Writer Jo Gemmill, Carefree Restaurant Association

Portrait Photography by Carl Schultz

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]f all the businesses affected by the pandemic this past year, restaurants have been left with the greatest challenges in adapting to the ever-changing world in which we now find ourselves.

At the beginning of 2020, Carefree restaurants were full-swing into another great first quarter. Things looked optimistic for a busy high-season as owners continued with their plans for a successful year. Parties were booked, reservations were made and the phones kept ringing.

Everything changed on March 17, 2020. That day, members of Carefree Restaurant Association took the initiative to close their in-house dining as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of Arizona.  Within days, an executive order from Arizona’s governor formally locked down all in-house dining across the state and customers were advised to stay home.

With the mandatory closures, restaurant owners were left with the unprecedented challenge of figuring out how to operate a dining establishment in the midst of a pandemic. At first glance, it appeared to be an insurmountable task. However, our restaurant community has resilient, imaginative and innovative professionals who over the past year have proven that they were up to the challenge.

From offering groceries and essential items (including that elusive toilet paper); making crockpot dinners to-go and hosting tailgate parties in Raven’s View Wine Bar’s parking lot; enjoying drive-in breakfasts complete with roller-skating servers at Black Mountain Café; and partnering with delivery services to bring food directly to customers, everyone found a creative way to survive.

And Carefree’s family-owned restaurants have survived — a remarkable feat given that, according to the National Restaurant Association, more than 110,000 restaurants (or about 17% of the country’s total restaurants) have closed either permanently or long-term during the pandemic.

Our restaurants now offer new services they probably would never have considered before.

Curbside service became the new norm for many, as customers ordered and paid for meals ahead of time then pulled up to a designated parking space and waited in the safety of their own car while food was delivered to them. The town of Carefree was particularly helpful in spreading the word about curbside service throughout the community, printing custom signage for each restaurant to reserve designated parking spots for guests.

“We were seeing the effects of the Canadian border closure and really missing our Canadian customers,” says Alberto Liani, owner of Alberto Ristorante. “But, at the same time, our take-out business was up 60% as our locals found new ways to support us.”

One restaurateur even courageously debuted a brand-new dining establishment as Pomodoro — the sister restaurant to Pizzicata in Spanish Village — opened its doors in Cave Creek during the pandemic.

Nonetheless, 2020 was an emotional rollercoaster. Restaurant owners had to become medical technicians (taking temperatures), face mask enforcers and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts alongside ever-changing day-to-day responsibilities — which included being the busser, the server, the bartender, the barista, the line cook and the dishwasher.

Everyone needed to be flexible in order to keep their doors open.

Reductions in manpower, services and allowed capacity in dining rooms had a direct impact on staff, too. Paul Keeler of Keeler’s Neighborhood Steakhouse recalls the kindness and generosity of guests during the worst months of last year.

“One customer left a $400 gratuity for staff on a check for $25,” he says. “Another ‘paid it forward’ and, on two separate occasions during our happy hour, bought drinks for all seated at our ‘socially distanced’ bar. This then continued throughout the evening with random acts of kindness as guests bought drinks for others.”

There were brighter days amongst the gloom. Adele Giordano of Giordano’s Trattoria Romana recalls a moment in the fall during which a young couple who had come to the restaurant for their first date came back for dinner during the pandemic.

“At one point in the evening, the man got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend,” Giordano says. “The entire restaurant was clapping and cheering as the couple danced to our music. It was very emotional.”

Carefree’s restaurant owners all agree on one thing — it is the continued loyalty and support from customers that has lifted up spirits and kept restaurants going throughout the pandemic. The businesses have risen to the challenge but it is the community that has given them the confidence and commitment to continue through adversity.

At the English Rose Tea Room, phone calls came daily during the lockdown from customers who were just wanting to check in and make sure everyone was doing OK and promising to return as soon as dine-in service was allowed.

Catherine Marr, owner of Venues Café, says some customers now come by three times a week just to dine on her newly extended outdoor patio where they feel “comfortable and safe.”

Despite the challenges, a number of restaurateurs even participated in the Carefree Restaurant Week last fall, during which special menus were prepared for two-course lunches and three- or four-course dinners. These options were made available for both curbside pick-up and in-house dining.

Unlike the early days of April when it was rare to know someone with COVID-19, many people now unfortunately know first-hand the impact of the virus on their friends, family members or work colleagues.

So it is with hope and optimism that we look forward to 2021.

A new year brings another new restaurant to Carefree. Athens on Easy Street — a Greek-inspired restaurant owned and operated by Augie Athenson and his family — offers the community a menu that includes typical Greek fare such as spanakopita, moussaka, souvlaki and of course gyros.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, Carefree Restaurant Week slated for the spring and a new Art and Foodie Stampede event in April, there is no better time to discover the culinary delights of your own neighborhood.

On behalf of everyone at Carefree Restaurant Association, thank you for your continued patronage. We look forward to serving you in the future.