do so while maintaining the safest environment possible.

Mama Louisa’s Michael Elefante plans to hold off a dining room closure until further notice.

“We want to try and keep business as usual as much as we can,” said Elefante. “We are taking as many precautions as we can to ensure our guest are safe and our staff is safe too. But we also want to continue to give our employees a steady income and give our guest a bit or normalcy in their lives.”

Calls for relief in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic are beginning to grow. Eater National, arguably the nation’s largest food-focused, online only media outlet on Monday, March 16 published Restaurants are Fucked – Unless They Get a Bailout which details some of the realities and shortfalls of what switching to a delivery and take-out only model actually entails.

As of Tuesday morning, March 17, Arizona governor Doug Ducey emphasized social distancing, gatherings of 50 or less, which contradicts President Trump’s most recent recommendations of no more than 10.

For the most up-to-date information regarding novel coronavirus and COVID-19, please visit cdc.gov and who.int.

Adam Lehrman started Tucson Foodie in late 2008 as a way to track his search for the best food Tucson had to offer.

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