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The Future of Denver Dining

How 5 Front Range Restaurant Owners Are Weathering the Pandemic

From installing tented patios to experimenting with ghost kitchens, local culinary pros will do whatever it takes to stay in business.

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No Pain, No Gain

For Fetien Gebre-Michael, co-owner of Colorado’s only fast-casual Ethiopian restaurant, failure due to the pandemic is not an option.

Konjo Ethiopian Food, one of 13 stalls inside Edgewater Public Market, was gaining momentum when COVID-19 shut down Colorado’s dining rooms and food halls. In fact, co-owners Fetien Gebre-Michael (pictured above) and Yoseph Assefa had decided that opening a second fast-casual location was possible within the year. Even in late March, as sales plummeted 80 percent, the Colorado-raised duo planned Konjo’s next move. “I didn’t work this hard to have it go down the drain,” says Gebre-Michael, who started Konjo (Amharic for “beautiful”) as a catering and events company in 2014, partnering with Assefa to launch the Ethiopian Food Truck in 2015. They adapted, laying off 10 employees, moving to takeout, and preparing donation-funded meals for essential workers through Frontline Foods Colorado—a move Gebre-Michael says saved their business. By late July, sales of Konjo’s berbere-infused beef tibs, vegetarian sides, and fluffy injera were up about 20 percent and they had rehired seven staff members. Even now, a second location is still in the works.

The Big Reboot

Big Red F’s Dave Query has creative plans—and hope—for the future.

Dave Query
Big Red F founder Dave Query. Photo by Sarah Boyum

During the third week of March, the same week Big Red F founder Dave Query turned 57, he closed 14 dining rooms from Boulder to Kansas City and furloughed 710 employees. “We pivoted hard,” Query says. For the 26-year-old restaurant group that owns local favorites including Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar and Boulder’s Centro Mexican Kitchen, that meant transitioning into a business based on takeout. “Zolo Grill became a community kitchen to feed frontliners and employees,” he says, “and the Post Brewing Co. and West End Tavern carried the group.”

Since then, Query has reopened all of Big Red F’s dining rooms with streamlined menus; rehired about 80 percent of the staff; paid back salary reductions through bonuses; and adopted a tip-pool model, in which all employees split gratuities equally. “It gave our kitchen crew a $5 to $6 per hour raise,” Query says. He’s experimenting with ghost kitchens, too, operating the Post for takeout and delivery from various Jax locations, for starters. “Now is the time to shake your shit up and get it dialed straight,” he says. “The world was given a reboot card, and we need to earn it.”

The Bar Star

Angela Neri, owner of industry bar Pony Up, refuses to compromise.

Angela Neri
Pony Up owner Angela Neri. Photo courtesy of Tony White

After managing restaurants from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., Angela Neri knows how to lead. And when running Pony Up, her two-year-old LoDo bar (and French dip destination), she bases all decisions on an equilateral triangle model she’s developed over her 18-year career: guest experience at the top, employees and financials as the supporting base.

That was the case until March, anyway, when she flipped the triangle to put her team and Pony’s solvency above all else. She rose to the dystopian occasion, walking her furloughed 23-person staff through applying for unemployment; feeding them with the remains of Pony Up’s pantry; applying for federal, state, and city aid; and packaging meals for out-of-work peers. All the while, Neri was devising creative ways to pay Pony’s bills, from silent auctions to custom knife raffles to selling to-go cocktails and, eventually, reopening for patio and dine-in service. What’s next? “It’s hard to think that this expensive location and concept will be able to soar like it used to during baseball season, if that doesn’t come back,” Neri says. “And not every decision can be balanced right now; the triangle is upside down. It’s all about survival.”

Refresh & Repeat

The owners of Spuntino have managed a rare feat: no closures, no furloughs.

Spuntino
Chef Cindhura Reddy and general manager Elliot Strathmann, owners of Spuntino. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Chef Cindhura Reddy and general manager Elliot Strathmann, owners of nine-year-old Spuntino in Highland, feel like they’ve opened a new restaurant every few weeks since the pandemic began. Still, the couple has accomplished what few other operators have, even expanding their hours to include lunch for the first time in years to ensure no pay reductions for their staff and, in June, installing a 44-seat tented patio in Spuntino’s parking lot. “The most challenging—and important—thing for us is rolling with the punches, adjusting constantly, and being creative,” Reddy says. That includes using the restaurant’s previously retired drive-thru window to expedite the journey of food from the interior kitchen to the alfresco dining space.

Has it all been worth it? Absolutely, Strathmann says. Their team is back to doing what they love: hosting and connecting with guests in person. They are also excited about heating the patio as the weather cools and using the outdoor space for pop-ups. “It’s about remembering what’s important, and who’s important,” he says.

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