Closing restaurants to save restaurants. That’s what some in the hospitality industry, including Coperta and Beast & Bottle co-owner and chef Paul C. Reilly, are doing to ensure their businesses will make it to the other side of COVID-19. “It’s the most ridiculous thing ever to close a business to save a business, but the fact of the matter is that we will spend less money by just paying our landlord and Xcel for the next eight or nine weeks than remaining open,” Reilly says.
Reilly isn’t alone in this hibernation of sorts. The popular sports bar Blake Street Tavern will close indefinitely beginning January 4, and Work & Class and Super Mega Bien closed until further notice earlier this month. Even short-term breaks make sense right now; the Crafted Concepts restaurants—Rioja, Ultreia, Stoic & Genuine, and Bistro Vendôme—are taking a winter hiatus during a notoriously slow part of the year, shuttering from January 3–13.
“We’ve had some good weeks,” Reilly says. “But there haven’t been that many. Thanksgiving week was really, really, really bad. After that week, Aileen [Reilly, co-owner and sister] and I almost jokingly said, ‘I wonder if we’d actually save money by just paying rent.’ We crunched the numbers, and it was an absolute truth.”
With revenue down 70 to 80 percent compared to pre-pandemic times and shrinking more with each new dining restriction, the Reillys made the difficult decision to furlough their final 10 working staff members and close Uptown’s Beast & Bottle and North Capitol Hill’s Coperta until they can reopen for indoor dining—and not at the 25 or 50 percent capacity that make turning a profit nearly impossible. Reilly estimates that the two restaurants will remain closed until at least March, but potentially longer.
“We would look at the bank accounts every week, and we’d see, not even bleeding, but hemorrhaging cash flow that we’d worked so hard to build up and save,” Reilly says. “When we saw that we could pay just rent and utilities and lose less money than we are now, it forced our hand to say that we need to make it to the other side of this. Not just for ourselves, but for all the hard work our teams have put in.”
The closures don’t come from a lack of trying. Coperta and Beast & Bottle both reopened a little later than most local restaurants last summer, as the Reillys took the time to be very calculated in how they’d operate both spots. The duo changed up their spending and ordering, renegotiated rents with both landlords, maximized their indoor and outdoor spaces, and focused on takeout more than ever. When the weather cooled down, they spent more than $10,000 on building and heating greenhouses to serve patrons outside. Within days of erecting Coperta’s eight greenhouses, high winds destroyed two and damaged two more. Then, indoor dining became restricted to 25 percent of capacity and in late November, it was eliminated altogether.
While Reilly says that the just-passed relief bill and a new round of PPP loans will help restaurants, he believes that it’s more of a band-aid than a viable long-term solution. Like many in the industry, he’d hoped that the RESTAURANTS Act would be included in the bill and still hopes the Biden-Harris administration will push through grants specifically for independent restaurants. But for now, the teams at Beast & Bottle and Coperta are turning off the ovens and cleaning out the kitchens.
“We’re lucky,” Reilly says. “I very much understand that there are people out there who don’t have this kind of option. My heart goes out to my industry brothers and sisters. I hope that by May or June of 2021, restaurants are raging again. I hope that most can make it through to that time, and with us implementing this hibernation, we will.”