Of all the repercussions of COVID for restaurant owners, one of the strangest has to be the abrupt transition from successful summer to shuttered winter that some operators are facing. In a state where sunny days are common (albeit unpredictable) year round, winter isn’t just a different season this year: It’s a whole new universe.
The thought of this winter has been weighing heavy on restaurateurs since May—practically moments since last winter concluded. This year, prepping for cold weather is not just a matter of packing up the patio furniture for storage. It’s a question of whether spending the resources (both financial and emotional, both of which are in short supply these days) to jury-rig some sort of open-air dining room will garner enough revenue to keep the business afloat until next spring, when things will presumably return to a semblance of normalcy.
Boulder’s Salt made the call last week to shutter completely for the winter, despite doing lively business this summer; it won’t be offering takeout or delivery. The restaurant occupies a corner space at Pearl and 11th streets and enjoyed the benefits of Pearl Street being set up as a communal dining room. Carol Vitale, owner and managing partner, said of summer dining, “It had a very European feel. It was really, really lovely. We were at full capacity when we had the outdoors and so many people were so excited to be able to get outside and have a nice meal, it was one of the busiest summers we’ve seen on Pearl Street.”
I want to give back to [our employees] as much as they gave to the restaurant.
Despite the banner summer, winter never left Vitale’s mind. Even with capacity technically at 50 percent, she said, Salt was closer to 25 percent due to social distancing. She also knew the toll the March shutdown had taken on her staff, which she gushes over, talking about several employees in both the front and back of house who asked if they could donate their own wages to their co-workers during that time, as well as the fact that every employee returned to Salt before expanded unemployment benefits ended. “That should be honored and respected as something that’s just an incredible thing. I want to give that back to them as much as they gave to the restaurant,” she says.
Vitale asked how she could best help her employees and concluded, “It’s all people-based for us….[I’ll] take what little funds I have [and they’ll] go directly to our people instead of taking a chance and most likely losing money in the winter.” Staff will receive severance pay, and she notes, “I’ve put aside a little to help them and told them that’s available to them. We’re never going to let any of these people go homeless. Emotionally, it was very difficult because I know everyone’s family, their children, their spouses. That was the hardest thing, the people aspect of it.”
The decision to close Salt was made well before Governor Polis announced the new Level Purple and Boulder County moved to Level Red, which means the end of indoor dining until COVID cases drop. “The first time this happened,” says Vitale, “we had a freezer and a walk-in full of food. The first time we found ways to donate it but I wanted to make the decision [now] so the guys could find other jobs. We made that decision before the numbers started to go up; now that they’re going up, I really think it was the right decision. We’d rather be prepared.”
Vitale hopes to reopen in March, but acknowledges she doesn’t have any idea what will happen in the coming months. “You wonder what is going to happen next, but if we’ve learned anything it’s that we really don’t know what’s going to happen. So you have to make the best decisions you can….Then you just have to trust that and go with it.”
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