What’s it really like inside the four walls of a bar, restaurant, or food truck—or, increasingly, under the cover of a parking-lot tent—these days? Our readers know the ins and out and ups and downs of the industry intimately. This Restaurant Diaries series brings you tales from the thick of it, in hospitality folks’ own words.
friday august 21:
today marks nine weeks since we launched a brand-new restaurant.
our summerlong pop-up Cabana X, the global destination-inspired restaurant we created in hopes of saving my business, has been crushing it. july we actually did more sales here than we did at my *real* business, bar helix—the negroni bar i opened just a few doors down the street in october of 2017. i have no idea how to feel about this. proud that the fanciful, vacation vibe-fueled concept i fully envisioned inside of a week, is doing better than i ever could have imagined; or crushed that the negroni-obsessed bar i dreamt + planned + schemed to open for five (!!) years was not as successful as i’d hoped it would be, two-plus years into operations. it doesn’t matter. no matter how temporary this restaurant is, it feels like i’m working harder now than ever before. and the worst part? i’m not sure whether it’s going to matter in just a few short weeks.
saturday august 22:
we have a ton of reservations on the books for tonight, so i’m excited before i even get to work. but when i actually *get* to work at about 2:30 pm (two weeks ago, we started opening at noon for #ALLDAYVACAY, a brunch-to-dinner service designed to offset the loss of revenue we felt when the City Of Denver mandated a 10 pm curfew on alcohol sales) the restaurant is busy AF—and not in a good way. my team is small—only six front-of-house staff—and i didn’t think it made sense to try and hire additional staff to help cover the extra daytime shifts we added with only another month or so before the pop-up would be ending. so we’ve been running a little short-staffed on saturday and sunday afternoons. i’m immediately stressed—i feel guilty for the two team members who were getting crushed with guests anxious for day drinks + tot scrambles, and feel worried that the guests whose service was not as prompt as it should have been will write terrible reviews on social media. sigh. we ended up having a really smooth dinner service—and set an all-time sales record, too. i’m calling it a win.
thursday august 27:
today is the perfect example of my near-constant feeling of late—that i’m living a double life. on one hand, Cabana X is crushing it: we’re getting rave reviews, reservations are almost always fully booked on the weekends, the food and drinks are some of the best we’ve ever done. but then i keep flashing forward in time, to the day when i know this is all coming to an end. my borrowed patio will no longer be available to use and my *real* location is too small to succeed given the current 50% | 50 person capacity restrictions in place. so as i prepare for not one, but TWO media photo shoots this week, which will run in the October editions of magazines, i can’t help but wonder: will i even have a business open to reap the benefits of all that coverage? i have a knot in my stomach just thinking about it.
…so not only did we beat last week’s sales, we set another record for the week. i am exhausted. and i am elated.
saturday august 29:
another surreal moment: interviewing staff for a business i’m not sure will be open for more than another handful of weeks. my right-hand, my rockstar, my ride-or-die Director of Hospitality is moving to san diego the second week of september. and while she can never be replaced, i must find a way to cover the shifts that she works every week until we do actually close at some point. so exactly how do i explain this to a candidate? i swallow hard and keep it 100% — i say that we plan to be open until at least october 1, and that i’m not sure exactly what will happen after that. thankfully our reputation is solid and the new hire isn’t looking for anything long term—and so she accepts the offer. service tonight is INCREDIBLE. we had slightly lower numbers on the books than we’d had the previous saturday, but as the evening progressed, the reservations (not to mention, walk-ins) kept coming in. At 10:40pm, just before curfew, we check the sales: we are a little more than $100 shy of last saturday’s sales number—and we can’t believe it. We rally our two servers and throw down a challenge: can they quickly touch every table and see if they’d like just one more round? the girls are DOWN—and 10 minutes later, they both return with huge smiles plastered on their faces—THEY DID IT. so not only did we beat last week’s sales, we set another record for the week. i am exhausted. and i am elated.
sunday august 30:
we are CLOSED—thank god. I’d decided a few weeks prior that we all deserve a break, and a reward for all the hard work we’d done since launching Cabana in late june. so we’d booked a house in Breckenridge for a couple of days, to celebrate the feat we’d pulled off: imagining, building out, launching, and running a brand-new, 100% outdoor dining concept that my two longest-standing employees and i had essentially dreamt up in a matter of days. i decided to catch up on a little bit of admin work and ran the sales numbers for the month of august. when i saw them, my mouth dropped open in shock — we had done almost 60% better than the previous month, and set our monthly sales record for the YEAR—by a long shot. and oh yeah— we had a better august in the middle of a pandemic than ANY MONTH IN 2019. i’m overwhelmed with gratitude. but then my brain goes into overdrive with questions. why wasn’t bar helix this successful? should i keep Cabana X going into the winter and permanently shelve my original concept? how can i make a vacation-themed, outdoor concept work at all when the temperature drops 40 degrees and without the same sized kitchen or dining room? then i remember that i’m supposed to be on vacation with my team, having fun. so i tell everyone the good news, and keep my worries to myself. i’ll deal with that another day.
…as worried as i am about money, my exhaustion trumps everything.
monday september 7:
labor day. we are closed every monday—so the only thing that makes this feel like a holiday is the fact that it’s 97 degrees out and i’ve rented an airbnb blocks away from my own home just so i can have a pool day with friends. we’d heard rumors of a cold front coming through but when i check the weather forecast, i literally cringe: tuesday promises a SIXTY degree drop in temps, plus snow. WTAF, denver. wednesday and thursday the highs are only going to reach 50—way too cold for patio dining. there’s no way we can keep our guests warm and cozy—we have no heaters or tenting—so i make the call to remain closed on both days. a knot forms in my stomach immediately. despite having a great month of sales in august, we are nearly out of money. paying my staff $15 per hour to entice them back from unemployment means that our labor costs are crazy high, and we’ve burned through thousands of dollars on new furniture, PPE equipment, and supplies we needed to launch Cabana X. but as worried as i am about money, my exhaustion trumps everything. i feel guilty, but i’m relieved to know that i’ll finally have a couple of days just to catch my breath.
friday september 11:
coming back to work after five days away— the longest stretch since the single week we were closed back in march—feels strange. Denver is only supposed to reach 70 degrees, but there was no way my team could afford to be closed another day. i’m initially buoyed by the 50 covers i see in our reservation system. but as the evening progresses (and the air grows cooler), cancellations start trickling in. somehow it seems like we lost an hour of daylight in the past few days, too. i know that’s my imagination, but it dawns on me that the initial end date of Labor Day for the city’s patio expansions actually made sense. the feel of fall in the air is making me—and everyone else, it seems—just want to be somewhere cozy. and Cabana X simply isn’t that. fingers crossed that tomorrow is better, because it HAS to be.
saturday, september 12:
something felt different with tonight’s service. we’ve gotten lucky this summer—we actually haven’t had many guests bristle at our increased safety protocols or blink over the occasional service hiccups. today a long-time regular guest got extremely irritated when their takeout order didn’t come out on time—turns out there was a weird glitch in our online ordering system and it sent a phantom text letting them know that their order was ready, when on our end, it showed it wasn’t being picked up for another 20 minutes. then multiple customers expressed frustration at having their temperatures taken and about being asked to provide their contact information so that we could get in touch with them in case we learned of a COVID exposure. it seems like people are forgetting that THIS IS A PANDEMIC. and just because our doors are open doesn’t mean that it’s business as usual. the fact that we are literally risking our health and well-being in order to provide you with somewhere to eat and drink is a privilege—we need people to remember that.
tuesday september 15:
another tuesday means another one of the Mayor’s weekly Restaurant Subcommittee meetings. i’ve been on this committee for months, and while we are all working hard to find creative ways for restaurants and bars to survive this insanity, we’re also feeling worn out and frankly, out of ideas. This week’s talk revolved around how we’re all gonna survive the winter months, and what kinds of regulations we’ll have to navigate in order to be allowed to operate enclosed patio spaces. one of the other restaurant owners reveals that he’s done a bunch of research and discovered that there’s a *already* massive propane shortage (doh!) and that he estimates costs of around $2000 per month to heat his tent. i’m laughing—and crying—at these seemingly futile efforts to keep our doors open, apparently at exorbitant expense. as someone very wise once told me always to ask myself when making an important decision: “is the juice worth the squeeze?” in this case—for me, and bar helix—the answer is “no.”
…the Cabana X pivot was a great success, and i’m so proud of my team for how we pulled it off….but i realize i don’t have another rabbit in my hat.
thursday, september 17:
a few weeks ago i reached out to my Larimer Street neighbors to ask about their plans for the winter. without naming names, i’ll just say that one is planning to do a mix of indoor and outdoor dining, and the other admitted that they had no intention of re-opening their dining rooms and that they were going back to delivery and takeout only. this does not bode well for bar helix, as we’ve certainly benefited greatly from the crossover foot traffic we saw as guests made their way to these other food + beverage destinations. now more than ever, i’m not sure how we’re going to make it. the Cabana X pivot was a great success, and i’m so proud of my team for how we pulled it off. but as we prepare to shut down our summerlong pop-up, i realize that i don’t have another rabbit in my hat in terms of a winning idea to try and save my business. and all i want right now is a vacation, a real one this time. so until that happens, maybe the best thing i can do is pause—and let the next move i make reveal itself to me in due time.