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Editor’s note: Josh Wolkon, founder and owner of Secret Sauce Food & Beverage, has been a restaurant operator in Denver for more than 20 years; his restaurants include Steuben’s, Ace Eat Serve, and, until its closing this past summer, Vesta. Wolkon recently decided to reopen Steuben’s Arvada for take-out and delivery in order to keep 20 employees working whom he would have had to furlough otherwise. Here is where he and longtime server Alexis Stovich, a Secret Sauce employee since 2012, stand right now and what they want Denver diners to know, based on their experiences in the restaurant business this year.
What I Wish Denverites Knew… —Josh Wolkon
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Denver residents have shown an amazing amount of support for local restaurants over the past nine months, as we pivoted our way through the COVID-19 crisis. I’m regularly asked, “How can we help?” Thank you for asking that question, and for doing what you can to support local restaurants and bars, which are the fabric of our community.
The restaurant business has never been easy; industry pros generally thrive when challenged, but a global pandemic has no playbook and the rules have been changing daily. Restaurants and bars have the daunting task of keeping their guests safe, smiling, and fed—and our teams equally safe and employed. Do you want to know how you can help? Really help? Here’s how:
Dine out(doors) during off hours. For example, visit your favorite patio or pick up lunch at 11 a.m. or 1:30 p.m., and grab dinner to go at 4 p.m. With a mandatory 8 p.m. last call, we have fewer hours during which to serve you so it helps our staff immensely when we can spread out our busy times.
Dress warmly. If you’re eating outside, it’s winter—and it’s going to be chilly. Bundle up. Bring your own blanket, wear a warm hat, and settle in for a dining adventure. Embrace this unusual winter of outdoor dining, please! The other night at Ace [Eat Serve], it warmed my heart to see a family with young children, bundled up and happily huddled around a fire pit eating steaming bowls of ramen. I’m sure the kids will never forget that unique experience.
Order take out directly from the restaurant’s website or over the phone. We know the third-party delivery services are convenient, but they really do hurt our business. By ordering directly from the restaurant, you’ll save money by not paying delivery and packaging fees and you’re letting the restaurant keep the 15 percent commission they typically have to pay to the delivery services. Once a delivery leaves the restaurant, we have no control over how long it takes to get to you or in what shape it’s in when it arrives. You’re simply more likely to receive hot food, the way it was intended to be served, when getting delivery direct.
Order wisely. French fries or “crispy” Brussels sprouts might not be so crispy by the time you get them home. Order items you are confident will travel or reheat well. Also, your favorite menu item might not be available for take-out if the restaurant is attempting to prevent complaint calls.
Order late night takeout. Anything ordered after 9:00 p.m. is a huge help, as in-house dining has slowed without the ability to serve or purchase alcohol past 8:00 p.m.
Order additional takeout meals for tomorrow or frozen meals to stock your freezer or give to neighbors. At Steuben’s, we started selling frozen pot pies to-go and at Ace we’re selling frozen curries. Think about throwing on a salad or soup for tomorrow’s lunch. If you’ve saved any money this year in the absence of regular dining out, travel, and entertainment, please consider doubling down on your next restaurant meal.
Add cocktails to go, the way you might have ordered drinks when you were dining inside. And please keep in mind that to-go cocktails are often not iced, so the volume perception might be misleading; we are 100 percent using the same recipes that we use in-house.
Respect reservation time limits. Most local restaurants have instituted dining time limits—usually around 90 minutes—in order to maximize already limited seating. Please help us out by showing up on time, ordering quickly, and freeing up the table once you’re done.
Buy gift cards to use in the spring or summer and consider buying retail items, too. Shirts, hats, glasses, etc. make great gifts any time of year!
Stay in touch with your favorite restaurants by joining e-mail lists, checking out their websites, or following them on social channels. They’re probably doing some very cool, creative, innovative, and delicious things that you’ll learn about through their guest communication channels.
Be kind on Yelp and other online review platforms…or better yet, just hold off reviewing at all during these unusual times. Nothing we’re doing is normal right now. As always, the most appreciated feedback is the feedback we receive in person, on the spot, or via a direct phone call or e-mail through our website.
Book 2021 events now. Consider putting down deposits for summer and early fall 2021 parties and events, which will help restaurants’ cash flow over the tough winter months ahead.
Leave big tips, if you can. Your generosity goes a very long way.
What I Wish Denverites Knew… —Alexis Stovich
Wear your mask [when you’re dining or picking up at a restaurant] more than you think you need to. It’s very hard on us to act as the mask police and we really don’t want to ask you to wear your mask when you’re headed to the bathroom or leaving your table.
We wish we could do more for you. We’ve been trained to be ultra-guest oriented. We’re there to fill your water glass, change your utensils, turn the table quickly for quality coursing, and so on. But all of that needs to be consolidated now. Less interaction is safer for everybody, but it does change the dining experience. Understand that we want to keep our distance to ensure your safety, while also trying to be sure you have everything you need.
It can be scary for us to do our jobs right now. Like you, servers have families at home, children in remote learning, and bills to pay. Our schedules have been reduced, followed by our income. We are reliant on the protection our masks provide, constant hand washing, and sanitation. It can be scary and mentally challenging to be a server right now. We’re doing our best to provide the service you are accustomed to but please take a moment to recognize the challenges we face.
We feel such gratitude. Since the pandemic began, I have been brought to tears by some of the most generous tipping I’ve ever seen. I have gratitude for our community, and our team of fighters. Thank you for considering a slightly larger tip than you might normally; that extra $3 you add on makes a huge difference to us.
We’re all going to be OK. Despite feeling like we’ve all been walking on a tightrope for the past nine months, there have been countless silver linings, moments of gratitude, shining examples of creativity and grit, improved business practices, updated technology, and rewards. Business survival aside, our true joy comes from serving others and bringing smiles to our guests’ faces. While we can’t see your reactions at home, the immediate gratification of a happy guest on our patio still lives on. As a team and work family, we long for the day to see each other’s smiles, communicate more easily, and feel the warmth and positive vibes of a packed restaurant.