Two Years After the First Indoor Dining Closure Order, the Restaurant Industry Reflects

On March 17, 2020 — a day when bars and restaurants would typically have been filled with revelers celebrating St. Patrick’s Day — dining rooms and barstools across Colorado were empty. The day before, Governor Jared Polis had announced that all indoor dining must end temporarily. That initial order was supposed to last thirty days, but as the pandemic dragged on, so did the shutdown.

By the time indoor dining was permitted to return (with limited capacities and a lot of new rules) on May 27, 2020, many food and beverage businesses had been forced to shutter permanently. Those that remained open faced ongoing challenges as they navigated ever-changing rules and restrictions.

Then came another indoor-dining shutdown in November 2020. And even as 2021 brought back some sense of normalcy, staffing shortages and supply-chain issues came to the forefront.

Two years after the pandemic put an end to business as usual in the hospitality industry, we asked a group of owners and other professionals to take stock. They include Paula Vrakas, owner of the Roxy Broadway, who also navigated brain surgery while juggling two establishments in two different states; Justa Ward Alvarez, the co-owner of the Noshery who shared her mental health struggles with Westword last August; Erasmo “Ras” Casiano, who, along with his team at Create Cooking School, is gearing up to open a new restaurant, Lucina; the team behind Split Lip, which began as a pandemic pop-up and has since moved into Number Thirty Eight; and restaurateurs like Troy Guard, who closed his first eatery, TAG, and opened his first food hall, Grange Hall, since the pandemic began.

While many had unique experiences, there are plenty of common themes, from the utter shock felt when the shutdown was announced and the overwhelming sadness when layoffs became a reality to the strength, determination and hope that kept so many afloat.

click to enlarge Justa Ward Alvarez, co-owner of the Noshery. - MOLLY MARTIN

Justa Ward Alvarez, co-owner of the Noshery.

Molly Martin

Where were you when you learned about the shutdown?

Kevin Morrison, owner of Tacos Tequila Whiskey and Fish N Beer: I was at Denver International Airport sitting at my gate getting ready to board a flight to Canada to see my twin boys. I saw on the news the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled. “Oh shit, this is serious,” I thought. I turned around and headed home. When I turned on the news, it seemed as if the world had changed in a few hours.

Erasmo Casiano, chef/owner of Create Cooking School and the upcoming Lucina Eatery & Bar: We were teaching sushi class the night a shutdown was hinted at. Diego (my business partner) and I decided to let the team know what was looming, and we gave them step-by-step instructions on how to apply for unemployment that night. We told them not to hesitate and to not react to the news until after they were done filing for unemployment. Around 8:30 p.m. the night before the shutdown, we had the full sushi class and a full bar, and we had one last hurrah before we started the shutdown.

Justa Ward Alvarez, co-owner of the Noshery: I specifically remember being at the bank grabbing change for the restaurant. The entire way back listening to the news, wondering what to do, what all of this meant for us. Owning my own business was absolutely terrifying to think about with everything shutting down. Being a small-business owner is hard, but this just seemed so ominous.

Shara Dowd, general manager at Toro: I was at work, preparing to start training with brand-new staff for our restaurant, Toro, to open at the beginning of April. We were three days from the training beginning, and I had to call and reach out to around thirty associates to let them know that it wasn’t going to happen. No one knew at that time what it would look like, but we knew that we wouldn’t be opening for at least two months. Many people didn’t know how to take the news, and I didn’t have any answers for them.

Alex Behler, front-of-house employee at Tap & Burger: Funny enough, I had the day off, but I was at Highland Tap & Burger. We all had kind of seen it coming, yet the apprehension in the building was palpable. I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and went to the place I knew I wasn’t alone.

Drew Stevens, bar manager at Russell’s Smokehouse: I was at home, lying in bed, but Bonanno Concepts had temporarily ceased all operations already. I knew it was coming, and also thought it was the responsible thing to do at the time.

Travis Elliot, executive chef at Osteria Marco: I was working the line at Guard and Grace when I heard about the shutdown. Thirty-six hours later, my son was born at Littleton Hospital.

click to enlarge Chef/restaurateur Troy Guard is setting his sights on beer. - DANIELLE LIRETTE

Chef/restaurateur Troy Guard is setting his sights on beer.

Danielle Lirette

What were your initial feelings about the news?

Troy Guard, executive chef/owner of TAG Restaurant Group: “Oh, shit!” Obviously very disappointed, kind of numb. Also this blank feeling. When you overcook a fish or mess up a dish, you know what you’ve done wrong. Nothing like this has ever happened in my 35 years in the business. There’s no playbook.

Spencer White, co-owner of Dio Mio and Redeemer Pizza: There was a lot of different information coming from the news, and it was hard to know what to think of it. My main concern was how to support our wonderful staff without doing regular business, and if our takeout business was going to be enough to keep the restaurant operating.

Casiano: The uncertainty is what bothered me the most. Uncertainty about the future of my team, about the future of the business that we’d worked so hard to build, and the future of the world with the new deadly virus. We were at the mercy of science, and all we could do was wait to learn more.

Ward Alvarez: Not having ever dealt with anything like this, I just started paying a great deal of attention to the news and the Colorado Restaurant Association for what I needed to know. For us to survive, acclimating was the answer, and as an employer, I wanted my team to be as safe as possible. It was really nerve-racking at points, interacting with so many people daily.

Dowd: When I received my furlough four days later, I was devastated and in tears myself. I didn’t think that this virus was that big of a deal (little did I know!), so I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was about to not have a job for at least two months. I hadn’t not had a job in over fifteen years. I never dreamed furlough would extend to three months, or that we’d still be dealing with the virus two years later.

Drew Watson, co-owner of Hops & Pie/Berkeley Donuts: Initially, I felt fear that quickly moved into panic, then back to fear again. It settled into uncertainty and a constant state of “What the F do we do now?”

Phil Dumontet, owner/founder of Whole Sol: We had thought it was coming since we saw the shutdowns in other states a few days earlier, but nothing can prepare you for news like that. To have to transition entirely to takeout, pick-up, delivery in such short order meant all hands on deck.

Stevens: My first thought was, “How am I going to pay my bills?” I had just signed a lease on a new place just two months prior, and didn’t really have any savings at the time. I also always thought that bartending would be one of the things that survived an apocalypse, and had no idea that it would be possible for the entire industry to shut down. I thought I, at least, had job security in that fashion. My second thought was, “What am I going to do if restaurants never reopen?” I always thought that this was my calling, and never really pursued anything else seriously since joining the restaurant industry eleven years ago. I also wondered if I would still be able to bartend once they reopened restaurants, and also in what ways it would be different.

Elliot: My initial feelings were of confusion and disbelief. Honestly, not fully understanding the gravity of the situation, I thought things would blow over shortly. I soon learned otherwise.

Paula Vrakas, owner of Roxy Broadway and Roxy Encinitas in California: I have two locations, and the notification came from California first: two-week closure. That’s a big deal, but with an established place, it can be handled. About two hours later the news came from Mayor Michael Hancock: one month. Holy shit. To a new establishment, that was it. Board up the doors and shut it down. I was devastated and angry, felt like I might vomit and wail at the top of my lungs. I thought I knew what a panic attack was before that moment. Turns out I was wrong. I started hyperventilating, had to take myself outside and call my dad to walk me through the basic life function of how to breathe. My initial feeling about the news was sheer devastation.

click to enlarge Paula Vrakas not only took on the pandemic as the owner of two businesses in two states, she also had brain surgery in 2021. - PAULA VRAKAS

Paula Vrakas not only took on the pandemic as the owner of two businesses in two states, she also had brain surgery in 2021.

Paula Vrakas

What were your hardest moments business-wise through the past two years?

Morrison: The day I laid off 150 staff. I hope I never have a moment like that again. To take away someone’s income is horrible. To take away a livelihood from a mother or father is even worse. We cried until we had no more tears. What a shitty feeling.

Vrakas: Letting my staff go. I had to fire 87 people in one instant. These people are my family. I vowed to always protect them and support them, and now, without any warning, I was ripping the flooring out from under them with no answers of what to do now. I believe that moment will forever remain the hardest moment of my career.

Aileen Reilly, co-owner of Coperta and Apple Blossom: The hardest moments were laying off our staff, and we did it two different times. It was gut-wrenching. There was also the thought of someone getting sick because of something we did or didn’t do.

Dowd: The hardest moments business-wise were having enough staff for the business levels we have experienced. At first, we didn’t have enough because we were so busy. Once we were staffed up, we had too many associates when the City and County moved to outdoor-only seating. Thankfully, we had a large enough patio to continue to do great business, but many associates were put on “zero hours” instead of furlough, to ensure they continued to receive benefits and were able to come back quickly when we were ready for them. That was really difficult — to tell people again that they didn’t have a job for the time being.

Ward Alvarez: There were incredibly long days, and for two years we’ve operated with about 50 percent of the staff we had pre-shutdown. It was really hard to keep the team motivated at some points. The whole routine ultimately became exhausting at times. However, it meant a lot to us being there for our neighborhood and customers. We worked hard to keep everyone safe and fed. As tiresome as it could be, the work we’ve continued to do is important.

Guard: Obviously, staffing issues, landlord issues, government issues. The hardest parts were bureaucratic and financial challenges. It’s not hard feeding people; we can always figure out that part. But the red tape was difficult; a lot of time putting out fires. For example, the lack of notice for the shutdown was really challenging. It happened on a Tuesday, and we had just gotten product delivered and were fully staffed. It was a tough time.

Juan Padró, founder and CEO of the Culinary Creative Group: The politicizing of the pandemic caused more harm than necessary, and just watching how inexperienced our city was in handling anything like this. It caused huge problems at all of our stores, with angry guests that were confused about mandates, and having to watch our young minds deal with irrational adults that often became aggressive was a real concern. The lack of leadership in our government caused safety issues and mental health issues we are just starting to understand.

Watson: The constant change with indoor-dining restrictions, mask mandates, staff illness, outdoor dining, etc., then the mandatory adapting to that change. It was extremely difficult to be some kind of consistent business and employer. So really, all of it. It was all really, really hard — and it still is, to be honest.

 As a chef/owner, I wanted to jump to action and get back to serving the people and bringing the staff back on, but we waited a little to see what would be needed in the neighborhood. … We did end up finding a niche with a lot of people now learning new skills at home: virtual live cooking classes with take-home kits that proved to be a great offering for people. Guests would pick up their meal kits via curbside, then log on to our virtual kitchen (filmed live on location in the Create kitchen). We cooked live, in real time, mic’d up and mic’d in where our guests could cook along, ask questions in real time and enjoy each other’s company in our virtual space. This offering saved our business.

Elliot Schiffer, partner/CEO of Mici Italian: We have been very fortunate that our business is so well set up for pick-up and delivery — this sustained us over the past two years. The biggest struggle we have had is handling the supply-chain shocks in our business. There was a time when we couldn’t get mozzarella cheese to our restaurants. We drove to every food-service warehouse in Denver and Colorado Springs and became our own distributor on a few products like this. We almost ran out of pizza boxes to serve our pizza in. Items that we considered staples were suddenly scarce.

Kari Williams, co-owner of Snow Capped Cider: We were in the midst of finishing a nine-year re-release on our bottle line, which had taken a large amount of labor and expenses up to that point. Some of the finished apples had taken two to three years in aging and processing. Our hearts sank to think nobody would get to experience the immense amount of hard work and flavor we developed in these ciders to proudly represent Colorado.

David Wright, co-founder of Split Lip: As we developed Split Lip over the past two years, I would say finding our identity and fighting the weather elements. We began frying chicken at Union Station and a few breweries without much of a purpose. As we started to form Split Lip by popping up, we endured many a cold day under a tent, without knowing our real direction. That slowly turned into a few people following us, then we started adding to the menu, and then Split Lip Chicken was born.

Denon Moore, co-owner of the Urban Cookie: Once I opened the Urban Cookie during the pandemic (on January 15, 2021), I was nervous and a little worried that people wouldn’t come, nervous there would be another shutdown, worried we wouldn’t find employees, worried it would be difficult to get supplies. Everything was a worry. For me, it was totally uncharted territory.

click to enlarge Challenges led to innovation for Drew Stevens, bar manager at Russell's Smokehouse. - BONANNO CONCEPTS

Challenges led to innovation for Drew Stevens, bar manager at Russell’s Smokehouse.

Bonanno Concepts

What were your proudest accomplishments during the past two years?

Morrison: We made it! That’s it: We made it.

Vrakas: We’re still open!

Watson: Leah, my co-owner and wife, and I are most proud of simply keeping the doors open and surviving — as w
ell as we never laid anyone off. I do think the real need to survive is still on the horizon, as the pandemic forced so much change within the industry. Not all of it is bad — like better wages for back-of-house workers. But with as much change as we saw as operators, we are having to reinvent our business and culture.

Katlyn Demaline, director of operations for Smok: Our proudest moments at Smok were when we had the opportunity to feed front-line workers at Swedish Medical Center and our own fearless industry professionals. Barbecue is a comfort food, and we wanted to make as many people feel that comfort as possible.

Kevin Burke, director of hospitality for the Culinary Creative Group: We set a goal in the first week of the shutdown that everyone in our company was going to have a hot meal every day. We executed this with some other restaurateurs and helped spur Colorado Restaurant Response. Through early 2021, we served almost 750,000 meals out of the Morin kitchen.

Jessica Richter, co-founder of Split Lip: Going from cooking chicken on the side of the road in the freezing fucking cold to an actual restaurant with heat and cooking equipment.

White: I am really proud that through all of the uncertainty, we decided to move forward with opening a new concept (Redeemer Pizza) and that Dio Mio has come out stronger than when we went into the pandemic. Even with the adversity we faced, it challenged us to rethink some things that had become second nature.

Moore: I opened a new business! I had a successful first year, and we are growing and thriving. I was able to create and maintain jobs for twelve people. And I just wrapped up our FDD (Franchise Disclosure Document), so I can start expanding the cookie shop.

Dowd: Opening a successful restaurant during a pandemic! Despite all of the restrictions and constant changes, and only being open for approximately five months of 2020, Toro was a profitable restaurant. I am also proud of the perseverance and dedication from my staff. We have seven team members (out of fifteen) who opened the restaurant back in 2020 still on the staff, and several who started shortly after we opened. They’re all amazingly hard workers and have been so adaptable during the roller coaster of the last year and a half.

Casiano: Our space became more than “just a cooking school.” We became a space for anyone and everyone to enjoy at any time. It’s a whole vibe being in our space. You see people cooking up a storm and people chatting it up at the bar in a nice, inviting ambience. We’re still service-based, so I think our guests are always blown away by the restaurant-quality service even though they are taking a cooking class. Our space opened doors of opportunity for us to be able to start opening our newest endeavor, Lucina Eatery & Bar, a Latin American restaurant opening soon in Park Hill.

Guard: That we were able to “take the boat out of the water” and see all around it, and see what we could fix and do better. You never get the opportunity to hit pause, take a full look at your business, think outside the box, etc. We got to re-evaluate ourselves and come up with a really exciting plan for the future.

Elliot: My proudest accomplishments of the past two years center around rebuilding and redesigning from the ground up. Helping keep people employed and rediscovering what it means to do what we do. Screeching to a halt and taking a step back allowed us to pursue the important things, and above all carve a new path for our craft — something that was desperately needed.

Stevens: By far, the cocktail program here at Green Russell. A lot of the mainstays now were built out of necessity, and there’s some kind of weird romance in that. Our Cosmopolitan was born because I had made a cranberry cordial out of all the out-of-date red wine to keep from just pouring it down the drain, and then we also use different powdered acids such as citric and malic to imitate lemon and lime juices, and also acidify other juices and liquids to the same level as lemon or lime to give the same punch needed to balance a cocktail. All of this would not have been possible without the pandemic, because in the beginning, it was all about cutting costs and reducing waste. I didn’t order but one case of citrus for two months, but was able to provide shelf-stable citrus cocktails that the guest was able to get just as fast as pouring a beer.

click to enlarge Kevin Morrison's Tacos Tequila Whiskey celebrated a decade of business in 2021. - TACOS TEQUILA WHISKEY

Kevin Morrison’s Tacos Tequila Whiskey celebrated a decade of business in 2021.

Tacos Tequila Whiskey

What lessons have you learned along the way?

Morrison: I learned how important people are. I learned I am in the people business; I just happen to make tacos and cook dead fish. I learned I want to be a better leader, employer, boss, co-worker…whatever you want to call it, my focus is to be better every day.

Schiffer: The importance of our team has never been so obvious. We’ve had remarkably low turnover despite a very difficult environment. This means that every time over the past two years we’ve had to make changes to our operation, there was an experienced Mici crew ready to adapt. Our team members have always sustained our business, but without them we would never have been able to make so many changes to our business in the last two years.

Dumontet: Staff retention is as important as hiring. Providing a comprehensive employee compensation and benefits package is critical. We increased our wages, began offering company health care, expanded our $50 monthly wellness stipend and rolled out a new 401k with a 4 percent employer match. Investing in our employees’ well-being directly translates to happier employees with less turnover and a better service experience for our customers.

Elliot: I have learned more about myself and the nature of this business in the past two years than in a decade before. It has shown us the need for sustainable business practices, and putting the people first. The ones who were so often forgotten and set aside. People have to come first. The art form has to come second. A hard thing to admit for many of us. I have learned the inherent importance of community and people’s unwavering desire to gather and feel the embrace of a well-designed plate of food with good company and a glass of wine to escape the otherwise harsh realities we face. Being able to provide that is a gift.

Guard: That hogs get slaughtered, pigs get fat — meaning don’t go too far, keep your operation lean and mean, and focus on the stuff that’s important.

That patience is a virtue; that sometimes observing and making calculated moves on those observations can be the best course of action in times of uncertainty. Also, confirming our thoughts and sentiments about the industry and why we decided to open our own business back in 2018; that treating the staff fairly and equally is the most important ingredient you could have in a food-service establishment. We’ve got to be willing to train the next generation of hospitality professionals and show them that the industry can be a fruitful career.

Watson: I’ve learned that sacrificing myself mentally and physically in the name of staying open wasn’t the best decision for my team or family. Getting through the pandemic nearly left me with an empty tank mentally.

Mackenzie Hyde, pastry chef at Mizuna: I’ve learned so much these past two years, but the most important thing is to take care of yourself. Most people are in this industry because we love taking care of people, but that can’t happen unless we take care of ourselves first.

Adam Branz, co-founder of Split Lip:
Grassroots growth. In the cold, in the elements, wrapped in Carhartt with a belly full of whiskey, we cooked, passed out fliers, literally knocked on doors to tell people what we were doing. I wouldn’t change the way we started for anything. “The obstacle is the way,” if you will.

Stevens: Expect the best but plan for the worst. Don’t ever get too comfortable. Always get your team’s input. It’s okay to ask for help. Also, it’s always better to be proactive than reactive, but if you have to react to it, trust your instincts and know that everyone makes mistakes, that the wrong action is still better than no action.

Vrakas: Well, the simple and pessimistic one is now it can always get worse! Really, though, it’s just to be prepared for literally anything and to take joy in today.

Don’t underestimate the warriors that pilot the hospitality industry; our community is simply incredible in what they were able to do for their own in a time of need. Also, always order an extra case, or seven, of to-go boxes.

click to enlarge Diego Coconati (left) and Erasmo "Ras" Casiano outside Stanley Marketplace, the home of Create Cooking School. - CREATE COOKING SCHOOL

Diego Coconati (left) and Erasmo “Ras” Casiano outside Stanley Marketplace, the home of Create Cooking School.

CREATE Cooking School

What would you have done differently?

Casiano: Nothing. On a personal and business-owner level, without the pressure of the pandemic, we wouldn’t have learned what we learned about ourselves, about the team, about what needed to change in the industry, and what we could do that was in our power to change.

Dowd: Truly, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. It was a period of such growth, personally and professionally, that I think in the long run, it was something to be seen as a positive experience. It was extremely difficult at many times, and there were certainly many tears along the way, but in the end, it’s made me a better leader.

Communicated more to the staff we let go. Huge lesson learned.

Vrakas: I didn’t know what to do with myself when we closed, so as most business owners did, I dove into work even harder. I was doing some remodeling at restaurants, taking webinars on grants and loans, trying to decipher codes and rules, building patios, etc. I gave myself one day to freak out or wallow, but I didn’t take any other days off. Honestly, I really wish I would have taken about two to three weeks off. It’s been a long couple of years.

Schiffer: We could have been more aggressive and swift with the changes that we made. As an example, we’ve taken a few items off our menu because they don’t travel well, and all of our food was being enjoyed at home. It was a painful decision to do this, as our menu consists of time-honored family recipes that we all love. We realized, though, that by simplifying our menu, we knew that 100 percent of what we served would be great at home, and that at the end of the day our loyal guests judge us first and foremost on the quality of our food.

Watson: It’s hard to say for sure, but if we were to have to go through it again — and I absolutely hope we don’t — closing the doors for some of it would have been a healthier decision. We only missed twenty days of normal business scattered over the course of COVID. We did this and fought so hard because we wanted to be there for our neighborhood when we thought they needed us most.

Elliot: In hindsight, I would have focused on takeout even further. I would have focused on community outreach even further. I don’t know that I could have taken more on, but I like to think perhaps I could have done things better. We were all scrambling to survive. To have a voice. To persevere.

Hyde: I should have baked at home more. I regret not taking advantage of that free time.

What changes in the restaurant business will stay?

Andrew Palmquist, chief operating officer at Number Thirty Eight: How we utilize technology. With hiring challenges, the rising costs of labor and the ongoing challenge of keeping staff safe, many turned to technology to address these challenges. … New and exciting technologies are continuing to flood the market to minimize service disruption. Bars and restaurants that were once forced to adopt these technologies to survive are now seeing them as vehicles for growth and innovation. Mobile ordering, contactless payment systems, QR menus and even robotic chefs are all part of the new digital era in the hospitality industry, and we’re excited to be a part of it.

Morrison: Honestly, I am not sure I want anything from the pandemic to stick around. I want to go back to 2019. I miss the old service model. I fucking hate QR code menus, I want to interact with a human being, I want to take care of our guests, and I want to be taken care of when I go out. I don’t want to hear about an asshole berating my staff for following state-mandated health department guidelines, then say, “I don’t need to wear a mask at other restaurants.” And I replaced my number-one most hated word. “Unprecedented” has replaced “deconstructed.” F.U., COVID, let’s get back to hospitality and service!

Restaurant culture is in the middle of a big shift. Restaurants everywhere are coming up with creative ways to provide livable wages to all staff, ways to provide benefits, and ways to offer work/life balance for all team members. We’ve been running Create with a new model since 2018 that has proven to work for the staff, and are trying a similar model at Lucina once we open for business.

Carrie Baird, culinary director for Tap & Burger: Equal pay for the front and back of house is hands down the best thing to happen to our industry in the past two years. Everyone is essential in the success of a restaurant, and it is high time everyone is paid equally for their hard work.

Burke: Service charges are permanent and here to stay.

Schiffer: We believe much of our business will continue to be pick-up and delivery. So many people saw how easy it is to order online and pick up or have Mici delivered, and they continue to order that way from us. Off-premises business accelerated over the last two years, and it will continue to grow. Another thing we think is important is transparency and communication with guests. We’ve let people know through email or social media what changes we have to make as a business, and they have appreciated the communication these past two years. As we continue to adapt, we will continue to let people know why. We’ve found they care and appreciate the honesty.

Watson: Those of us who were open through the pandemic survived on takeout. From this point forward, every restaurant has to have a practiced and effective takeout program in place and functioning before it’s needed. We were lucky as a pizza joint that we were already skilled at this. I watched so many sit-down type spots understandably struggling to hit their stride with takeout.

Dumontet: More health-conscious customers and staff members, higher wages, increased benefits for employees, increased demand for pick-up and delivery orders, quick on-the-go options.

Hyde: The conversation regarding what employers are doing to take care of their employees has been brought to the surface more than I’ve ever seen, and I believe it’ll stay that way.

Stevens: I think that the huge importance of takeaway food and drink will always be huge from here on out, as well as the importance of a proper patio. Also, the employer/employee relationship is forever changed. No one will ever be able to demand that someone come to work if they’re feeling ill, or not treat them as indispensable. I think that culture is gone now, and people know their worth.

Elliot: I think we will see a number of changes from these experiences stick with us in food and beverage. Among those, I see fair wages and the need for equity. In many cases, this giant sector has been long overdue for such ideas. I think experience-driven takeout food, with heightened hospitality, is at the top of the list as well. Sanitation and a remarkable understanding of viruses will forever change the landscape, allowing us to provide a cleaner, better experience for everyone. And perhaps a degree of humbling gratitude will exist in a longtime ego-driven industry. We are here to serve.