Restaurant Resilience: Two Local Restaurant Owners Adapt to Covid-19

By Kevin Murphy

Tucson restaurant owners are adapting to a new normal under Pima County’s Covid-19 health and safety guidelines.  With the onset of nationwide Covid-19 vaccinations already under way, the light at the end of the tunnel couldn’t come any sooner for local restaurant owners who have been soldiering on in this bitter battle since the beginning of the pandemic.  With resilience and resolve, these restaurant revisionists have adapted and overcome setbacks to continue to safely serve their fare to the community at large.

Located at 2650 N. 1st Ave., Smokey Mo co-owners OC Davis, Pat Jorgenson, and Brandon Johnson have been executing Kansas City style BBQ for the masses, while making some changes in protocols along the way. 

Purchased from previous ownership in March of 2020, the new ownership group featuring Pitmaster OC Davis started operating the restaurant just as the pandemic began to take shape.  The restaurant has actually been thriving during the pandemic, adapting to Pima County Covid-19 health and safety protocols along the way.

“We get very busy, it’s crazy!  We just have to put our heads down and do it.” says Jorgenson.  

As business has been booming, the crew has adapted to the procedural changes caused by Covid-19 by practicing and requiring social distancing, mandating masks while inside the restaurant, building a clever outdoor patio for dining, and following operational protocols that have been verified through the Pima County Health Department’s Ready for You program (as the sticker on the front window indicates).  In addition to staying busy and creative at the restaurant, Smokey Mo caters events as well. 

“We served the San Jose State football team 140 individual meals at Arizona Stadium for the Arizona Bowl this year,” says Jorgenson. “They picked us, I wore my mask and served them.” 

Downtown at 135 E. Congress St., Elliot’s on Congress owner Billy Elliot is doing everything he can to adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic. Through two closures due to staff testing positive for Covid-19, changes in hours of operation, and two separate curfews from the City of Tucson and Pima County that erased his late-night bar revenues, Elliot’s restaurant has steered through the storm at every turn.  

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride throughout this year because we can’t predict one week from the next.” says Elliot.

One thing Elliot’s has been able to do is adapt to all of the changes caused by the pandemic.  The restaurant is adhering to Covid-19 health and safety protocols from Pima County and the CDC.  Employees wear masks, and social distancing is mandated with tables placed 6 feet apart.  There have also been some crafty innovations implemented in the restaurant design which include plexiglass between the bar seating and the bartender, as well as a larger expanded patio.

“We’re trying to take all the necessary precautions and follow all the guidelines and protocols.  We’re doing it right.”  Says Elliot.

In addition to the innovations in restaurant design, Elliot’s on Congress is now serving their full menu and selling their signature flavor infused vodkas in different sized bottles for carry-out.  Throughout all of the turmoil in business operations caused by the pandemic, and in light of the recent  halting of the curfew in Pima County, Elliot has been and remains resilient and positive. 

“We’ve stayed fairly busy for the hours we’re keeping, so we’re happy to now expand back to our more normal hours. Just a lot of obstacles along the way, a lot of bumps in the road if you will, but, you know, we’re still here and now we’re back to being open until 2 AM, 7 days a week.”