Downtown Rebound

After Nearly Seven Months of Pandemic Uncertainty, Downtown’s Bar and Restaurant Scene Is Back

Downtown's Charro Steak and Del Rey's world was turned upside down last May.

At the time, the restaurant was planning to reopen to coincide with Gov. Doug Ducey lifting his executive order that had shut down Arizona's service industry amid coronavirus concerns. Chef Gary Hickey had just placed a big food order earlier in the week with the anticipation his restaurant would be reopening on Friday, May 29.

But Hickey would have to wait a little longer to reopen his doors.

That evening an angry mob filled downtown's streets, breaking windows, spray painting walls and starting dumpster fires to protest the in-custody death of Minnesota resident George Floyd. Much of the destruction started in front of Charro Steak and Del Rey on Fifth Avenue and Broadway Boulevard and the restaurant had several windows smashed.

"I had just put in a $10,000 food order for that Friday when the riots broke out," Hickey said. "We had to donate all that food to the community food bank because there was no way we could reopen after all the damage that happened."

The restaurant was able to replace the broken glass, pivot and adapt to the situation. After shutting their doors for summer, Charro Steak and Del Rey quietly reopened in September and have steadily been rebuilding their business. Each weekend is a little busier than the week before, Hickey said.

"We're at a little bit less than 50 percent occupancy for our dinning rooms, but over the course of evening we're serving about 250 covers," Hickey said. "Our main focus is to make sure our guests are comfortable and we have our protocols in place."

The collective reopening of numerous businesses in the downtown area over this past weekend brought lots of foot traffic, said Hickey. While business at his place wasn't as good as the previous weekends—Charro Steak and Del Rey was one of the only eateries open in downtown during September—Hickey said he was pleased to see his restaurateur friends reopen and their establishments filled with eager customers.

"Last weekend was a little weird because we were the only downtown restaurant open for weeks. UA's Parent's Weekend was a shit show. We did gem show numbers that night," Hickey said. "We actually tailed off a little from what we have been doing. I budgeted for that because I knew there was going to be extra foot traffic downtown and way more options."

The seasoned chef said he is hopeful business will be (somewhat) back to normal soon as they move into October, which is typically when restaurants and bars start to see an uptick in sales.

"September is usually the worst month of the year for any downtown business and October is our ramping up month," Hickey said. "Barring any crazy outbreaks and depending on if they shut the bars down again, I think downtown is going to be OK."

Hotel Congress reopened its doors on Thursday, Oct. 1, with a new menu and a newly designed outside dining room for their restaurant, Cup Cafe. The establishment has only shut their doors twice in their 101 years in business—during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and a 1934 fire that ultimately led to the capture of Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger. Senior marketing and events manager Dalice Shepard said their return to business over the weekend was a special moment.

"We had great numbers all weekend and the weather was absolutely beautiful outside," Shepard said. "People really enjoyed being able to listen to live music on Friday and Saturday evenings and on Sunday was our first Blues and BBQ event with music on the plaza and barbeque being served from our food truck."

Shepard said comparing their sales this past weekend to last year was difficult but they are seeing more traffic than when they attempted to reopen in June.

"I'll say we really are able to see a complete difference to the numbers we were doing last June, which was minimal," Shepard said. "We're shooting for sales similar to last year and we're doing well. We can only see business going up from here."

Shepard also said Hotel Congress' guests were acting extremely responsible during the reopening and hotel staff reported no incidents over the weekend.

"Guests over the weekend have been great about compliance with rules and regulations regarding COVID-19," Shepard said. "They would put back on their masks as they left their tables and were not moving tables or chairs closer and that helped us maintain our social distancing and capacity requirements. It felt good that everything went so smoothly."

Down the street along Sixth Avenue near Toole Avenue sits John Henry's, a bar that has spent the majority of its first year in business closed by the pandemic. Co-owner Sean Humphrey said while their first year has had its share of challenges, they are happy to be reopened and are starting to see people coming through their doors.

"God bless our regulars. They were the first people to be waiting at the door with their masks on when we reopened," Humphrey said. "By the grace of God and our loyal supporters, we've been able to get back to work. It's coming back."

John Henry's guests have been very respectful of the bar's new guidelines and requirements they have to adhere to so they can continue to do business, said Humphrey.

"Nobody has been getting NFL blitzed while they're here and that's been helpful," Humphrey said. "They've been treating us with respect and seem to understand that being here is a privilege based on the state. They're acting right."

Humphrey said business last weekend was better than the two previous weekends and seemingly building up steam. But the owner doesn't believe business will be back as it was before the pandemic anytime soon.

"It's a close facsimile but it's never going to feel like we're back to normal until there is a vaccine in place," Humphrey said.

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