No matter where you are in our industry, from quick service to fine dining, we’ve never seen something like this. It’s challenging in so many ways.
The reality is, 80 percent (maybe 75 percent) of our business is in-dining, not takeout, and this has been the inverse of that.
Everyone’s pivoting. With our ArizonaTakeoutWeeks.com, we were very fortunate to be able to set that up so quickly, taking the energy from our Arizona Restaurant Weeks and channeling that into Takeout Weeks; within 48 hours, to have so many restaurants joining on, having it up and operating. We now have a Takeout Week website with over 750 menus on it that people are utilizing. But the realities of just relying solely on takeout is challenging for our industry because each restaurant is not necessarily equipped to do it — there’s still overhead costs and everything associated with running a restaurant. Restaurateurs are some of the most entrepreneurial and innovative people I’ve come to know, and they’re putting that to work right now. But it certainly doesn’t make it any easier.
Part of the issue stems from what menu items are good to travel. Not all are. How do you have a hot fudge sundae go home? And it comes down to packaging — packaging that’s safe, that can’t be opened by someone who’s delivering the product. So it’s multi-faceted in that nature.
And the temperature for something to be consumed: It’s oftentimes more presentable and applicable to enjoyment inside a restaurant than having to have it brought home and then the French fries are soggy, for instance. This is problematic for egg dishes as a broad category. That’s why some of the breakfast places have said, “Look, we’ve tried it and it’s not working. We’re going to wait and come back when we can reopen.” Because breakfast is just a hard part of the food service industry to master in a takeout fashion.
So it’s really made restaurateurs focus on: How can we keep things fresh? How can we utilize packaging that carries better, that brings the food home in a way that will still be not nearly as perfect as inside the restaurant but pretty close? And that’s what we’ve worked with our restaurants to try and do.
Also, restaurants don’t have the same capacity by way of staff and others to help get the food prepared and out the door as if the dining room was fully open and they’re going from the kitchen to the table in the dining room.
Delivery has become another staple option. Restaurants now are utilizing some of their own crew members to do deliveries. Third-party delivery services can be very expensive. I certainly understand that they have their own costs, but margins are pretty thin as they are, in restaurants, and even more so today in trying to fight this virus as well as keep our doors open. And so restaurateurs are saying, “Look, we can’t keep passing what little profit we have on to other people; we need to try to keep as much of that as we can.” So, while some are using third-party delivery companies — and some third-party delivery companies are offering some great value by way of discounting and aren’t charging their usual fees, which is really helpful — other restaurateurs are doing it themselves with their teams. They’re making sure they’re being careful, and they know what food lasts better and how long it can take to get it to someone.
And with customers — they’re regulars, so they like to see their favorite server or their favorite chef and favorite restaurant owner, so it kind of works out in a good way on all fronts.
The ripple effect of this has been quite large. We work with our broadliners in the food industry, the food delivery companies that serve our restaurants each and every day, and they’ve done a wonderful job of trying to make sure they get what they need to get. But just watch the nightly news to hear about the pandemic’s impact on supply and distribution: Tyson Foods was on the news recently, and Smithfield, with some of the challenges they’re having. You hear about cows needing to be milked, and the milk is just being thrown away because there isn’t enough utilization. All those factors definitely play in to how they affect a restaurant.
For a restaurant to be able to flip a switch and start to operate again is very challenging. There are systems that are involved in getting something like that going, and the difficulty now — and what we’re working on with our members — is: Whatever you’re doing on the takeout front, continue to do it, and make sure it’s working. But let’s also try to come up with a strategy on how we can get restaurants reopened and what our dining rooms will look like post-COVID-19. I believe we’ll see the two co-existing. We’ll see restaurants that typically didn’t do much takeout service continue to do it, just to keep things going, because the public is the market, and the market’s going to dictate how quickly or how we come back.
There are multiple moving parts when it comes to this side of reopening. There’s a likelihood of facing a tepid public who’s not sure if they want to come back to dining rooms. And restaurateurs face a lot of unknowns in trying to get their workforce back; for instance, some may have moved out of state to go “back home.” There may be a question as to whether all the equipment shut down correctly, and concerns about having to start from scratch in reordering food and not being sure they can get the types of items they’ll need to mirror what they need to present in their menu and the food they put on the table. Plus they would need to start with some operating cash flow to ensure they can get things ordered and pay for things, and alcohol, and all the things that come with that.
Restaurants are governed by good hygiene as it is, through health inspections and restaurant inspections, and of course that will continue. But I believe there will be a heightened awareness in the back-of-the-house operations in our kitchens, where most restaurants will probably be utilizing masks, and of course they already have to utilize gloves. Protecting our customer base is Job One.
I’d like to share something we’re doing to help our displaced workers. We employ 230,000 people in the restaurant industry, and we’ve had to unfortunately let off 80 percent of them. So we created Arizona Restaurant Strong, a campaign through Arizona Restaurant Association’s 501c3 Education Foundation, giving $500 grants to those displaced workers who meet certain criteria. It’s been open about a week as of this writing, and having great success, and we’re getting money to people very quickly — in some cases, 48 hours or so right after they’ve applied. We’re excited to be able to do that, and we’re hopeful that we can continue to support our displaced workers and get them back to work when it’s safe and possible.
This is one part of the June 2020 cover story on industry impact of COVID-19. To see the full story, click here.