By late May, Colorado’s restaurant dining rooms had been shuttered for over two months. Restaurant owners and employees alike were ravenous for info. Even kitchens doing decent takeout and delivery business during the shutdown wanted to know when they’d be able to return to normal. But when the announcement finally came after weeks of silence, it became apparent that “normal” was a thing of the past, with capacity restrictions severely limiting the number of customers who could eat in. Still, some establishments rushed to spread out their tables, shut down bar seating, and welcome customers into their dining rooms. Others have taken a more cautious approach. We sat down with three Denver restaurant owners on August 11 to talk about how they’ve approached the challenges that come with resuming in-house service.
Joining the discussion are Giles Flanagin, Lorena Cantarovici, and Paul C. Reilly. Flanagin owns and operates Blue Pan Pizza, which has two locations in Denver’s Highland and Congress Park neighborhoods. Neither is open for in- or outdoor dining, though they’ve both been providing takeout and delivery since March. Cantarovici is the founder and CEO of Maria Empanada, a cafe and empanada bakery. Of five outposts, two opened for in-house dining on May 27; the rest remain closed. Executive chef and proprietor Reilly runs Uptown restaurants Beast & Bottle and Coperta. Coperta opened its dining room July 7, while Beast held off until July 17; both spots began offering takeout just two weeks before they resumed in-house service. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
DiningOut: Giles, what are your considerations in not reopening yet?
Giles Flanagin: There’s a lot going on here. Serendipitously, we’re in a business where the food generally travels well. A lot of people get pizza for to-go or delivery. We really don’t have to sell that concept.
Second, my restaurants are tiny. With the restrictions, we can’t open up Highland. It’s just too small. Congress Park’s a little bit different. I spent a couple thousand dollars rearranging the dining room. I got everything ready to go [in August] for dining. I woke up in the middle of the night and had a total epiphany. I just said, “Why?” With the restrictions, I could have five tables. Like everyone else, I’m trying to manage risk—risk of failure, risk of making money, risk of an employee getting sick.
If we can pay our bills by to-go and delivery, we’re going to do that. How long that’s going to last, I don’t know. From day one we’ve not let anybody in the restaurant. We have barricaded off our front doors with tables. It’s all for safety. If I let the public in, I feel like it’s just a matter of time before an employee gets sick and I’m closed down for a day, a week, a month. Closing down for a week would be a huge hit to us.
I’d love to hear from people doing this if I’m wrong, if I’m paranoid.
DO: Paul, what were you thinking about when it came to reopening for dining in?
Paul C. Reilly: Conversely to Giles, our food doesn’t really travel. For both of our restaurants it’s about being there, having the server tell you the story about the food and the people who grow it or raise it. We were open [for takeout] at Coperta for two weeks before we opened the dining rooms and it was “meh” at best. Takeout sales were not just going to cover it. If there was not the extension of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) we probably would not have opened. It was crucial it got extended from the original eight to 10 weeks.
DO: Without the extension of the PPP you wouldn’t have reopened for takeout or dining in?
PCR: We may not have reopened at all. With the extension of the PPP we were able to ask about 40 of our staff back between the two restaurants. We knew that most of our revenue was going to have to come from people dining in. There’s certainly better business since we opened our doors. Even when we were doing takeout, we had guests come by and we’d say, “Oh, we’re just open for takeout.” Their next question was instantly, “When are you going to open the dining room?” I wouldn’t say we dragged our feet, but we were very patient and purposeful in how we were going to open.
We have not had anybody get sick, but I can tell you that once a week at least one person calls in ahead of time and says, “I don’t feel well,” and we tell them to go get a test. That is an unbelievable burden on the rest of the team. Results of the testing have come back anywhere within 24 hours to 11 days. In a restaurant we’re all spinning gears. If one gear’s spinning slowly, everyone has to spin faster to make it up, and that has happened literally every week since we’ve been back. It’s fairly brutal in terms of the work we’re doing to make sure we’re adhering to our standards of food, our standards of running a restaurant, and now our standards of sanitation. Running a restaurant is already difficult and with the extra precautions, it’s exhausting. And not for the right reasons.
Lorena Cantarovici: I think we are lacking in a few things. As an owner I want to have my restaurant open with the most safety and compliance I can. What the government says, I’ll do, but why did we get mandatory face masks just two weeks ago? Why wasn’t that in place before? That’s what decreases the spread of this thing, right?
I have signs all over my restaurants saying, “Wash your hands.” We do have hand-washing machines because my product is eat-by-hand. So if those are the big, important things—the masks, the hand washing, the social distancing—if two of them had been mandatory faster, we would have been able to open before.
DO: Paul and Lorena, what has the reopening experience been like for you?
LC: I think it’s exactly the same as Paul was mentioning. It is exhausting. The good thing is you can see you’re not the only one, but coming in and seeing an empty restaurant, a few tables, and people being afraid of being in a public place…it is sad. It is absolutely sad.
My other three restaurants are completely closed. We’re still evaluating if we’re going to reopen. At this time, at this moment, economically it’s not making sense. Equipment is there but I have everything stopped.
I’m not going to go so far as saying the new normal sucks, but I will say it’s not the reason I got into hospitality. Making connections with people over food and drink have been severed.
DO: Is the reason those three restaurants are still closed solely the financials?
LC: One is in a food hall. One of them is in the Tech Center where corporate catering was a big part of our business, but that is down 90 percent. The third one on Platte Street is in the middle of a construction zone and other corporate customers have not come back to that area. What am I going to do?
PCR: I’m not going to go so far as saying the new normal sucks, but I will say it’s not the reason I got into hospitality. Making connections with people over food and drink have been severed. There’s no way in hell 50 percent of revenue at 100 percent of costs is going to pan out.
DO: Giles, what’s it been like to watch people reopen and what are you taking from other experiences?
GF: We’re watching very closely. We don’t take reservations, so if we wanted to open our dining rooms, we were going to go all reservations and you get an hour and 15 minutes to eat. If you have a 7 p.m. reservation, you eat until 8:15, when you’re going to have to leave and allow us some time for cleanup and sani. That’s a big concern of mine. Are guests so happy to be out they’re sitting at a table for an extended period of time and not allowing us to turn tables? What are guests like? Are they rude? Are they wearing their masks when going to the restroom? What’s the dine-in experience like? I’ve been out once, and as badly as I want to go out, it’s not that fun.
DO: What is everyone hearing and experiencing about guest behavior?
PCR: I actually think guests have been pretty cool. We’ve only had really minute issues with guests we later found out were from out of town. Surprisingly, we still get a lot of people from out of town on the weekends. I don’t know who these people are who are traveling. Occasionally, people get up to go to the bathroom and they forget their mask, but no one’s been an asshole about that.
GF: I know before the mask mandate that most owners I talked to were struggling with people not adhering to the rules. Now that there’s a mandate, I think that behavior may change.
PCR: And people are tipping well. I heard they were but they’re tipping even better than I thought they would be.
GF: Us too.
DO: Who do you think is doing a great job reopening right now?
Everybody who reopened did it well! We need to have courage to open a business—or reopen a business, even though it’s almost exactly the same now. So applause to everyone who reopened a business.
GF: I haven’t been out enough to know.
LC: I want to say that everybody who reopened did it well! We need to have courage to open a business—or reopen a business, even though it’s almost exactly the same now. We need a lot of training to be prepared, to take care of our people, take care of our customers, take care of our marketing, take care of the pivot. So applause to everyone who reopened a business.
DO: Oh, absolutely. What’s the biggest takeaway for you during this process?
LC: Learning. Learning and communication. Strong communication with the team by making them feel secure, that we’re going to take care of them and they’ll be protected. I see an employee as a nurse, you know, someone who’s right there on the front lines. That was my first thing, paying attention to their needs. And always communicating hope, even when it was hard for me to see it and say it. But as an owner, I have to transmit that we will be OK, and it will pass like everything else. We are stronger than before, for sure. I feel so much stronger, have so much more knowledge.
GF: There’s so much, right? For me it has re-emphasized how fragile the economic model of restaurants are and how hard it is to make what I’d consider a good living for the risk. I layer on these restrictions that have done this [gestures down] to our sales and I see my costs going like this [gestures up] in five months and I’m trying to figure out how to make it all work while still having the appetite for the risk. Because there is a big financial risk! You can love restaurants all you want but you’re going to have to invest big-time money to do anything.
It’s also really reinforced how great the public is. [Everyone nods in agreement.] Our customers have been jaw-droppingly incredible. You know that first week or two when dining rooms were closed? We’d get calls daily from our regulars asking, “Hey, I just wanted to see how you were doing.” And my thought was that would die off, but it hasn’t. It’s transferred into support. It’s highlighted how great being a neighborhood destination can be. The public support of our business has made a huge impact on us emotionally, financially.
PCR: Giles stole a little bit of my thunder. You look at a guy like Tom Colicchio—he’s on TV, he has multiple restaurants, he has cookbooks—and I saw California Pizza Kitchen is filing for bankruptcy. How the hell does that happen? In some ways I think they’re in it just like I am, and in other ways I wonder how on earth are small, independent operators supposed to weather it if these superstars of the industry can’t make it? So the fragility of the industry, the exposing that it’s literally pennies on the dollar that go into our bank accounts…I know it, I bet everybody on this call knows it, but does the public know it? Do they care? So that’s definitely something I take away.
What I want the general public to know is to just please bear with restaurants. We are not what we were six months ago. If you actually still give a shit about supporting local restaurants, put your money where your mouth is. Order takeout, call your congresspeople, and take action because we are an endangered species right now.
LC: We create joy for the community, and you don’t see it because we are closed. How important are restaurants? You talk to a friend and it’s, “Let’s go get a coffee, let’s go get pizza, let’s go get dinner.” We are the main choice immediately when you’re going to connect with anybody. So we need to transmit that to the people, to the public, to our government, to everyone. We create joy, and we want good news!
GF: I think the situation has further exposed how much money our industry generates to fund our government in the form of sales and property taxes. That money funds a lot of public services. We really, I believe, play a much larger role in the community than the general public realizes. When there are budget surpluses things are great, but [now] we don’t get the support we need. We have restrictions that are inhibiting us from generating sales or covering costs.
PCR: The trickle-down effect of no restaurants is something people do not want to see.
DO: If capacity restrictions were lifted, would you open for dine in immediately?
GF: Not immediately. What we’re hoping for is consistency in getting test results quickly. If there’s a risk and I have to wait eight to 10 days for a test to come back…come on, man. That’s important to us, as well as an effective treatment. It’s very much about the safety first; the restrictions are second, but they’re right there.
LC: Same. I would ask for more extension in hours. Why can’t Denver be more like Rome, where you can be eating at one in the morning? Maybe I can’t open with more than 50 percent of capacity, but maybe I can serve food until midnight. And incentivize the public to do that, help with changing the mentality.
LC: Start with the rules and be like Italy, like South America, like Central America where you can be having a fantastic dinner at midnight. That would help me grow my business.
GF: I would say if [the bar seating restriction] got lifted that would move my needle in a strong way. Not thinking in terms of safety for a moment, but just being able to function properly. And yes, the restrictions are overbearing for someone as small as I am, but I may not have a choice [about reopening for dine in] here soon. I think there are things coming up that all of us have lost sight of: minimum wage and paid time off. When I’m paying a high schooler $16 an hour in 2022 to wash dishes I think my hand will be forced. I’ll need that revenue.
What’s your reopening been like? Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions) to firstname.lastname@example.org.