Chow: On the Fly

Now limited to takeout and delivery service, many of Tucson's locally owned restaurants are hanging by a thread

Tucson's vibrant restaurant industry screeched to a halt at 8 p.m. on St. Patrick's Day, as Mayor Regina Romero ordered all restaurants, bars, venues, gyms and places people congregate shut down until the end of March to slow the COVID-19 pandemic.

While city restaurateurs prepared to either shut-down or become take-out / delivery only, the Pop's Hot Chicken food truck sat smoldering in Caps and Corks parking lot. The beloved food truck's generator overheated and within minutes flames engulfed the back-end. The Marana Fire Department contained the blaze within minutes. Luckily, no one was hurt.

"(The fire) didn't burn any of the inside so I'll probably be able to repair it, but we took a major hit. We only park at bars now and since all the bars are closing, there's a lot of uncertainty," Peter Yucupicio, owner of Pop's Hot Chicken. "It's like the urgency to repair (the truck) versus saving the little bit of money we're making at American Eat Co.? We're trying to assess what's the priority right now."

At the beginning of March, Yucupicio opened a stall at southside food court, American Eat Co. selling his delicious Nashville-style hot chicken sandwiches to lines of customers. Now, he's only able to sell them to-go, that is of course, if people are making the trip out.

"My heart goes out to all businesses. Some of us are day-to-day, week-to-week operations," Yucupicio said. "It's a scary, scary, scary time and I'm hoping we'll be able to survive."

But what hurt Yucupicio the most about the situation is not being to help feed the children of the Pascua-Yaqui Nation.

"What hurts the most is we were scheduled to provide meals to some of the kids who are out of school. Now I'm out of a truck," Yucupicio said. "Being Yaqui, that's the first thing I want to do is help my people during this time but it's wavering because I don't know how we're getting out there."

On Tucson's Historic Fourth Avenue, Maria Mazon prepared her restaurant, Boca Tacos y Tequila, to begin selling through a to-go window. With her menu glued to the window and service counter all set, Mazon took her first order, five minutes before officially opening for the day, "Thanks for calling Boca...ok, fire away..."

"I'm not going to lie, it's scary. But you can't let the fear control you," Mazon said. "I worry about my 27 employees. I'll be fine. I'm married and my wife has a good job, but I worry about my kitchen."

Boca is a certified UNESCO City of Gastronomy restaurant that is typically filled to capacity on any given day. Mazon said she's trying to stay positive during the pandemic and the community of Tucson continues to amaze her with its resilience during this unprecedented time.

"When life hands you lemons, make margaritas," Mazon said. "It's scary, but also challenging as a business person, humbling as a chef, but beautiful as a community. Tucson is showing its true colors."

Up the street on Fourth Avenue, Tallboys prepared to close its doors until city restaurants can go back to dine-in seating. The decision to lay off staff during this time wasn't easy, said Tallboys owner Ben Schneider, but necessary for his restaurant's survival.

"We were going to go the take-out route but it seemed unreasonable to put my staff at risk," Schneider said. "I just don't think the to-go route is going to be viable. There's too many employees here and I would pretty much have to lay off half my staff anyway. It doesn't seem worth it to me."

In Scheider's opinion, his restaurant would just be another in this impromptu mosaic of take-out/delivery restaurants competing with each other for business that isn't there.

"I feel like everyone is making drastic moves right off the bat," Schneider said. "I'm here looking down the street while everyone is doing the delivery/to-go thing and you don't see a line of cars waiting outside, you know?"

Schneider said he is expecting government compensation for the shutdown and is urging his employees to sign up for government benefits while out of work. Schneider is preparing to be shut down for longer than the proposed 15 days. He said he expects to be closed for up to three months.

"I've been telling all my employees it's really unreasonable to think it's only going to last till the end of the month," Schneider said.

In the Catalina Foothills, Max Bazil prepares to shut down his family's over 40-year-old Italian restaurant, Bazil's, while his other spot specializing in gourmet pizza, Bazil's To-Go flourishes. The Chicago native has been in the restaurant business all his life and said he has never seen anything like this.

"Bazil's To-Go is kinda built for this type of problem, you know what I mean? I've been doing delivery and take-out for almost 30 years now and we're always busy. But we're really rockin' now," Bazil said. "But I'm going through a lot of problems with a shut down at one place and an increase with the other."

Bazil said he and his family, who owns the dine-in restaurant, are "taking a 100 percent pay cut" but Bazil is trying to keep everyone and everything afloat while the smaller restaurant continues to profit.

"I'm gonna try and feed the Foothills as long as I can, you know. This place is feeding the salaries of the employees in my big restaurant," Bazil said. "We're in survival mode and maybe we can pull this off. They're saying we can come back in a few weeks but according to the financial news, it seems like it's going to be longer."

In central Tucson, another Chicago native is adapting to the temporary shut down. Rocco Digrazia, owner of Rocco's Little Chicago is going back to delivery, something the restaurant stopped seven years ago because it extended wait-times during their dinner rush. Rocco's Little Chicago is another UNESCO City of Gastronomy certified restaurant.

"We have an untapped market of delivery customers that we have never really been able to serve," Digrazia said. "I think we'll gain some of the market share we would've lost from not having dine-in."

But Digrazia isn't fooling himself about how long business will last with the recently unemployed as they start tightening their budgets without incoming paychecks. He is another in a long line of restaurateurs who don't believe their businesses will be fully opened by April 1.

"It's going to be diminishing returns as people drain their bank accounts and don't have the hours to back them up," Digrazia said. "Six weeks, we'll be able to survive. After that, all bets are off."

Digrazia said while he has never seen anything like the COVID-19 shut down, he's seen hard times before in the restaurant industry and he'll definitely stay open, even if he has to go back to a skeleton crew.

"I guarantee you Rocco's Little Chicago will survive this. I'll remortgage my house. There is no reason for me to go under," Digrazia said. "I didn't think 20 years after being in business I might be back to square one. But I'm completely ready to do that. This is my only trick, bro."

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