By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Doug Levy is the chef-owner at Feast restaurant in Tucson, Arizona.
At Feast, we turned 20 years old during the pandemic. We had started out as a very small, eight-table gourmet carryout kind of thing. Tucson is a get-in-your-car town. It’s not a really walking-friendly place. The takeout thing didn’t work all that well because when people got to the restaurant, they just wanted to sit and eat. So we very quickly ran out of tables.
We were in a rickety old strip mall at that point, you know, built in the 1950s, and we ended up knocking down a wall and moving into the space next door and doubling in size. That was probably 2005 or so. Again we ran out of room, so in 2010 I foolishly committed myself to a lifetime of food service by buying an old Der Wienerschnitzel, tearing it down, and putting up in its place a 5,000-square-foot building.
I had worked in higher-end restaurants for many years before we originally opened, and I thought, if we do this takeout thing, we can close at 8pm and I’ll have a life, and I’ll see my non-restaurant friends. But it turned into exactly what I was doing before, which is higher-end, fancy-pants food.
We had a tragic little patio that looked out over an ugly parking lot, and six years ago we enclosed it and started selling wine. That was going really well. In 2019, we were named one of the top 100 wine restaurants in the US by Wine Enthusiast. Things felt good, and everything was coming up roses and daffodils, and then on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, the mayor of Tucson said, “At 8 o’clock tonight, everybody’s shut down.”
Mercifully, we had a long background of carryout under our belts. I’m lucky enough that a lot of the people who work here have worked here since those days. We have people who’ve been here literally since day one, and a lot more who’ve been here for 15 years plus. So we were able to pivot relatively quickly. We already change our menu once a month, so we made a few quick revisions to make it more takeout-friendly. We went to an entirely takeout model over the course of three days. We stuck with it until this past May, so we went 14 months doing strictly carryout.
We never completely closed. But it sure felt like we were pretty much closed. There were nights where it was like, “That’s great. We did a $400 night. That means we only lost $3,500 today.” It was definitely challenging. But we found a couple of ways to make it work throughout the pandemic. We did takeout from the get-go. Tucson, like I said, is a sprawling community, so we started doing what we called hub deliveries or satellite runs, and every every week or two we’d go to a different community at the outskirts and people could order. We did a lot of stuff in Cryovac bags, and people would stock their freezers with meals so that they could do a boil-in-bag kind of thing—curries and etouffes and picadillos.
We had done weekly wine tastings, and so we started doing wine tastings by Zoom. Our wine shop guy who was running Zoom tastings, he’s a complete Luddite. So there are two of us now who do the Zoom tastings with him every week—one who just has to log him in. He’s a guy who is not going to change. Now a week from Saturday will be our first in-person tasting in 19 or 20 months.
One of the wines we were offering happened to come from a former Tucsonan who we know very well, and he said, “Hey, how would you like it if I chimed in on the Zoom tasting?” We said, “Great!” He’s in the Willamette Valley now, and he basically had a smartphone and wandered through the vineyard and the winery throughout the presentation, and people loved it. From that moment on we’ve had winemakers join us from Chile, from Germany, from France, from South Africa, from Spain, from Italy. They’re gracious and willing to stay up till 1am. It’s not so hard on the Europeans. But the poor guy from South Africa, that was above and beyond the call, for sure.
What’s really kept us afloat throughout the pandemic is what we call donation runs. Very early on in the pandemic, one of our former employees who is a physician’s assistant at Tucson Medical Center was working in a neurology recovery ward. That turned out to be the first ward in Tucson Medical Center that was converted to a COVID ward. We were worried about him. He had been a waiter, and a host, and a longtime Feast employee. We wanted to show a little solidarity to him. I also have another dear friend who had worked with me at another restaurant who is now a nurse practitioner over there in the emergency department. So we said we wanted to send meals over there.
Over the last 20 years, we’ve built up an email list of 4,500 people. Now it’s probably more like 4,700, 4,800 people. So I sent an email out and said, “Look, here’s the thing. We want to send meals to the staff over at TMC.” All hell was breaking loose there every day. The idea was for every four meals a member of the community donated, we would donate a fifth meal. Our guests and people in the community donated 240-something meals and we donated another 60-something meals, and went over to the hospital and handed them out.
It was so well received that we had more donations than we had meals. We said, “Well, they’re not the only hospital in town. Let’s go to Banner Health.” We went to the one at the university and another one on the south side with another 300 meals. Again we had more meals left over. So we’ve been rolling each group of donations into the next one. There was a massive forest fire down here that summer, so we went to fire departments. We went to a bunch of animal shelters because people were having to evacuate their homes and put their animals somewhere. We went to multiple hospitals and clinics. We went to the VA hospital.
Then we started going to homeless shelters and subsidized housing apartments for people who are transitioning from homelessness, and to mental health facilities and to the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, and so on and so forth. We have been doing it since the beginning of the pandemic. We’re continuing to do it. Last Saturday I went to a program called Youth on Their Own that helps teens who are experiencing homelessness finish high school. We’ve been to homes for the elderly who are on a limited budget.
It’ll probably be another two years before the business gets caught up to anything remotely resembling what we were doing before the pandemic. But we have managed to fill in some of those blanks by donating. We’ve donated over 8,500 meals to various organizations throughout the community, and we’ll continue doing it. Now I can just taste getting to 10,000 meals.
Some of our guests have been amazing. We have a woman who writes us a $100 check every month. We have someone else who will send us a check periodically. There’s no rhyme or reason to when or how much. People have been really, really remarkable. There have been some very touching experiences. The day after we were all shut down, I had a guest come in and buy a single chocolate cookie and leave a $250 tip for the crew.
I feel so much more committed to this community because they have shown us that they’re here for us. It’s intense. I know that it’s by the grace of this community that we’re still open. While I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I am excited about our achievements, I’m just at the rudder on this thing. Our guests and the community of Tucson are the engine.
The first thing I thought when I learned about winning the Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest was, “OK, who am I donating this to? How am I going to use this money to bring more meals to people?” It’s hard to have a business that’s been dug out of it by people’s generosity, and not feel like you need to give something back. You need to contribute. That’s what’s going to happen with this money. Sure, we’ve spent well over $30,000 on equipment repair and replacement over the last two years. Just because business stops doesn’t mean repairs stop, or gas bills or electric bills or mortgage payments. But I feel like we have navigated our way through all of those things by the kindness of the people of Tucson. My plan is to repay that kindness.