That dull, persistent thud you hear in the background? It’s not the sound of a car cruising past with the bass cranked up; it’s a funeral dirge. The drumbeat of closure, closure, closure is drawing ever nearer—or at least it can seem that way when businesses are faced with the uncertainty that accompanies a global pandemic and constantly changing operational models and restrictions. But even the chaos that’s overtaken the hospitality industry since March isn’t enough to keep resilient and enterprising entrepreneurs from launching bars and restaurants when it seems like everything is stacked against success.
For Jarrett and Jenn Feinstein, owners of Denver’s Vin Rouge Wine Bar & Tasting Room, the choice to begin operations in June was a foregone conclusion. After signing a lease on the Berkeley spot in June 2019 and tackling six months of construction, Vin Rouge’s certificate of occupancy was issued on March 16 at 11 a.m. “I’ll never forget the time,” first-time bar owner Jenn Feinstein notes; it was within an hour of the mandate that Denver restaurants and bars close to in-person dining for at least eight weeks (closures stretched to just over 10 weeks). While the news was gut-wrenching, Feinstein counts herself fortunate. Because there was no liquor on premises, she wasn’t paying for unused product, and her landlord reached out immediately to offer a forbearance plan. “Without the understanding and empathy of our landlord, we’d be in trouble,” she says.
Feinstein also credits local government for stepping up. Because Vin Rouge wasn’t operational in January, the business was denied federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). But she was able to connect with her city council member, who assisted her in securing funds to purchase personal protective equipment. “Our city has been the most responsive of everyone,” Feinstein states. “311 is an amazing source, and Amanda [Sandoval, our city councilperson] responded almost immediately, within five minutes. It felt good, considering we waited five months to hear we didn’t get any federal loans.”
In some ways, the challenges brought about by COVID-19 have even been a blessing to the Feinsteins and their vision. When she and Jarrett signed the lease on the space, the occupancy limit was 77 people. Cramming that people into the roughly 800-square-foot space was never going to work with the bar they envisioned, so they requested the city reduce capacity to 43 people. Now, that means only 22 people can be inside. “I almost like it better than our original plan,” she says, stating they plan to stick to current capacity limits post-COVID. “We have a lot of flexibility in terms of how we can move seating around. This works for us in terms of making people feel special, getting to know every guest, and not getting too loud.” And because Feinstein hadn’t brought on staff before the restaurant shutdown, she says, “It’s been perfect for [Jarrett and me]. If it was more, I don’t think we’d be able to handle it. And we can put everything we earn back into our debt.”
Since opening on June 17, Feinstein says the business is actually on trend to meet the projections they made for full capacity, noting, “Our neighborhood really wants to support us.” She describes doing a brisk business selling to-go glasses of wine to moms pushing strollers with kids and dogs trailing behind, likening herself to a marathon aid station worker passing out cups of water to parched runners.
Our city has been the most responsive of everyone. 311 is an amazing source, and Amanda [Sandoval, our city councilperson] responded almost immediately, within five minutes.”
Tim Chladek’s journey to open Etc. Eatery has been less a marathon than a 100-meter dash. He says the concept for the restaurant has been percolating for years, but he never found the right spot—until he went to pick up takeout from Sushi Den for his mom on Mother’s Day, May 10. Yes, that’s May 10 of this year. Chladek took one look at the building’s four patios, including one on the rooftop, and moved quickly to secure the space. “The whole thing materialized very serendipitously. We signed a contract by that Friday [May 15]. The only reason this materialized so quickly is because we knew outdoor space was at a premium.” He purchased the existing lease from previous tenant Palizo Italiano, which he described as “already very fair,” and was in possession by July 15.
According to Chladek, the outdoor spaces alone can accommodate 90 guests with proper social distancing. Add another 42 seats indoors, and even with diners spread out, Etc. is well-equipped to handle large numbers of diners once capacity restrictions are relaxed. But Chladek did run up against some challenges when first attempting to staff the space. “I’ve never opened a restaurant in Denver before,” he notes (he previously worked at Aspen’s 7908 Supper Club and Denver nightclubs including Tryst and LaMark 15). “Staffing has been more difficult than I thought it would be. With people out of work, I thought people would be lining up, but that hasn’t been the case.” He’s also been surprised by some of his vendors’ timelines. “You’d think no one is opening right now so it’s going to run smoothly, but things can take longer. Some vendors say, ‘I’ll be over there in 10 minutes;’ some vendors say it’ll be two weeks. When you pick up the phone you never know what side of that equation you’ll be on,” he notes.
Etc. Eatery opened with a soft launch on August 25, and while Chladek’s club background would have him packing the spot with guests immediately upon opening, he knows that’s not an option right now. Instead, he’s skipping a big marketing push and depending on word of mouth for business, hoping to start at around 40 covers per night and ramp up until he can determine both staff and guests’ comfort levels with dining out in the age of COVID. In some ways, though, he see opening now as a positive: “When you start with a certain set of standards, it’s hard to instill new ones. Our advantage is that our biggest priority is safety, then hospitality.”
“We don’t know anything but COVID,” Feinstein agrees. While she admits this climate is challenging, her advice for anyone thinking of taking the plunge and opening a business in these dark days is encouraging: Be patient, be kind, and lean on others in the industry. Feinstein shouts out Nicole and Scott Mattson of Noble Riot and Joe Pettinger of LoHi Steakbar (“I tried not to bother him too much”) as well as a few key Facebook groups (Denver Area Food and Beverage Workers Resource Group, Stupid Questions in the Service Industry). She’s grateful for all the support: “As people show empathy towards us about trying to open during these times, I’m reminded no one has any control over this.”
Opening your doors during these insane times? Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to firstname.lastname@example.org.