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James Beard Award winner Jennifer Jasinski. Photograh by Clayton Vurciaga

Local Restaurant Owners Weigh in on What the Industry Needs Right Now

Front Range restaurateurs agree: All levels of government should step in to get hospitality industry workers paid.

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The forced suspension of on-site dining at Colorado restaurants and bars (lasting eight weeks for Denver and 30 days for the rest of the state) is an extraordinary blow to the hospitality industry. With the National Restaurant Association asking President Donald Trump and Congress for immediate financial aid for the country’s one million restaurants—which employ 15.6 million workers—we asked a few of Denver’s top operators what they want to see from local, state, and federal governments.

Though the restaurateurs here don’t necessarily agree on the aid measures that would help most, everyone does believe that the government should step in to get hospitality industry workers paid.

Juan Padro, founder and partner of the Culinary Creative Group (Bar Dough, Highland Tap and Burger, Señor Bear, and others)

Juan Padro. Photo courtesy of the Culinary Creative Group

“Where do we start? Nothing that’s been passed [by Congress thus far] has benefited the restaurant industry per se,” Padro says. At the federal level, he’d like to see statuary changes to SBA [Small Business Association] loans, which if made, he believes could save the restaurant industry on its own. Currently, there are a couple provisions that prohibit many restaurants from taking advantage of low-risk and low-interest SBA economic interruption and disaster loans. Padro hopes congressional leaders will re-evaluate the wording that prohibits these types of loans to restaurants or restaurant groups making more than $8 million in annual revenue and who qualify for credit elsewhere. These two exclusions currently make it impossible for many restaurants to get the financial help they need. “Not only would that be helpful to restaurants, but it would immediately create jobs and change the restaurant industry going forward.”

At the state level, Padro stresses the need to expedite unemployment insurance claims and benefits to get laid-off workers paid. “These programs need to get blasted out,” he says.

Locally, he’s spoken with Mayor Hancock’s office about getting funds to independent restaurants so they can cook meals for local populations most in need right now. “Restaurants are crucial to any sort of catastrophic event, to the recovery of it,” Padro says. “It’s about getting food out to the population. Really good chefs at really good restaurants can crank out food.” Why not use the resources we already have in place—i.e., these restaurant kitchens that are sitting empty, and the skilled cooks and chefs without work—to get more food to more people, while also putting people back to work? “That’s a more effective use of money, time, and labor.”

Bobby Stuckey, Master Sommelier and owner of Frasca Hospitality Group (Frasca Food & Wine, Pizzeria Locale, Tavernetta, Sunday Vinyl)

Bobby Stuckey. Photo courtesy of Frasca Hospitality Group

First and foremost, Stuckey advocates that insurance companies should pay restaurant owners who have Business Interruption policies. As a result of the 2006 SARS epidemic, insurance companies exclude closures due to bacterial and viral infections but government could potentially force insurers to pay anyway. The New Jersey legislature, for example, is considering a bill to force Business Interruption insurers to provide coverage to restaurants affected by COVID-19. If that doesn’t happen, he hopes the industry will have easy access to low- or zero-interest SBA loans. “I hate that restaurants will have to take out loans to stay alive because insurance companies won’t pay for coverage,” Stuckey says, “but we need access to capital to stay open.”

Unlike many in the restaurant industry encouraging diners to order carryout or delivery, Stuckey wants to shut all restaurants and bars down entirely to protect food service workers. “We shouldn’t put [restaurant] employees on the front line. I would rather get the whole state shut down for a month and beat this and then have the government help out fiscally.”

Adam Schlegel — CEO of Cumulus Etc. and co-founder of Snooze, an AM Eatery and Chook Charcoal Chicken

Adam Schlegel. Photo courtesy of Slow Food Nations

“The most pressing thing, even over the dire needs of a business owner, is government-provided income for those laid off. We’re all essentially shut down and those that are open are limping through,” he says. With so many Americans employed by restaurants, that’s a lot of people without any income right now, and Schlegel hopes the government will provide checks quicker than via unemployment insurance, which typically takes four to eight weeks.

Similarly, those same employees need health insurance—now more than ever. On Schlegel’s wish list is that the government will step in to ensure everyone has insurance to cover coronavirus testing and healthcare.

Jennifer Jasinski, chef/co-owner of Crafted Concept Restaurants (Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Stoic & Genuine, Ultreia, recently closed Euclid Hall)

Jennifer Jasinski. Photo by Clayton Vurciaga

“The biggest thing the federal government can do is make sure staff is taken care of,” Jasinski says. “That unemployment claims are taken care of quickly to get everyone paid.” Additionally, to give restaurants a bump in income during this difficult time, she thinks it’s worth allowing restaurants to sell takeout beer, wine, and liquor, like the state of New York has done. There, restaurants can sell alcohol with their carry-out and delivery orders, so long as the vessel is sealed. (Cocktails can be sold in a to-go cup with a lid.) Alcohol sales are an important part of a restaurant’s revenue, so this special allowance would help recoup some of that loss.

The third thing Jasinski would like to see the government do to aid restaurants is provide a break on property taxes, whether through reductions, delays, or incentive rates when the industry re-opens.

Troy Guard. Photo courtesy of TAG Restaurant Group

Troy Guard, chef/owner of TAG Restaurant Group (Guard & Grace, Los Chingones, FNG, and others)

Guard and his restaurant group have been discussing about a number of measures the government could take to help the industry out: stopping sales and property taxes; providing small stipends to keep businesses afloat until they’re able to re-open; and support to keep employee health benefits going during the closures. “Most of these people do not have much or any savings, so everything helps,” Guard says. “It’s truly scary and sad to be faced with the amount of turmoil and uncertainty in our business right now. So many lives have been changed in just 24 hours.”

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