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Photo courtesy of Mike Thurk

How Denver Restaurants Are Battling the COVID-19 Pandemic in Real Time

And what will our dining scene look like after things start to return to (sort of) normal?

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It was the best of times, and then, in a stir-fry flash, it was the worst of times. Before the novel coronavirus, the restaurant business in Denver—and in most of the country—was experiencing a golden age. Here, our dining establishments both nurtured and reflected an exuberant American food culture: adventurous, multicultural, eager to master the old ways and invent new ones. The northwest side of the city, RiNo, and other neighborhoods roared with Big Restaurant Energy, and recent openings, such as Sunday Vinyl, suggested that Denver was on the cusp of a new, supple urbanity.

Enter the virus, stage left. We became culinary shut-ins. Almost the first effect of social distancing (“Social D,” as my friend Andy Clark of Louisville’s Moxie Bread Co, calls it) laid bare how much restaurants underpin our desire for social communion, a need almost as deep as our need for food itself. Let’s call that communing imperative “Social C.” In the tug-of-war between Social D and Social C, restaurants were front-line casualties.

The dark question now is how dire the picture will be when the shutdown is lifted. In ordinary times, it’s not the job of customers to know much about the way businesses operate. These, however, are extraordinary times, so I talked with chefs and owners about the damage caused by the mandatory closures and the likely mechanics of the Great Reopening. It was early in the pandemic when we spoke, and details about how federal trillions would be spent were still scant. But I heard predictions that a quarter or even half of local restaurants would not reopen or would fail soon after trying to do so.

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act into law. With forgivable loans to cover rent and the salaries of rehired employees, the aid package should help reduce restaurant mortality, but it will be far beyond May 11—the proposed reopening date, at press time, in Colorado—before we know how broken our hospitality community is. The food and beverage business has always been ruled by the harsh math of low margins. For independent owners, even stellar reviews, national awards, and full rooms never kept that wolfish reality far from the door. In the best times, says Caroline Glover, the James Beard Award–nominated chef-owner of three-year-old Annette at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora, “we are a day-by-day operation. There are only so many people we can fit through our door. Our profit margins are just as small as, if not smaller than, other businesses.”

“We are a day-by-day operation…. Our profit margins are just as small as, if not smaller than, other businesses,” Caroline Glover says. Photo by Rebecca Stumpf

A few months before the pandemic, Glover began making survival plans for the ho-hum recession many economists were predicting. Then, Social D. Despite moving to takeout—which at best falls somewhere between morale-building busy work and life support—she had to lay off most of Annette’s staff. “Every morning I give myself about 15 minutes to cry, and then I start the day,” she told me a week after the layoffs. But three years of fostering community love for Annette yielded a flood of curbside customers. This was a consistent theme from Colorado chefs: the generosity of concerned local diners buying takeout or gift cards or simply texting get-well-soon messages.

By early April, 5280 had listed more than 300 restaurants doing takeout or delivery, but for most, that business model was a Band-Aid. Bobby Stuckey’s fine-dining operations were not among them. Stuckey, the award-winning hospitality doyen of Colorado, runs (with partners) Frasca Food and Wine, Tavernetta, Boulder’s Pizzeria Locale, and four-month-old Sunday Vinyl. He simply didn’t see a safe, viable path to takeout. Intensive, elevated food prep does not lend itself to a six-foot separation for cooks, let alone curbside-friendly pricing.

Stuckey extended pay and health insurance for his staff as long as he could and then focused on lobbying, along with other industry heavy hitters, to push state and federal politicians for help. He was also trying to keep his group’s financial powder dry for reopening but warned that it will be a herculean task for many. “When you get rid of all the food to close for two months, and then reopen, that’s a huge cost. It’s more like opening a new restaurant,” Stuckey says. Not only do you have to restock, you likely have to train replacement staff. Will these costs be borne by the federal rescue package? Will the federal loans arrive in time? Stuckey pointed out that longtime and highly trained staff represent a restaurant’s intellectual capital. How much knowledge will have been leached out of restaurants by the time they reopen? How much more will be if the virus roars back to life in the fall?

A low-margin business entails a lot of paycheck-to-paycheck workers. “The most economically at-risk people are the hourly employees,” says Fiona Arnold, president and founder of Mainspring, a real estate development company, who laughs at her tragically bad timing. In the months leading up to Social D, Arnold’s company conceived and bankrolled multiple openings: two expensive-to-launch bars, Queens Eleven in RiNo and Room For Milly on Platte Street, and a second Blue Sparrow coffee house location. (Disclosure: Arnold is a friend, and my wife helped curate the art at Room for Milly.) With the shutdown, her first concern was the talent pool they’d developed through extensive training. “It’s a group of people who are extraordinarily professional,” she says. “Our first thought was, We have to do everything we can to help them through this.” Arnold had the means to keep staff on temporary payroll using personal savings. As a developer, though—Mainspring owns the Backyard on Blake retail collective in RiNo—she also knows the complicated choreography of the employee-supplier-tenant-landlord-bank interplay.

That dance was shattered by Social D, of course. Many landlords were quick to forgive or defer that first month’s rent after the shutdown. But going forward, the question is: How does the federal government quickly pump relief dollars into an economy that extends down past tip-reliant servers and hourly dishwashers to small farmers and food distributors, and also upward, all the way to the lenders? And how does that relief address vulnerable mom-and-pop operations and marginalized hourly immigrant workers, some of whom are living in the country illegally?

Jeff Osaka, whose mini empire includes six casual sushi and ramen restaurants, Congress Park’s fine-dining 12 at Madison, and the Empire Restaurant and Lounge in Louisville, had just laid off most of his employees when I spoke to him. He predicts a different labor landscape after May 11, one in which part-time workers may have fled the scene. “The tried-and-true career restaurant people, those are the ones who are going to stick around,” Osaka says. “Not the people who are just doing that work on the side.” If so, that could drive up wages for the best-trained staff during a bumpy, costly restart. Alternatively, there could be a labor glut if many restaurants remain shuttered.

“What hurts me the most are the family-owned businesses and producers that will never come back,” Jeff Osaka says. Photo by Matt Nager

Either way, Osaka worries about all facets of the food chain, from family-run restaurants to farmers and ranchers. “My group is better equipped to recover,” he says. “What hurts me the most are the family-owned businesses and producers that will never come back from this.”

But it was obvious from all the curbside cooking after the shutdown that the crisis could not suppress the energy of local restaurant owners. Consider the example of Sam and Tricia Maher, who launched the vegan restaurant Somebody People just a few months before the pandemic. On the day they were trying to get their takeout system working, pipes above the restaurant burst and the skeleton crew found itself standing in an inch of water.

Days later, despite the slow growth of carryout orders for a new restaurant with an embryonic customer base, Sam sounded almost cheery. Denver itself was a reason why. As an Australian-born chef and manager who has worked in many of the world’s culinary capitals, he likes the recovery odds here. “The good thing about the Denver restaurant community is that everyone is very supportive,” he says. “I’ve worked in Sydney, Melbourne, London, New York City. There are some communities that are just so competitive for the dollar. But this feels like the ideal hospitality community.”

I heard variations on that enthusiasm from many chefs. One was Alon Shaya, a restaurateur who has been through the wars. He is the founder of Safta in the Source Hotel & Market Hall and its sister restaurant, Saba, in New Orleans. After Katrina, he chainsawed his way through fallen trees across highways to get back to New Orleans in a Land Rover fueled by $200-per-gallon gas. Years later, he watched his restaurant group disintegrate in a #MeToo conflagration that brought down co-owner John Besh but left Shaya’s reputation intact. He subsequently launched his own brand, one notably voluble about employee welfare.

When the shutdown happened in March, Safta pivoted to takeout and soon joined chef Edward Lee’s (of Louisville, Kentucky) multi-city Restaurant Workers Relief Program, which aims to provide hard-hit restaurant workers with free meals. Shaya advises other chefs to take the long view. “This sucks, this hurts. You just have to do what feels right for yourself and your team. Three or four years from now, you’ll understand how much stronger you’ve become.”

Mid-catastrophe, it’s difficult to find perspective. But we do know one thing: Social C will cause the local hospitality industry to reopen with vigor and, eventually, thrive. It’s the natural inclination of people to seek equilibrium—and recovery—through communion. I witnessed that when I lived in New York City after 9/11 and again after the Great Recession in 2008. New risk-takers will capitalize on reduced rents and fire-sale prices on turnkey spaces; familiar operators will reopen their doors. For Denver’s restaurant industry, the new normal will hopefully also include a deeper commitment to equitable pay, health care, and employment and renewed support of local food makers and growers who similarly struggled through the COVID-19 disaster.

Much will depend on us, the customers, who will do our bit with our wallets. Our job then, as now, will be simple: Buy local foods, eat out at independent restaurants as often as we can afford to, and tip large.

The Stay Inside Guide to Denver

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