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The Short Version: When the COVID-19 pandemic caused restaurants to close dine-in service, it changed how people celebrated their relationship milestones, birthdays, and other big life events. For many, takeout and delivery service became the go-to way of bringing the restaurant experience to the homefront. Café Roka has been a community favorite in Bisbee, Arizona, for over 30 years, and it had to pivot quickly to keep its high-quality meals and perfectly paired wines accessible to people on lockdown. Now, the restaurant offers weekly curbside menus inspired by international cuisine and made with local ingredients.
The last year has brought a lot of changes to society, especially when it comes to entertainment and eating. The seasoned staff at Café Roka in Bisbee, Arizona, has weathered the restrictions and embraced the opportunity to bring food directly to people’s homes.
After all, people still deserve to treat themselves to a fancy meal, even if they work from home in their sweatpants and rarely travel farther than their front step.
Café Roka has provided the ingredients for a memorable night in, and it has helped couples and families celebrate birthdays, proposals, anniversaries, and other relationship milestones.
For some, the excitement surrounding a special dinner on the weekend has motivated them to get through stressful times.
Tracy Taylor, the host of Café Roka, said the restaurant has transformed to reach people with a positive message and delicious cuisine. The restaurant has long been a space for special occasions and celebrations, and that hasn’t changed. Except now people are celebrating from home.
Our Editor’s Choice Award goes to Café Roka in recognition of the COVID-19 safety measures in place and the hard work it took to change the fine dining establishment into a takeout and delivery process.
“We are fine dining, and we are listed in the top 25 restaurants in Arizona. We’re a go-to place for a special occasion, so how do you turn that into curbside? The chef/owner, Rod Kass, and I sat down to think,” she said. “One night, we offered food from New Orleans, and it was really successful. We realized we could do a different place every week and go on a virtual culinary trip.”
The owners of Café Roka, Rod Kass and Sally Holcomb, have been careful about operating a restaurant during a global pandemic. The staff’s safety is paramount, so the restaurant has limited itself to curbside pickup services available only on Fridays and Saturdays. Pickup begins at 4 P.M. and runs until closing time at 6:15 P.M.
Café Roka has taken the opportunity to liven up its menu with specials from around the world. Every week features a new city, state, or country with cuisine that offers a bona fide travel experience in every bite. The Facebook page offers a hint each week about where the restaurant is going next. The picture clue often gets people talking, guessing, and salivating.
“People get to guess, and I think that’s been really fun for people who haven’t been getting that social interaction,” Tracy said. “If they guess right, they get a winky face. If they’re wrong, I write ‘Not this week!’”
On Thursday afternoon, the Facebook page makes the big reveal and shares which culture they’ll be showcasing. Then the social team posts the appetizers and full menu. Diners can place orders online, and everything is ready for curbside pickup for either Friday or Saturday night.
Thanks to Café Roka, couples can continue to celebrate their relationships and mark special occasions while staying safe at home. Café Roka has taken a challenging situation and turned it into an opportunity for fun, laughter, and new enriching experiences.
As a result, the local restaurant has been thriving, even though its dine-in service has been shut down for over a year.
“All our regulars — who may have come in once or twice a month before — now come in every week, and that’s outstanding support,” Tracy said. “We hope to offer an affordable weekend meal. Before Cafe Roka was a well-priced, but not an every-week place. Now people eat with us every single week.”
This special international service has been fun for the kitchen staff as well. During the last year, these culinary professionals have created meals that showcase the flavors of Indonesia, Rome, San Francisco, Scotland, Sri Lanka, and New Mexico, among other places.
In addition to its cuisine from around the world, the restaurant has some standby take-and-bake meals that are perfect for families and couples who want to keep extra meals handy. Those frozen pre-made options are stored in the 1930s Art Deco freezer in the restaurant, and couples can also pick out a wine to go with their meal.
Café Roka has long been a place where local couples, friends, and families can treat themselves to the finer things in life and celebrate their accomplishments or milestones. Before the pandemic, it was commonplace to see couples commemorating a special birthday or relationship anniversary by sharing a bottle of champagne at the restaurant.
Then, all of that came to a halt. By changing from dine-in to takeout service, Café Roka has lost some of the charm of the fine dining experience. Diners can no longer strike up a casual conversation with the waitstaff or bartender. Some of the staff members who have been working at the restaurant for decades have been sorry to lose those personal relationships and connections to the community.
Tracy said that’s why she’s taken to writing notes on the takeout bags to let the customers know just how important they are to the restaurant’s team. Some people will even write a message back.
“That’s really great for us because we don’t get that ‘Oh, this is so delicious,’ as when inside,” Tracy said. “The one that pops to mind was the week we featured food from Hungary. One of our regulars wrote on his online order that he was “super-Hungary this weekend!” That was super cute!”
Café Roka is a long-standing member of the Bisbee community, and it has never tried to be snooty or unapproachable. It’s a come-as-you-are establishment where both casual wear and formal wear are OK.
Of course, now that takeout is the only option, the casual dress has gotten very casual indeed. People may show up in sweatpants or even pajamas to get their to-go meals. The staff sees all kinds of customers, from high schoolers picking up for their families to seniors looking for a nice dinner-for-one option. Some people appear dressed nicely in preparation for a special date night or family gathering.
By switching up its menu and lowering its prices, the restaurant owners have made it possible for community members to make their nights at home extra special. Café Roka has even facilitated a marriage proposal in the past.
Whether it’s offering free meals to first responders or providing frozen take-and-bake dinners, Café Roka has used its culinary expertise to help people get through troubling times and enjoy a memorable dining experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique challenges to the restaurant industry. Café Roka is a prime example of a restaurant that has gotten it right. Along with curbside meals and take-and-bake meals, the team has organized outdoor events with social distancing to bring the community together for a wine tasting or celebration.
When graduation ceremonies and parties were canceled in 2020, Café Roka put on a special day to celebrate the community’s young people as they entered the next phase of life. Every graduate could bring up to two family members to the event. Attendees got dressed up, had their pictures taken, and received a to-go meal.
“Then they could go home and have a graduation dinner with their family,” Tracy said. “We are all about community, and it’s an honor to serve them.”
Looking toward the future, the Café Roka team is hopeful that things will start to open up and indoor dining will become the norm once again. The restaurant owners are watching the situation closely and will provide updates on Facebook about their reopening plans.
“We never were open throughout the week during the day, but that’s where we’re headed,” Tracy said. “We don’t know when we’ll reopen. We want to keep everyone safe and be responsible about how we do it.”