Arizona legislator and restaurant owner forced to adapt in face of COVID-19

Arizona state Rep. Jeff Weninger, who spends much of his time outside of session helping small business owners hurt by COVID-19, knows firsthand how rough the ride has been. 

Rep. Jeff Weninger

Weninger co-owns two restaurant concepts in the Valley and watched revenues take a deep dive when the virus shut down much of the industry in March.  

Suddenly, he was having sleepless nights trying to strategize how to stay open and keep his 60-plus employees on the job. In turn, as an incumbent running for reelection, he had to figure out how to campaign in a pandemic.

“It’s been tough to say the least and it’s been tough for all my fellow small business owners,” said Weninger, who is running for re-election in Legislative District 17, which encompasses much of Chandler, parts of Gilbert and all of Sun Lakes. “But people in small businesses know how to adapt and pivot and make things happen quickly.

“That can be an advantage because my business partner and I can make a decision in the morning and can change it in the afternoon. There’s not the whole bureaucracy.”

Keeping loyal workers was critical to survival 

Weninger, who lives in Chandler with his wife and three kids, opened his first restaurant, Dilly’s Deli, in 1993 with his business partner, Shaun Kelley. It took the two men, their families and friends and 80 hours a week to make it a go.

Today, the original Dilly’s is still standing. Weninger and Kelley also now own and operate two other Dilly’s in the Valley and Floridino’s Pizza and Pasta in Chandler. 

A devoted customer base that took close to three decades to build has kept their four eateries standing, he said. 

While profit margins are below pre-COVID levels, not one employee lost their job.  

That was critical for the businesses’ survival, he said. Much of his staff consists of longtime, loyal workers. Without them, the operations would surely have suffered. 

“I know business owners who had no choice but to lay them off and then when they reopened, they had to train new employees,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in that situation because we have so many great employees that have been with us for years and years. I didn’t want them to go out and find new jobs and not come back.”

Near the beginning of the pandemic, the two partners also managed to weather a six-day shutdown of Floridino’s when an employee came down with the virus.   

Technology, devoted customers keep eateries afloat 

Like other restaurants that are hanging on, they had to innovate to adapt their business model.

When the virus closed down indoor dining, they quickly shifted to takeout and curbside pickup. At Floridino’s, they set aside 25 parking spaces for customer pickup, purchased Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and put strict protocols in place for sanitizing.  

When indoor dining was reopened, they were fortunate to have a large banquet room so customers can be socially distanced. Technology also was purchased to make curbside pick-up more efficient. New Point of Sale (POS) electronic tablets have cut down wait staff’s trips in and out from three to two. 

Now, the majority of customers are in and out in less than five minutes, he said. 

Rep. Jeff Weninger and his family

“When COVID goes away, that process is not going away. It’s going to be a new added revenue. If you can overperform with these new-found customers, then you’re adding to your customer base long term.” 

Campaigning fully masked and social distancing 

Weninger, who first was elected to the Legislature in 2014, also served eight years on the Chandler City Council. 

Campaigning used to mean going door to door and attending indoor rallies. Now, it’s about literature drops and cautiously approaching potential voters — fully masked and from a distance — in public.   

Champion for education, healthcare, small business, industry 

Through it all, Weninger’s campaign message has been to grow the state’s economy with low taxes, limited regulatory red tape and a balanced budget.  

During his years at the Capitol, he has championed access to capital for small businesses, resources for the classroom, teacher pay raises, health insurance for patients with pre-existing conditions, resources for first responders, public safety and much more.  

Honored for work on behalf of business 

Weninger’s work in the Legislature on behalf of businesses and his constituents has won him numerous awards and honors. 

Last month he received two such honors. He is among 12 state legislators honored for bringing tech industries — and high paying jobs and innovation — to Arizona by the Arizona Technology Council and the Arizona Commerce Authority. 

He also was named one of this year’s “business champions” by the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance for supporting the organization and businesses “100 percent” in the 2020 legislative session.     

Chambers across the state including the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry are endorsing him for reelection. 

To read more about Weninger’s legislative accomplishments, visit: Jeff Weninger for reelection.

Victoria Harker

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