While the pandemic has all but knocked out the restaurant industry throughout the Old Pueblo (and nationwide), Tucson’s ethnic food scene is rolling with the punches in an attempt to salvage profits as they head into the fourth quarter of fiscal 2020.
The struggle has been real for Senae Thai Bistro owner Dee Buizer.
Before the pandemic hit, her restaurant was on track to have the best year since opening their doors in 2015, she said. However, Senae Thai Bistro, located at 63 E. Congress St., began hemorrhaging cash at an alarming rate once statewide shelter-in-place orders were implemented. Buizer said she knew moving to take-out wasn’t going to keep the bills paid long-term.
Unless the restaurant’s business model adapted, she feared she wouldn’t make it through 2020.
“We were poised to break all the records this year and then COVID came,” Buizer said. “Now everybody is going through the challenge of trying to keep costs down and there is not enough revenue coming in... I decided this was an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves and minimize labor as much as possible.”
Senae Thai’s original menu boasted around 50 items at the start of 2020, but due to the tediousness of prepping, the large array of Thai food options proved to be an albatross around Buizer’s neck during the pandemic.
“We prep everything fresh and Thai food has so many ingredients that go into making a dish that it takes a minimum of six people in the kitchen,” Buizer said. “I decided to scale down the menu to about 10 items. Now, we’re an upscale, fast-casual restaurant, if there is such a term.”
Senae Thai recently reopened their dining room to customers with only eight tables to comply with social distancing requirements. So far, business seems to be coming back and the future of Senae Thai looks bright.
“We’re trying hard and having our dining room back helps. People are coming back,” Buizer said. “When you come into my restaurant, you will see that it’s super clean and we’re super cautious about everyone’s safety during this time.”
Alafia West African restaurant, located at 1070 N. Swan Road, is one of the few places in Arizona that specialize in cuisine from Benin, a country sandwiched between Nigeria and Togo. Owner (and Benin native) Ismaël Lawani said he considered shutting down his restaurant numerous times at the beginning of the pandemic, but encouragement from multiple customers inspired him to keep going.
“At the beginning of the pandemic we hardly had anyone show up to buy anything. We would be here all day in the restaurant and maybe only one customer would come,” Lawani said. “I wanted to get away from the restaurant but I realized a lot of people would be upset if I closed down. So I had to fight to keep it open and we’re doing it.”
Like many pandemic-stricken restaurant owners, Lawani pivoted to delivery to make ends meet. He said take-out and delivery are helping these days since his already small dining room has shrunk due to social distancing guidelines. However, he said the limited space doesn’t seem to be deterring customers from all over Arizona (and beyond) to make the trip to his humble establishment.
“Business is starting to pick up right now. On weekends, people are showing up from all over,” Lawani said. “I don’t think there is a West African restaurant in Phoenix so they’re making the drive to Tucson to eat at Alafia.”
Lawani said his business wouldn’t have been able to survive if it wasn’t for his landlord, who has been lenient on receiving rent payments during the pandemic. The extra support has allowed Lawani to focus on building his business during this unprecedented time, instead of feeling like he is taking on more debt, he said.
“I have a landlord who is very nice and understands how I suffer. He has really helped me out with my rent,” Lawani said. “It’s been hard but we have to keep going. (The pandemic) isn’t going to last forever.”
El Taco Rustico owner Juan Almanza signed his lease two weeks before coronavirus shut down much of the state. Before opening a brick-and-mortar establishment, Almanza built a fantastic reputation for serving some of the best tacos in Southern Arizona at the Tohono O’odham Swapmeet.
About 15 days after signing, his landlord took pity on the restaurateur and offered Almanza a chance to break his lease. But at this point, there was no turning back. The Tohono O’odham Swap Meet closed due to pandemic restrictions and he had to open the restaurant, for better or worse.
“I had nothing to do. So my wife and I decided to open and sell food to-go,” Alamanza said. “We were making around $300 a day the first week, so we just kept going.”
El Taco Rustico, located at 2281 N. Oracle Road, opened on March 21 and has been going strong ever since, said Almanza. His friend—and Fresco Pizzeria and Pastaria owner—Mat Cable was instrumental in the restaurant’s early success, the owner said.
“Mat started talking about my food to a lot of people. Then Tucson Foodie and the Arizona Daily Star wrote articles and more people ate my food,” Almanza said. “After that, people started to talk about us everywhere.”
These days, Almanza said business at his restaurant is far exceeding his expectations. Each month seems to get more business than the month before and his reputation for making the best tacos in Southern Arizona continues to grow. Almanza said he owes it all to people like Cable and others in Tucson’s culinary community for helping him get established during such a difficult time.
“We’re doing really good right now and business is better than I could have hoped,” Almanza said. “A lot of people have helped me, otherwise I would not have made it this far.”