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Eat and Drink

Terminated Employees of Colorado’s Old Chicago, Rock Bottom Restaurants Stuck In Limbo

As Craftworks Holdings, Inc. reopens select restaurants, veteran staff express frustration and hope.

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At 3:34 p.m. on March 31, Steve Barry, a general manager at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery in Centennial, was fired via email. He had worked there for 18 years, but in one click, found himself jobless and without health insurance for his wife and three children.

Barry was one of nearly 18,000 employees at 261 restaurants across the United States terminated by Craftworks Holdings, Inc., which owns Rock Bottom, Old Chicago, the ChopHouse, and several other craft beer-forward restaurant brands. (Disclosure: I was an Old Chicago employee from 2006 to 2011.) The terminations came after Broomfield-born Craftworks filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early March, furloughing its employees during the week of March 16 after governors around the country, including Colorado’s Jared Polis, announced mandated dine-in restaurant closures. According to Barry and three other former Craftworks employees, on March 31, the company sent an email to all staff stating that employees were being moved from furlough to termination and that health insurance benefits would end, effective immediately.

Barry, who lives in Parker, was able to get his three children signed up for Medicaid, but he and his wife will not have their own health insurance until May 1. He was able to file for unemployment benefits but is eager to find out if and when the Rock Bottom restaurant he managed will reopen, as he hasn’t received any communication from Craftworks since the termination email. Barry is also worried about his 55 employees. “I feel like I failed them, but there’s nothing I can do. I’m in the same boat they are,” he says. “I just want my team back.”

Craftworks chief experience officer Josh Kerns cites the difficulty of simultaneously being in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and facing the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the company to move all employees from furlough to termination. According to Kerns, because every state has unique rules about collecting unemployment, particularly for furloughed workers, terminating the staff ensured that those individuals would be immediately eligible for unemployment benefits.

“We readily acknowledged that it was a tough decision, and people have every right to be angry and upset,” Kerns says. “We hope that people will come back and work for us. We could not be the brand that we are without the people inside of our restaurants.”

In partnership with debt holder and investor Fortress Investor Group, Craftworks plans to “unshrinkwrap” select restaurants in waves over the next few weeks. Last Friday, the company reopened three local Old Chicago locations—in Thornton, Aurora, and Fort Collins—for pick-up and delivery service, along with two more outposts in Kansas, staffing skeleton crews of 10 to 15 people. Craftworks plans to reopen a few more locations this weekend. 

While Kerns says that only “a couple or so” of the company’s Old Chicago restaurants will close permanently, Craftwork is confident that the ChopHouse locations in Denver and Boulder and Colorado Rock Bottom restaurants will reopen, though not until dine-in service is allowed. 

Even if the Old Chicago restaurant on Grant Street in Thornton reopens, Ashley Mastros isn’t sure she’ll return to her job. Mastros worked as a server and bartender there for 12 years, but she hasn’t been contacted by Craftworks since her termination. “When you put so much time in a company, [an email] is definitely not how you want to find out you’re going out,” she says. “It’s a little disheartening that me and my coworkers haven’t had anyone reach out to us.” 

Kerns says that Craftworks hasn’t been in communication with employees because it doesn’t have their personal email addresses on file, though the termination letter sent on March 31 went to both email accounts associated with the company and personal email addresses.

Mastros, a mother of two children who also attends community college full time, is grateful for unemployment benefits but unsure about the future. “I’ve thought a lot about it and if Old Chicago does reopen and offers me my job back, I don’t know if I want to work for a company like that any longer,” she says. “We’ll just wait and see what the restaurant field looks like when this is all over. There was still a lot of good that outweighed the bad at that restaurant; I worked with my four best friends every day. That’s what Old Chicago gave me: another family.”

Kerns says that when each Craftworks restaurant is green-lit to reopen, the company will activate managers and have them contact employees. All staff will have to reapply for their jobs “to get back into the system,” but they will not have to go through an interview process. Until then, all Mastros, Barry, and other former Craftworks employees can do is wait.

“I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the only reason I was there was the people I worked with,” Barry says. “We had very little turnover at our restaurant—it was modeled that way. I think that’s how a lot of the stores were.”

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