City’s status growing as a foodie hotspot

Tucson restauranteurs are adjusting to a new normal that includes higher costs, staff shortages and supply chain issues. (Tran/Contributor)

If America still needed proof that the Tucson culinary scene is hotter than ever, Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Tailgate party at Super Bowl LVII presented a pretty convincing case.

There, among a select group of eight Arizona restaurants invited by the “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” host to present restaurant “pop-ups” outside Glendale’s State Farm Stadium, three of Tucson’s most popular eateries — Inca’s, Renee’s and Tumerico — offered samples of their Peruvian-spiced saltados, vegetarian pizza and butternut squash tostadas (respectively) as Diplo spun tunes for an estimated 10,000 guests.

“It was quite the invite,” said Renee Kreager, who co-owns Renee’s with her husband Steve. “When I do this again, serving only one item, with more signage and a food photo, is what I learned works best.”

The Flavortown showcase was just the latest in a series of shout-outs from the foodie world that Tucson’s been receiving over the past few years.

In 2015, Tucson became the first U.S. city officially designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an international honor recognizing Tucson’s rich culinary heritage and agricultural history, along with the individuality and ingenuity of its local chefs.

Janos Wilder, president of Tucson City of Gastronomy, the nonprofit organization overseeing the designation, said the accolade honored “the nexus of culture and food” to be found in the city.

Since then, the TCoG has capitalized on the recognition, presenting monthly presentations on the business of heritage foods and sending a squad of eight “chef ambassadors” to cities around the world to “share Tucson’s food heritage abroad.” It’s apparently been working: in February, London’s Daily Telegraph highlighted Tucson in an article touting Arizona as “the surprising U.S. state that’s a dream come true for foodies.”

At the same time, the restaurant industry as a whole is still in recovery from a score of substantial setbacks since COVID-19: declining guests counts, staffing shortages, supply chain issues, rising food costs. How can Tucson restaurants take advantage of all that skyrocketing culinary recognition in the midst of such formidable challenges?

Perhaps no one understands this predicament better than the Kreagers, who were all set to move into larger quarters to accommodate their growing customer base in March 2020 when the pandemic shut everything down.

Renee’s stayed put and pivoted to takeout, and their loyal base kept the business afloat until Tucson restaurants were allowed to welcome dine-in customers again in May 2021. But Kreager says it’s a different ballgame now.

“The crushing reality is everything costs more,” she said, “but guests know this at every turn in their lives as well.”

Nationwide, workforce shortages have hit the restaurant industry hard, prompting a need for higher expenditures to attract labor.

As of January, average salary for a restaurant worker in Tucson is $15.73 per hour, about 14% above the national average.

Kreager has responded by offering higher pay to her employees, which she says has lessened staff shortages — and she said her customers understand the resulting upticks in prices.

“We all have an opportunity to embrace that people deserve to be paid well to produce as part of this reality.”

Supply chain issues continue to hamper growth. According to a January 2023 study by the National Restaurant Association, 96% of operators surveyed said their restaurant had experienced supply delays or shortages of key food or beverage items in the past six months, and 92% reported higher food costs. Most have passed those increases on to the customer. Nationally, 87% of restaurants report that they have increased menu prices over the past six months.

For Renee’s, which used to be known by the name Renee’s Organic Oven, the difficulty in sourcing locally grown organic ingredients even forced the restaurant to shorten its name, for the sake of honesty.

“We are all facing a need to reflect a significant rise in prices on the menu,” said Kreager, adding that her restaurant has also removed items from the menu, and shifted its focus to preparing more items in-house as the shortages and extreme cost changes continue. “Many of us have not done this yet. And we will have to create an understanding that connects with our guests. We are reflecting true cost and that their investment in our success is what keeps the cooks cooking, the servers caring for their experience and the owners able to keep the doors open.”

The spending patterns of diners also changed during the pandemic, and to a large extent those patterns have continued into the recovery. According to the National Restaurant Association study, even now, three years after COVID-19’s onset, 16% fewer people are dining on-premises than before. The smart restaurant operators are making up for that with delivery.

In an October published study by the global company Deliverect, a SaaS company that simplifies online food delivery management, 42% of people in the United States said they were getting up to three food deliveries a week. Pick-up and drive-thru service has also persisted: the National Restaurant Association study reported that those options now account for 39% of all restaurant traffic.

“We’ve also put a strong focus on take-out now, continuing that convenience for guests by offering online ordering, delivery and reservations all with a click of a button,” Kreager said.

Staff and customers have been adjusting to this new normal. Kreager says staff still gets to add that personal touch “by labeling and packaging the orders and smiling at the customers when they arrive to pick up, or to greet them when they show up for their reservations.”

Even with all the new challenges, Kreager says she’s still jazzed to be part of the blossoming Tucson restaurant scene.

“I can tell you that we have greatly benefited from the increased interest in Tucson as a destination,” she said. “And you may have noticed many of those travelers have become residents of our gorgeous city.

“Tucson has a rich history of connecting to the land and to each other, and it is wonderful to see our community being celebrated for these traditions.”