'A Restaurant Isn't A Place Of Contention': Why This Phoenix Chef Decided To Close Again During The Pandemic

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, July 16, 2020 - 2:24pm
Updated: Wednesday, March 17, 2021 - 1:27pm

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Chef Stephen Jones Delta the Larder
Debbie Wolves/DW Photography
Stephen Jones is the chef at The Larder + The Delta in Phoenix.

LAUREN GILGER: As the pandemic has raged in our state, we've seen businesses close and reopen with new safety protocols in place. But now, as the numbers continue to surge here, some businesses are choosing to close their doors again. Our next guest says he didn't want to be part of the problem. Chef Stephen Jones of the Larder and the Delta in downtown Phoenix announced he was closing his restaurant again earlier this month. He had initially closed back in March before the governor issued his original stay-at-home order, and they stayed closed until the end of May. Their reopening didn't last that long, though. I spoke with Chef Jones more about the tough decision to close again and the long list of precautions they put in place to reopen in the first place.

STEPHEN JONES: I was apprehensive, mainly because there weren't any kind of guidelines or mandates given from up above — from the leadership of the state — on what we should be doing as a whole versus what actually happened to everyone else, just kind of figure it out on their own. And so from that point on, I just used my friends in the industry and bounced ideas up off of them and them off of me, and a lot of us just put together a list of things that needed to happen, and we all did them in our establishments. And it worked. And when we first reopened, it was a great response. That first open weekend, it was bananas — it caught me completely off guard. And it was going well. You know, we went to some extremes. We would take the temperatures of the staff. You know, every table in the restaurant had its own hand sanitizer. Upon guests' entrance through the restaurant, we asked that everyone sanitize their hands. We made the patio available to people ... there was also hand sanitizer out there as well. We had a rotation of the cleaning of the door handles, the restroom door handles, the restrooms themselves. You know, the single-use menus, the staff had masks, gloves on.

GILGER: Was it more difficult or different than you expected it to be coming back? I can't imagine sort of how different that must have felt like coming back to work and doing all of these extra things and trying to approach your work in such a different way.

JONES: Absolutely. It's completely different. You know, I've been doing this for 21 years, and we've never had to do some of the things that we're doing now, to the level that we're doing it. What changed for us was it was much more of a discipline of the masks. Making sure that we have a mask on, we have the gloves on in the front of the house. It's very difficult to look up and see your servers talking to guests with masks on, and standing there trying to stand 6 feet away from the table and trying to communicate. So we had our blunders in terms of some order takings, wrong orders being ... So I'm sure everyone had that, because it's still a restaurant. You still have to create an ambiance. There's still music on. There's still, there's still noise from just a restaurant. So having to sort of have to yell, talk louder now — it's kind of funny sometimes to watch, but it's also kind of nerve-wracking.

GILGER: So you do all of these things, right? You put in all of these measures, you're taking every precaution. But you decided again to close again, just earlier this month. And what went into that decision? How hard was it to make?

JONES: That was a hard decision. That was a decision that I literally thought about for solid four or five days and ran back and forth in my head. Even my staff noticed, and they're like, "What's up with you? What's wrong?" And I was kind of really stressing about it, because, at our baseline our goal is to provide safety. A restaurant isn't a place of contention. It's a place where you come and you break bread with the fellow man and you have a good time. And I just felt that we weren't doing that. And I felt like we were becoming more of the problem. We were allowing guests to come in and all kind of stuff like that, but that wasn't really changing anything. And also at time, I was feeling — I would wake up and like, you know, these kind of, I guess you could call it angst about the restaurant, everything that was going on with the restaurant. It was driving me nuts. I didn't want to make anyone sick, and I didn't want to be part of the problem. And then around us, in the neighborhood around us, I started seeing other restaurants around us closing because someone was exposed. So they closed, and then the condos above us, there were a couple people that were exposed. So I just kind of took the writing on the wall. And then over that weekend, I just made the call to just stop it, shut it down and try and be part of the solution.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. So last question I have for you then is about this sort of long-term effects here, like not just you, but for the restaurant world, all these small businesses in Phoenix and in the Valley. How different do you think it might look when this is all over?

JONES: Oh, this is going to be completely horrible. We haven't really even begun to see the closures that I think are going to happen because it's Arizona. It's summer. So we already deal with that, you know what I mean? But now you layer on a pandemic and you layer on the angst and people who aren't going out, who aren't dining, who aren't drinking. And then you, on top of that, you layer in there's no sporting events, there's no concerts, there's no conventions. You know, there's nothing — there's no draw to Arizona for the fall, And so when we when we talk about that welcome back and that that first bit of season that we feel here in the fall, it's not going to happen. I think then, I think in the Octobers and Novembers, you're going to see a lot of restaurants close. What I'm seeing, I'm just seeing a lot of restaurants losing a lot of chefs, just completely exhausted. And just figuring out ways just completely get out of the get out of the business as a whole, pivot into something else ...  That's a feeling of defeat that's going to come and that's starting to layer in on people. That also will affect what happens to the restaurant and hospitality industry in the fall. So we haven't begun to see the lasting impact of this.

GILGER: All right. That is Chef Stephen Jones, chef and managing partner of the Larder and the Delta in downtown Phoenix. Chef, thank you so much for coming on The Show to talk about this, and best of luck.

JONES: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

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