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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Okay, it might not be the best of times, but at least it isn’t 2020. As restaurants look toward summer 2021, there are reasons to be hopeful and nervous about what’s to come. We asked six restaurant owners how they’re feeling right now. Here are their takes on good, the bad, and the inability to hire.
Hiring and Staff
It’s an incredibly difficult time to hire workers. “We can’t get enough staff to work. That’s our biggest challenge. Now that there are people who want to come out and dine safely, we’re having trouble finding people to work. I think it’s a combination of people who have left the industry because they sadly lost their jobs last year and moved on to do something else. Some don’t feel comfortable facing customers in that environment, and some might be happy on their unemployment, which will continue for the next few months. We’ve basically reduced the number of seats we’re serving. Technically, under the rules we could seat more people than we are; now it’s a matter of having enough people to serve them. I do believe our guests are really excited about going out again. We feel like the demand is there—it’s a matter of satisfying and serving it.” —Lauren Feder Rosenberg, co-owner, Blackbelly and Santo in Boulder
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But the workers some have are awesome. “We have the best team we’ve ever had right now. When you go through this collective trauma together and you see the ups and downs and scary moments and triumphs—we’ve just weathered a lot of storms together. We like working together and we believe in what we’re doing. We’ve never been faced with more hard realities than in the past year, and we still know we want to do this. We basically had to cut down to the bare minimum [of workers] in the beginning, people who wanted to be here and see it through, who stuck with us. It’s an amazing team, and we feel so lucky.” —Whitney Ariss, co-owner, the Preservery
Costs are rising. “Everything is going up, from labor to raw materials, so inflation is really strangling us right now. Limited capacity and inflation are the biggest hurdles we have had to deal with during this pandemic. There is only so much you can increase in price.” —Sasha Zanabria, owner, El Taco de Mexico
Capacity and Restrictions
Most Denver metro counties will allow restaurants to operate at 100 percent capacity starting May 16, which is exciting. “We’re in a weird situation. We opened July 23, 2020 and obviously we were at limited capacity restrictions—50 percent at the time, then 25 percent, then we were shut down in November, then we reopened as pizza takeout, and then we went back to French food in February. I feel like we’ve opened three restaurants in the past year. For the first time, we definitely have some optimism. The stress level has gone way down as the weather’s gotten nicer, and we’re seeing an increased comfort level in people going out to eat. We joke that it’s going to be weird that it’ll be back to normal because we’ve never seen normal [at our restaurant]. We have a chef’s counter and bar and we’ve never been able to seat them. The restaurant has never operated as designed. If we can just get some people through the door, we’ll be good.” —Justin Morse, co-owner, Brasserie Brixton
But some are nervous about the loosening restrictions. “I want everyone to feel safe, and some of the restrictions have maybe been lifted a little hastily. We’re not in any rush to go back to parties and DJ brunches, things where people are just milling around and out and about. We are for sure staying at reduced capacity. We’ve established ourselves as a bit of a safe haven. I was high risk, so we were very deliberate about taking extra precautions. It’s changed the vibe [of the restaurant], and people come here expecting that. It’s about the team first and foremost, but we wouldn’t want to violate the trust of our guests either. We wouldn’t want to make things feel unsafe for the sake of more revenue.” —Ariss
Are restaurants prepared for the change? “My biggest concern, in a single word, would be preparedness. Is the restaurant ready to be back at 100 percent? I have four or five front-of-house employees who have never seen what the restaurant looks like at 100 percent capacity. They don’t know the regular layout. It’ll be interesting to prepare everyone for having our crowd back.” —Jed Levin, operations manager, the Piper Inn
They’re hopeful about the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). “We’re thrilled it’s happening. I appreciate that we’re able to apply and have access to this. I think it’ll be really helpful. I feel sad for certain restaurants that didn’t make it and had to close their doors before they were able to receive the PPP or benefit from this work. I hope some that temporarily closed can take advantage of this and get back to life. In restaurants, it takes very little to go wrong for everything to come crashing down, so we’re happy about the RRF.” —Feder Rosenberg
But some small businesses feel the RRF mostly benefits the big guys. “The bigger the gross revenue gap is between 2019 and 2020, the more free money there is [via the RRF]. And who is the beneficiary? Restaurants that were financially able to sustain the shut down for an extended period during 2020. Who is left out? Small independent restaurants had to open to earn business instead. Many smaller independent restaurants don’t have deep pockets, so they had no choice but to open with limited capacity during the pandemic in order to pay rent and pay employees. An unexpected consequence of RRF is that those restaurants that worked hard during the pandemic will end up receiving nothing or very little with this [RRF] formula. That’s a mistreatment that small restaurants, many of which are locally owned by minority and immigrant communities, don’t deserve. It’s kind of demoralizing.” —Jay Zheng, owner, Volcano Asian Cuisine