Getting Through Crisis One Order at a Time | An Interview with Phoenix Restaurateur Chris Bianco

The world is in the hands of a pandemic. A novel coronavirus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19, originated in December in China. The disease, which began as a regional epidemic has since spread further, changing life as we know it.

Hit hardest by lockdown and stay-at-home orders designed to contain the spread, adopted haphazardly from state-to-state across the US, are restaurants. In an article published this March in Eater, data shows that from January to February, restaurant visits declined 8-12%. This was followed in March by more people switching to shopping for groceries over takeout, with downloads for apps like Instacart rising 50% following COVID-19’s designation as a pandemic.

The final blow came in the middle of that month, when states started to institute stay-at-home orders and business closures. Due to the closure of dining rooms in favor of takeout and delivery options, restaurant workers have seen either a decrease in hours – with total hours worked dropping 40% as of March 17th – or layoffs – with the number of hourly workers dropping 45%.

Eateries in Phoenix, Arizona, some of which this author grew up dining at, haven’t been spared. But if there’s anything this crisis has been teaching us, it’s that a little creativity can help weather the storm. One such Phoenix restaurateur who’s taken this to heart is Chris Bianco.

The New York-born pizzaiolo, who runs two respective locations of Pizzeria Bianco, sandwich shop Pane Bianco, and the pasta-centric eatery Tratto, is no stranger to helping people connect with not just his own businesses, but other food and beverage companies within Arizona.

To keep connected with customers new and old, he started filming videos to post on Instagram and YouTube, keeping viewers up to date with what’s going on at all his restaurant locations and his feelings on the pandemic. He’s also continued to help other local businesses by selling their products, including locally made hot sauces and small batch flours, at Pane Bianco, among other things.

As of May 14th, Pizzeria Bianco and Pane Bianco’s Central locations have incorporated limited hours and seating, with Pane Van Buren still open for takeout with optional seating and Tratto slated to open for diners this week, but despite the good news, the shutdown has been a hard learning experience.

“The struggle is definitely real here” Bianco says over the phone. “We’ve lost about half our staff, there’s so many unanswered questions about what things will look like when business comes back.”  

Managing Tough Times

With summer being downtime for most restaurants, loss of business in the spring doesn’t allow much room to hunker down until the fall. Plus, even with the opening for dine in, they’ll be expected to run at 25% capacity for the foreseeable future. This won’t be good if rent and costs remain the same.

“We never closed fully” Chris tells me “and we’re trying to focus our density in downtown.” Without the usual spring and summer events that bring more people to the restaurant’s downtown locations, though, things are looking rough.

“We’re just figuring out what to do” Chris muses, explaining a lack of clarity from the situation and from government only makes things more uncertain.

This isn’t to say business was rosy prior to the pandemic. Even with the opening of Pane Bianco’s Van Buren location last year, the restaurant industry in general was in between a rock and a hard place.

Due to a drop in interest in many retail options, Chris says that restaurants were the only real physical retail places people frequented. Add in more options for dining out – let’s say people might choose to go to a restaurant that’s doing well over one struggling to make ends meet – and some places tend to do better than others.

A shrinking pool of people who want to work at restaurants, and issues with global supply chains, also complicated matters. All these situations have added up now to a do or die scenario, during which everyone from land developers to entrepreneurs to suppliers to staff are going to have to question how to be sustainable, especially in a situation where these issues are magnified.

Moving Forward

Many hope that, following the peak of the pandemic, things will go back to normal. Pointing this out to Chris, he says “there’s never going to be a normal ever again.” Why? The things we are doing to fight the coronavirus are too ingrained now.

During these times, Chris says, responsible parties are looking for ways to not be responsible; to play the blame game. Not just politicians – who Bianco believes will be questioned severely at the polling stations this year – but to other parties like insurance companies. Filing a claim during a pandemic is impossible, because after SARS in 2003, the government passed laws exempting insurance companies from filing claims during pandemics.

This will only burden restaurants even more. Coupled with the sort of Jaws-effect the pandemic is having and will have, in which people will be too afraid to “get back into the water” so to speak, will be severe.

Limited seating, limited business to continue to curb infection rates, and the inability to entice customers to come out will all have an effect. “Over the next seven months, lots of restaurants may go out of business for good, ourselves included.”

Farmers who supply these restaurants and the average consumer are bearing the brunt as well. The pandemic is affecting logistics and supply chains that get food where it needs to go across the world. Harvests going to waste with no workers to pick fruit, swaths of animals are being slaughtered so as not to hinder precious resources.

The only way to fight this? Chris says “I’m doing all I can, I’m continuing with initiatives and not giving up.” The most important thing is to keep it positive. Not just internally, but to encourage positive change as well.

Helping Out, Encouraging Change

One aspect of this new normal is people will be spending more time indoors and less outside. This might be a shock to some, but looking to China, where this author lived prior to the crisis, the infrastructure allowing people to shelter-in-place comfortably was all there.

In China, it’s so easy to open up one of the country’s many food delivery apps, order a dish or two – maybe even groceries – and have it delivered quickly to your home or office, sometimes in 30 minutes or less. While options like this are available in the US – Door Dash, GrubHub, Uber Eats and Instacart as mentioned earlier – these tend to be more expensive services than their Chinese counterparts.

Yet, with more demand, perhaps prices will fall. “We have to find a way to fit in and be a part of the new world,” says Chris. “We have to be prepared for the next thing that hits.”

Chris is looking for other ways to benefit people now and whenever the next big thing hits. “We’re looking at ways to help people fill up their freezers if they’re at home.” In the kitchen, Bianco’s team is experimenting with par-baked frozen pizzas, along with other frozen items like frozen stocks and bone broth, which allows people to have a nourishing meal at the ready when they feel like or need it.

Another initiative is farm boxes. Each week, Pane Bianco locations offer a box filled with fresh, seasonal produce. Sometimes there are other things thrown in, like Bianco brand tomatoes, which are sourced from a farm in California, as well as pasta and other products.

Eating healthy and knowing where food comes from is a major aspect of times like these. People don’t have to just go to the stores to buy food, but they can grow their own food as well. Doing something as simple as this can go a long way in helping communities and supply chains.

In this way, Chris not only hopes to help local and regional farmers stay afloat during the pandemic and beyond, but to inspire people to get back in touch with their food. In regards to Americans’ current connection with the food they eat, he likens it to a television or phone charger not being plugged in.

“When you’re not connected to the source of where your food comes from – who’s making it, where it was grown – the value changes.” Getting reconnected with the farms that produce our food, and even buying fruits and vegetables that are in season – a cheaper alternative than buying out-of-season produce – is one of the best ways to do this.

By controlling what we are able to eat and when, we can eat healthier as well. Cooking a nutrient-packed meal with food sourced from a place you can know and trust, says Bianco, is just one way we can get more connected with the Earth we live on and are a part of.

Reconnecting with the Past

Chris is always looking for ways he can help, asking what Pizzeria and Pane Bianco can do to give back to the community. Along with farm boxes and locally-sourced products, another answer is comfort food.

“I looked at comfort foods, and when comfort foods came to be. And most comfort foods came in times of deprivation, great depression and world wars. It’s when someone made you something and you cherished it so deeply that you remembered it. That’s where comfort foods come in.”

The comfort food Chris remembers most comes from his youth, when he was slinging pies in New York. These large pizzas made to go in boxes, “triangles of good intention” as he calls them, were unpretentious and available to anyone. With this cherished memory, he decided to sell an 18-inch pizza.

Offering both a red or white sauce option with choice of toppings, these pizzas truly are filled with good intention, larger pies than the normal Neapolitan-style option served up at Pizzeria Bianco, but with the same love and care.

Also on offer, in order to utilize the kitchens and fryers at Pane Bianco Van Buren, are two kinds of chicken wings, plus more on offer like big Sicilian-style pizzas – giant squares of thick doughy goodness – and other experimental dishes.

No matter what the situation, Chris is optimistic in his ability to provide to the masses. To help out in a way that both the people and his restaurants, as an integral part of the Phoenix community, can get through these uncertain times.

 

To stay up to date with Pane Bianco and Pizzeria Bianco’s specials, offers and opening hours, you can follow them on Instagram (@pizzeriabianco, @biancophx) or their YouTube channel (BiancoTV)

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