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As of Monday, January 4, indoor dining restrictions in 33 counties across Colorado, including Denver, were moved to Level Orange from Level Red on the state’s color-coded COVID-19 dial, which means that restaurants could once again allow diners to eat inside their brick-and-mortar walls, up to 25 percent of capacity or a maximum of 50 people at a time. Last call for alcohol was also moved back from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and area gyms and fitness centers were permitted to open at 25 percent capacity. The updated restrictions are a result of Gov. Jared Polis’ December 30 request of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to move counties labeled as “Red” back to “Orange,” and it came as welcome news for many restaurant owners. But will the indoor dining adjustments make a substantial-enough impact on the Colorado hospitality community?
For Long Nguyen, who owns 18-month-old Anise Modern Vietnamese Eatery with his wife, chef Quyen Trinh, the answer is yes. “Twenty-five percent is not full capacity, but it’s still better than zero percent. As January is one of the coldest months in Colorado, our diners will be glad to dine indoors. We expect to at least double the sales we made in December [when indoor dining was prohibited],” Nguyen says.
While Nguyen and Trinh are excited to welcome patrons back for on-premise service at their Golden Triangle establishment, they’ve struggled since the late November indoor dining shutdown. Because those Level Red restrictions were announced and enforced with less than a week’s notice, Nguyen says they were caught off guard and didn’t have a chance to winterize Anise’s patio in time.
“Outdoor heat lamps were all sold out; we bought some via Amazon but still have not received them,” he says. “Grants from the state of Colorado to help offset the cost of winterizing our patio came with many requirements that we couldn’t meet. We derive most of our revenue through indoor dining, but had to rely merely on takeouts and deliveries.”
To make up for the lost revenue from indoor dining, Anise launched a in-house delivery program, serving addresses within two miles of the restaurant. Despite the success of that endeavor, Nguyen plans to apply for the upcoming round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans included in Congress’ December 20 aid package—but also wishes that the bill would have included specific grants for small businesses like his.
“Unless [a restaurant owner] owns the property outright, by far the biggest recurring expense any restaurant has is rent or mortgage,” Nguyen says. “If we don’t pay the landlords, then they don’t have the money to pay their banks. It’s a domino effect. If the government could give rental grants to allow restaurants like ours to pay rent during the entire pandemic, then we can pay the landlords and they can pay the banks; everyone will be happy.”
Jennifer Jasinski, the chef and co-owner of Crafted Concepts’ restaurants—Rioja, Ultreia, Stoic & Genuine, and Bistro Vendôme—agrees that allowing restaurants to fill their dining rooms to 25 percent is better than nothing, but also notes that it won’t be enough in the long-term. “With such razor-thin margins, we really need to be at full capacity. Our lease deals weren’t built for us to be at 25 percent. We need to turn tables,” says Jasinski.
When indoor dining was prohibited in November, all four Crafted Concepts restaurants continued offering takeout fare and patio dining but faced challenges including lagging to-go sales and shortages in propane needed to fuel patio heaters. All four restaurants will reopen for Level Orange dine-in service on January 14, following a pre-planned winter break, Jasinski says. Good news: The updated restrictions will enable Crafted Concepts to rehire six to seven employees at each of its restaurants, and Jasinski plans to bring on more staff once the next round of PPP funds are distributed. “The small number of people we still employ have been working their asses off. We’ve been stretched very thin,” she says.
Jasinski is happy to see that COVID-19 infection numbers have improved in Colorado but is discouraged by how the pandemic has hit the most vulnerable populations the hardest, including those working in the hospitality industry. Looking ahead, she hopes that with increased distribution of the vaccine, her team can get back to doing what it does best: creating special dining experiences.
“We’re going to get through this. Our landlord gave us a deal through March, so hopefully by April, we can get more capacity,” she says. “We’re going to keep fighting.”
Anise’s Nguyen is also hopeful about the vaccine and thinks the best way to help small businesses is to take the pandemic seriously. “To end the pandemic, we have to respect the pandemic. Don’t fight it. This is real. Wear masks. Get vaccinated and listen to the doctors and experts who are also working hard to help all of us end the pandemic.”