During the last week of November, Zorba’s in Congress Park sold about 400 Thanksgiving meals. It was a busy week for a restaurant that has been through the wringer in 2020.
COVID-19 has shuttered many Denver metro area restaurants for good. Others, like Zorba’s, a 41-year-old Greek diner that serves everything from omelettes to gyros, have been lucky enough—and worked hard enough—to creatively adapt to the (hopefully) temporary COVID-19 normal. For Zorba’s owner Karen LuKanic, that meant closing in March for a short period, and as restrictions eased in May, tackling a new challenge: How to reconfigure tables in her restaurant to meet six-foot social-distancing requirements.
“Like any entrepreneur, I went into fix-it mode,” says LuKanic, who bought Zorba’s in 2018 and is the restaurant’s third owner since it opened in 1979. Armed with a Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loan, she moved forward with a remodel that involved making Zorba’s floor plan more flexible: adding movable tables that can be socially distanced; putting booths on the perimeter of the dining room; and, most relevant to Denver’s current Level Red indoor dining ban, installing a takeout window.
“We knew takeout and delivery would remain super important as long as the virus was around,” says LuKanic, a seasoned restaurant industry veteran whose resume includes working for titans like Wolfgang Puck and the Palm Restaurant Group. “People feel good about it. They feel like there’s a level of safety there. We can operate with a smaller staff, because I lock the front door and we just run the window.”
Denver interior designer Regan Horacek was the mastermind behind the project and hopes that people can still enjoy the restaurant’s new look from the outside looking in. “Maybe the design will pique some interest in somebody who hasn’t tried Zorba’s in a while,” Horacek says.
With the redesign, Horacek went for an approachable and charming look, with a slight Mediterranean feel. To celebrate the history of the neighborhood and the restaurant, one of the walls features 28 black-and-white photos of Congress Park, its residents, and Zorba’s over the decades. The phrase “Breakfast is good for you!” is pictured on a sign in the background of one photo taken after Zorba’s opened in 1979; the image now hangs in the space, and also served as inspiration for new lettering for the photo wall. “As much as [the remodel is] about aesthetics, it’s about function,” Horacek says. “If it doesn’t function for the staff, it’s not going to be pleasant for the guests.”
Horacek also helped design Zorba’s patio refresh. “You want to have a good flow from your kitchen and your bar to your outdoor seating,” she says, adding that her go-to to-go order is the homemade chicken fingers dipped in their tzatziki sauce.
Zorba’s reopened in June, providing service on its revamped patio and through the takeout window. The remodeled interior opened in October, but shut down again in late November to comply with the latest, Level Red dining restrictions. The patio is still open, weather permitting. While LuKanic says that revenue is down considerably overall, takeout now accounts for more than 50 percent of her sales (versus 10 percent, prior to the pandemic).
Even before COVID-19 escalated in the U.S. this spring, Zorba’s was already in the hot seat: Faced with Denver’s new minimum wage rates, the restaurant laid off staff, shortened its hours, and eliminated dinner service (which is currently available again for takeout). And the on-going pandemic has forced LuKanic to tighten her belt even more, cutting her staff from 27 to just 14.
“I think what [the pandemic] has done is kind of right some wrongs that were just inherent in our business model,” she says. For example, LuKanic closed the wage gap for her team. Now everyone earns the same wage, and tips are doled out based on seniority and job function. Since reopening, there has been some turnover among her staff, who all had to undergo COVID safety training.
“Right now we’re doing just takeout and delivery out that window. We’re running one guy in the kitchen, one person on phones, and one backup person who does dishes and makes our deliveries,” she explains. “I can pay more to those three people than I could have paid to eight or nine people in the past.”
LuKanic says that while it’s been heartbreaking to see restaurants close across Denver, the camaraderie in the hospitality community has been amazing. To help fulfill the demand for Zorba’s food around Thanksgiving, three other restaurateurs lent her equipment, and she shared takeout bags with others that needed them.
Zorba’s is also giving back to its local community through its “give a meal” program, which donates food to seniors around the Congress Park neighborhood who may be in need. So far, the effort has distributed more than 900 meals.
“I do think that those of us who emerge on the other side of COVID are going to be a lot more resilient and are going to approach our businesses a little differently,” says LuKanic. “It’s almost like someone saved our lives. We have a grateful heart now—and a coat of armor.”
Zorba’s is open daily for takeout and delivery from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Weather permitting, the patio is open from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The restaurant is also accepting holiday meal pre-orders for Christmas Eve.