Q&A with the Arizona Restaurant Association: How COVID-19 has impacted the state restaurant industry

Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association, answered questions about the impacts of COVID-19 on the state's restaurant industry. (Community Impact staff)
Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association, answered questions about the impacts of COVID-19 on the state's restaurant industry. (Community Impact staff)

Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association, answered questions about the impacts of COVID-19 on the state's restaurant industry. (Community Impact staff)

Gov. Doug Ducey announced this week that restaurants may reopen their dining rooms in Arizona beginning May 11 after mandating the closure of all dining rooms March 19 in counties with confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Community Impact Newspaper reached out to the Arizona Restaurant Association to see how COVID-19 has affected restaurants in Chandler, Gilbert and across the state. Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the association, answered the questions below. Responses have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

What are the ramifications if restaurants were to open dining rooms back-up now only to potentially have to close them again if COVID-19 cases spike?

It’s a tough question for all of us, in the sense [that] COVID-19 treats friends and enemies the same way. There is no playbook that came with this disease. ... It’s a threat to human life and economies—no one has been immune to that. There is that possibility [of a resurgence in cases], but we learned a lot in the last eight weeks. We’ve learned [the] importance of of washing our hands. We’ve learned that sanitation is paramount.

I think we are going to see some very strict guidelines as we come back into the economy. We won't see condiments on restaurant tables. We will see more paper menus that are discarded after use so [they] can't be passed on to the next customer or patron. We are going to see technology employed in various forms for reservations and alerting people when tables are ready.

Hygiene has always been of the utmost importance in restaurants. There will probably be masks in the back of the house and potentially in the front of the house.

We believe that if we are doing these things, we will be the best suited to protect against a second wave. We have a vested interest on an average day ensuring that people are safe and sound in our restaurants.

Does the ARA have any projections of the number of restaurants that might be forced to close permanently or on the projected revenue loss to the restaurant industry in Arizona?

We are seeing that between 6% and 8% have already decided not to reopen. [It's] not that every case will be that this disease has brought our industry to our knees; it's also the unique nature of restaurants and what it takes to run a restaurant.

It's peak season right now. It's such a perfect storm because it couldn't have come at a worse time. Last year, our total revenue was $13.4 billion in Arizona. Nationally, we were expected to have sales of $900 billion. In Arizona, we have been losing about $27 million a day ever since restaurants had to move to takeout and delivery only. We employee about 230,000 people, and between 70% and 80% have been laid off. Our daily payroll is just under $14 million a day; it's down to maybe $3 million a day.

What does it take for a restaurant to open back up once they’ve been closed for weeks on end? Are the majority of restaurants reopening next week?

It's going to look different for every restaurant. ... Some restaurants have done their homework and determined that they can have 40% or 50% occupancy because of their layout. [Restaurant owners] are going to be fixated on how they can do things right and seeing what the supply chain looks like. They will be asking if the supply chain allows for all the typical menu items they serve, and they will be asking themselves if they can afford to have various proteins and if they can bring all their kitchen staff in. It's going to be very fluid for the first few weeks.

There are more restaurants opening than not. I think we will have a good chunk of folks that aren't going to reopen dining rooms—they are going to wait and see.

What do you see as the long-term damage to the restaurant industry?

I believe that we are going to see restaurants close forever ... that may have still operated in a world without COVID-19. That's disheartening because there are so many good people that comprise this industry, and I hate to see them close their doors in such a tragic way.

How long could it take to get back to some sense of “normalcy” if the virus is indeed slowing?

I do believe there is a normal, especially when there is a vaccine. I think [it] won’t be normal for some time. When we move to heightened sanitation protocols and go above and beyond what we typically do, that will be noticed and probably [be] something that is an expectation moving forward.

What are restaurant owners’ concerns when considering opening up again?

I think it's everything—checking [the] "all of the above" box. It is critical that they don’t look over something or miss something. To me, I think it is going to be that they are going to deliberate and be definitive and judicious in how they reopen. They want to make sure they don’t forget anything. ... Being in close proximity—that's sometimes why people go to restaurants: because they want to have that environment.

I am part of the National Restaurant Association, and at an event, Dick Marriott, [CEO and founder of Marriott International], said, "Let us never forget that we are the industry of happy." We are the industry of happy, and we want to continue to be that. We want to still maintain that and not feel as though people can't enjoy their favorite meal in their favorite restaurant.