Denver eating places battle with little reduction in sight

A national lobby group formed during the pandemic released a promotional video this month describing in about 60 seconds how bad the coronavirus has turned out to be for local restaurants and how it’s only getting worse.

The ad is now running on cable channels in major markets. Her message centers on the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s statistics on impending restaurant closings (up to 85%) and job losses (up to 16 million) before asking Congress to take action to pass the Restaurants Act.

TV personality and chef Andrew Zimmer were behind his production, and actor Morgan Freeman says, “Neighborhood restaurants are the lifeblood of our communities,” Freeman begins. “Here we come together and make lifelong memories. And right now they are threatened with extinction. “

It’s not too far of a distance. The restaurant industry is currently leading the country in terms of closings. This is based on data released last month by the customer review platform Yelp. It is in front of retail stores, beauty salons, bars, and gyms.

As of July, more than 26,000 restaurants across the country have closed and 15,770 of them have closed permanently, according to Yelp. 62 percent of restaurants in Colorado say they will consider permanent closings in current or deteriorating conditions over the next six months, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association.

CONNECTED: The legendary Rialto Café on 16th Street is closing after 23 years in Denver

“I think there’s still a false reality about all of these restaurants that are surviving (the pandemic),” said Josh Wolkon, who closed his 23-year-old Vesta restaurant in downtown Denver in late July while continuing on to two operate more restaurants in Denver with another in Arvada that has not reopened since March.

“Unless there is a secondary stimulus package,” said Wolkon, “you will likely see a big fallout when these (wage and salary) funds run out in October.”

Hyoung Chang, the Denver Post

Kendra Anderson, the owner of Cabana X, is preparing drinks for the customer at the Denver bar on Friday, August 7th.

Dwindling loans to protect payroll, added security measures, reconnections, reduced business hours, employee health concerns, consumer confidence, and even Colorado’s unpredictable weather – according to restaurant owners, there are so many factors that affect their businesses that the future is planned at the same time essential and impossible to do.

“Every day I watch the weather like a psycho. I watch every day, all day, ”said Kendra Anderson, who owns the River North Restaurant and the Helix Lounge Bar, which has become the outdoor-only Cabana X for the summer. “It makes you feel like you’re going crazy.”

Another thing that restaurateurs like Anderson thinks they’re going to lose their minds is an ever-changing set of rules for their businesses. For example, when Colorado’s last call was postponed to 10 p.m. in late July, Anderson had to update all promotional materials, change staff and add more hours of the day, including implementing a new brunch menu to make up for the loss of night sales.

“That was all because (last call) went through 10am,” said Anderson. “Now I’ve decided we’re on our sixth pivot. And we do all of this and we don’t make any money. We’re just not closed. “

Colorado sales are down 40% year over year, according to the latest July data from the Colorado Restaurant Association. And reservations platform OpenTable reports that Denver restaurants have an average of 49% fewer diners this month year over year.

One of the early concerns of restaurateurs reopening their premises at the beginning of summer was capacity. After spending thousands of dollars on expanded patios and more outdoor seating, the company moved elsewhere.

“Demand became increasingly important because we now had these big, expanded courtyards, but there was just no one to sit on,” said John Imbergamo, who has worked in Denver restaurant advertising for 30 years.

“Now the point is to fill these places and everyone is trying to do interesting things to fill them,” he said.

Last week the Denver Post food desk received four promotional emails about new fried chicken menus in town. Yelp reports that interest in categories like “comfort food,” “wineries,” and “seafood” is gradually picking up again after a steady decline at the start of the shutdown.

CONNECTED: Give the guests the bird: More and more restaurants are turning to fried chicken during the pandemic

“I think the things that sell like crazy in restaurants are things like oysters,” Imbergamo said. (He represents Stoic & Genuine at Union Station, where he says shelled oysters are flying off the shelves.) “The average person doesn’t want to risk cooking seafood at home.”

From oysters to fried chickens to sandwiches and burgers, there are clear themes across the board on the restaurants’ pandemic menus.

“And I think you reach for things that are comfortable and that people know,” Imbergamo said. “You don’t necessarily have to have a waiter with a towel over your arm suggesting the latest Riesling on the market (these meals). It is partly a simplification of the system … “

More experiments are underway to simplify the system restaurants relied on for years prior to the novel coronavirus. They are trying to deliver directly to the consumer, new POS platforms, more uniform remuneration structures for employees in front of and behind the house (kitchen), different reservation companies and even menus that are exclusively intended for take-away or delivery.

“We kind of don’t know what’s working,” said Anderson of Bar Helix. “So you do anything in case something works.”

Kendra Anderson, the owner of Cabana ...

Hyoung Chang, the Denver Post

Kendra Anderson, the owner of Cabana X at Bar Helix, poses for a portrait at her bar in Denver on Friday. August 7, 2020.

Jim Gregory opened his first restaurant, Ranelle’s, on 6th Avenue in 1992, at a time when you could still open a white tablecloth restaurant selling Italian food, and it would be something new, he said.

In the 2000s, Gregory ran two locations for The Egg & I breakfast franchise on Leetsdale Drive and Arvada, which he converted to independent operations called Morning Story two years ago. Now the tax attorney is breaking new ground – ghost kitchens – avoiding the traditional dining room model to focus on delivery. He says his breakfast and lunch income has decreased by 40% to 50%.

“(The deal) only works with this addition,” Gregory told the Denver Post, “and (only) if the addition accounts for the lost volume.” And I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not. “

A new addition is an evening menu with roast chicken and homemade sauces, which is only available for delivery and take away. Saucy Chix will use the kitchens at both Morning Story locations after the breakfast and lunch shops have closed for the day.

Gregory said its 4,000-square-foot restaurants are particularly hard hit because of their size and opening times. “Here’s the thing about breakfast and lunch: half of our volume usually happens on Saturday and Sunday, and most of it happens between 10am and 1pm,” he said. “The ability to produce this type of volume in these time frames is currently severely limited.”

One way of describing this is severely restricted. Anderson prefers a four-letter word when thinking about what’s next. “I mean, if we all have to be inside and the curfew is still 10pm, we are (expletive),” Anderson said.

As Laura Shunk of the Colorado Restaurant Association puts it, “(I) think the elephant in the room when we get to the end of summer is what happens in winter when the decks are closed?” By the end of July, Denver had approved 300 patio extensions in restaurants across the city. They are allowed to operate restaurants until October 31st without additional additions (such as walls and space heating).

Christina Lundell, in front, takes orders ...

Hyoung Chang, the Denver Post

Christina Lundell, front, takes orders on the patio of Cabana X in Denver on Friday. August 7, 2020.

In the West Wash Park of his ramen restaurant Uncle, Tommy Lee took full advantage of the relaxed restrictions on outdoor dining this summer: He only lets his customers sit outside. In front of the restaurant, a portion of Pennsylvania Street is closed to traffic, under which there are tents and tables.

Lee said he hopes business will continue as usual when the weather turns cold and more people are thinking of ramen for dinner. And he hopes his team will be a little better prepared for another shutdown or switch to take-away-only service after learning of the March events.

“(We’re) really not sure until it happens,” Lee said. “I think we are still a long way from having guests in our restaurants.”

Tabatha Knop, co-owner of Larimer Street’s Work & Class and Super Mega Bien, agrees that guests are mostly unwilling to eat inside. She also worries about another factor that is difficult to quantify: “Half of our (current) clientele visit us from outside the state,” she said in surprise. “So I’m not sure how many (Denverites) are really eating out at this point.”

At the time when both outdoor dining and tourism wear off, “we will certainly do a re-evaluation in September,” said Knop, “but we will definitely have some very tough talks in early October.”

And she’s most concerned about her employees. After the federal unemployment grant ended in July, some workers are exempt from unemployment and are asking about their future in the restaurant, Knop said. “I just want to give you a realistic picture.”

So she says to them, “You know we may have to fire some of you … Just save all your money. I wish I could tell you what the end of the year looks like, but I really have no idea. “

On a typical Tuesday evening in early August, Anderson picked up the phone for an interview while she was working. She’s struggling, she told the Denver Post, “and my staff are here, they can hear me.”

She often asks herself: “What am I not seeing?” in terms of your options now and in the months ahead. Anderson does not see himself in taking out another payroll protection loan if it is offered. Once it runs out again, not only would she have to get back to her pre-pandemic earnings but do better to pay her bills now.

Your options at this point are simple: the pandemic is ending (there’s a vaccine) or there’s a bailout (that’s where Freeman, Zimmer, and the Restaurant Act come into play).

“I don’t see any of us considering taking on additional debt for an industry that is about to collapse,” said Anderson. “I think what is hard for a lot of restaurateurs to see is how much of our ego is involved in our business. I’m not a magical thinker you know “

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