By Marjorie Rice
The old saying goes, “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the owners of the popular Sierra Bonita Grill to close the restaurant, it also choked off events served by their Sierra Bonita Catering business. So owners Kim and Nate Hopper and chef Rory Hewitt made their own version of lemonade: offering customers favorites from the restaurant in individual take-and-heat portions.
A year later, Sierra Bonita Catering seems to have made it through the worst of the COVID-19 storm, and the phones are starting to ring again with orders for catered events.
A razor-thin staff – the Hoppers, Hewitt and two more cooks – has kept it going in a no-frills production kitchen and office in a nondescript strip mall on Seventh Street south of Dunlap Avenue.
“We’ve had a very small group and we’ve all stuck together,” said Kim, who manages the front office operations such as ordering while also lending a hand in the kitchen. “It was pretty scary – touch and go. It was the take-and-heat menus that got us through.”
When Sierra Bonita Grill closed, she added that “we knew that everyone was going to be missing that food, and we had all the recipes.”
“We had about 3,500 contacts on the e-mail list that Nate had built up over the years, and we started reaching out,” Kim said. “It started slow and we’re hoping that we can continue to do it once people start going back to restaurants.”
The Hoppers have seen encouraging signs.
“We’re doing individual hot lunches for 125 people at a local hospital,” Kim said. “That’s the biggest catering job we’ve had since COVID broke out. I definitely feel hope. And we’re partnering with the Woodland, a new venue downtown where we’ll be the exclusive caterer. We’re hoping that will keep us busy next year.”
The Woodland is a former Lutheran church dating from 1908 that will be a venue for weddings and other events. The location has been undergoing extensive renovation, and an opening date had not been set by press time.
The Hoppers’ and Hewitt’s collaboration has deep roots in another North Central favorite, Phoenix City Grille, and strong ties to its owner, Sheldon Knapp.
After a stint as bartender, in 2005 Nate Hopper and Knapp partnered in opening Sierra Bonita Grill. Nate bought the restaurant later. Rory was the chef at Phoenix City Grille, and after working at another restaurant, joined the Hoppers at Sierra Bonita Catering two years ago.
They remain close friends and colleagues with Knapp.
“He’s like our godfather,” Kim said.
In fact, one item on Sierra Bonita’s menu is Phoenix City Grille pasta: penne in poblano cream sauce with broccoli, sundried tomatoes, roasted garlic and grilled chicken.
The take-and-heat menu has changed over the year, offering what Kim calls “upscale comfort.”
Rory and Nate were getting bored making the same old thing, so they started weekly chef selections. They still use a few of the old recipes, too.
Those oldies include buttermilk fried chicken (with mashed sweet potatoes, cracked pepper gravy and asparagus), carne asada, and green chili and red chili pork.
“Those are things we can never get rid of,” Rory said.
Some examples from the combined menu demonstrate a blend of imaginative takes and homey favorites: Mixed greens with bacon-wrapped dates, roasted peppers, pistachios, chile-cured bacon, blue cheese and mesquite honey citrus vinaigrette. Korean, shortrib tacos with cucumber kimchi and gochujang aioli are also on the menu. Other options include ham and Havarti sandwiches with house-made pickles and pasta salad; stacked enchiladas filled with cold-smoked, oyster, button and crimini mushrooms in a chipotle/cheese cream sauce; and Italian style meatloaf with mushroom ragout and creamy polenta.
“It’s fun because we’re never limited to a menu,” Nate said. “We can make it up every week.”
Kim said she enjoys the one-on-one contact they have with clients.
“We have five families who have come every Friday since we started this,” she said. “Even it’s just a brief chit-chat when they come to pick up their food, we get to put a face to each person, which we don’t get to do when we’re catering.”
“I love seeing people,” he said. “I’ve had these customers for 20 years. It will be great to see them and say ‘thank you, nice to see you.’ I want to thank everyone in North Central Phoenix for the last 15 years. They kept us going.”
Sierra Bonita Catering Company, located at 8522 N. Seventh St., is open only for takeout orders placed between 6 a.m. Saturday and noon Wednesday for Friday curbside pickup between 3 and 6 p.m. The company also offers traditional catering services. For information, call 602-573-2367, or visit https://sierrabonitacateringcompany.com.