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Union Station. Courtesy of Visit Denver

Restaurants Struggle Even After Reopening for Dine-In Service

Owners cite challenges with gaining approval for expanded outdoor seating and may consider closing permanently under the current conditions, according to a Colorado Restaurant Association survey.

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Colorado restaurants got the go-ahead to reopen dine-in service on May 27, albeit at reduced capacity because of new social distancing requirements. To mitigate the revenue loss from having fewer tables — and thus, fewer paying customers—officials allowed restaurants to expand seating outdoors, to parking lots, sidewalks, lawns, and streets. The legislature even passed a bill to keep to-go booze going through July 1, 2021 to help bump sales. So, with all these new concessions, are things looking up for the restaurant world? Far from it.

According to a survey conducted by the Colorado Restaurant Association from June 1 to 9, restaurants are not at all optimistic about their ability to survive. A staggering 56 percent said they’ll consider closing permanently under the current conditions within three months. Some favorites have already announced permanent closures, like the Market, 12 at Madison, Punch Bowl Social Stapleton, Biju’s Little Curry Shop, and Old Major.

Many said that the capacity limits, which are the lesser of 50 people or half of an establishment’s posted occupancy, are hurting their ability to recover, and that the new outdoor seating allowances aren’t doing enough to make up for those losses. Eighty percent of restaurants said they’re operating below the 50 percent capacity indoors, with two-thirds saying they’ve had to turn people away or start a waitlist because of excessive customer demand. As frustrating as that is for diners, it’s even more so for struggling restaurants.

Although well-intentioned, the expanded outdoor seating doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot to help restaurants turn a profit, with only five percent saying their outdoor spaces have brought them up to even 75 percent of normal capacity. And while 90 percent of respondents said that their municipality is allowing outdoor seating expansion, just 27 percent have actually been allowed to expand their dining al fresco.

Bar Helix’s Kendra Anderson is still waiting for city approval for her outdoor expansion to the sidewalk and to the vacant patio of the now-defunct Chuburger next door. Her current patio space seats 24, but with her proposed outdoor area, she can seat about 60. Anderson was so excited about the potential outdoor space that she launched a whole new summer concept around it, Cabana X. But after applying in late May, she’s still waiting on approval from the city of Denver.

“It’s been anything but easy,” she says of the process. “It’s essentially been exactly like the process we had to follow to get open. The city talked about it being a matter of just days from application to approval, so everyone got really excited about using these expanded premises to save our businesses. That’s what’s been so heartbreaking—we got our hopes up.”

Anderson estimates she’s spent 50 hours of her time navigating the approval process. It would be worth the time if she could open up the expanded space, but every day she can’t is a day her capacity, and potential profits, are cut by half.

“It’s the difference for me between being open and being closed,” she says. “I literally created a new concept based on being on a new patio, so I’m in trouble if I don’t get approval. I took the leap of faith that I’d get this expanded patio approval because the city said I was going to—said everyone was going to. I know I couldn’t have made enough money to keep the doors open with just the Bar Helix space. It’s make or break for me.”

Anderson and others stress that even though restaurants are now open, they still need extra support. During the closures many rushed to get #coloradocurbside and bought gift cards to favorite restaurants to keep them afloat, and that same sort of action will be necessary to keep them going over the next several months.

“I thought running a restaurant was difficult in normal times,” Anderson says. “I don’t have enough adjectives to describe how difficult it’s been over the past three months. And just when I thought we were going to catch a break, there’s another layer.”

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