Coronavirus has caused great pain and inconvenience in North Denver but it has hit the restaurant industry especially hard. Establishments that used to be packed are only open for carry out, pickup, and delivery and some have closed entirely. Not only are restaurants and bars in a pinch but struggles are working their way up the food chain to eatery distributors.
According to the Colorado Restaurant Association, there are 12,400 places to eat and drink in Colorado and 75% of them are independently owned. Several thousand of these are in the Denver metro area and they employ about 140,000 employees. All these restaurants and bars are closed to the public through at least April 30, but many are adapting to the new normal by offering takeout, curbside pickup and delivery of food and even alcohol.
Joe Vostrejs is one of the owners at City Street Partners, which owns restaurants Earnest Hall, Billy’s Inn and LoHi Steak Bar, among others. He has seen his sales plummet 75% and has laid off 95% of his employees. “It’s just been horrific to see so many people lose their jobs.” A four-employee management team now runs the takeout, pickup and delivery services at the restaurants. “We’re taking it one day at a time. That’s all we can do. It is stressful.”
For Joe, the closing of Earnest Hall was particularly heartbreaking. The restaurant had hired 40 to 50 employees who had just hit their stride. Sales were above projections. “We had really just opened and maybe operated for three weeks before we had to shut it down.” Now Earnest Hall is running the business on a reduced schedule with a streamlined menu for takeout, pickup and delivery. “We’re definitely hearing from neighbors saying thank you for being open.”
Joey Gentry’s Northeast Denver company, Altamira Foods, supplies restaurants and hotels with specialty food. According to Joey, It’s a small family business with almost zero turnover. When the restaurants were ordered to close, he lost 85% of his business. “We said oh s**t and immediately had to lay off 10 people. We were caught with our mouths open. Everyone put their heads down and went to work.”
The company was forced to pivot and “flying by the seat of our pants.” Altimera set up a website-based home delivery service. Their first effort was producing food baskets that were donated to laid off restaurant employees. Then Altamira opened the warehouse, with a million dollars in inventory, to the public. In the two weeks since Joey has been doing Altamira Doorstep, the company has delivered food to over 500 individual homes. He is selling produce and staples and lots and lots of eggs. Joey expects to return to his core business of restaurants and hotels when this is over, but for now, he is glad that he can do his part to help Colorado during a very difficult time.
Takeout is Now The New Normal
The Northside Sustainability Alliance and its merchants are supporting their bars and restaurants by promoting “Takeout Tuesdays.” For local restaurants it’s “wait and see and do what they can to survive,” says Keith Meyer, who calls himself the “convener” of the alliance. Meyer says that residential neighborhood organizations like BRUN and SUNI and HUNI are all on board urging people in their local communities to pledge to order out once or twice a week. “We’ve been going for just a few days, says Meyer, “and have had a tremendous amount of support already with dozens of signups.”
Some restaurants are offering their entire menu while other restaurants are coalescing around a main menu for pickup and delivery. During the first week of April, American Elm, the popular 38th Avenue eatery, offered chicken alfredo, pot roast, pork green chile enchiladas as well as vegetarian options. Some restaurants accept donations to provide meals for frontline hospital workers. Vostrejs says it allows people to give twice, to a neighborhood restaurant and to medical workers on the front lines of the crisis.
At the moment there is no end in sight for North Denver restaurants. Joe Vostrejs says, “One day you hear May 11 and then they’ll talk about this stretching into June or July.” He worries for smaller restaurants that don’t have deep pockets and also for the health of his remaining employees. “If anyone does get sick, we may get to a point where it would be extremely difficult to continue to operate.”
Vicky Collins is a freelance television producer and journalist with a diverse portfolio that includes network news, cable programming, Olympic sports, corporate and non-profit videos. Vicky has created an Online Community called Bucket List Community Cafe which is a digital news site for Denver’s Northside.