When the Great Divide Isn’t a Brewery

How are small, independent restaurants supposed to compete against corporations—or even larger independents?

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Overhead view of two crowds of people facing off across a horizontal gap.
The growing divide between restaurants and the rest of the retail world. / mikekiev ©123RF.com

Tony Zarlenga has been serving Brazilian food in North Denver for decades. His Cafe Brazil was an exotic oasis for Denver diners who thought Brazilian food only meant steak on skewers and didn’t know the difference between Bogotá, Brazil, or Buenos Aires. It’s since become a Denver institution; one of our writers had her first date with her now-spouse there in the midst of a bitterly cold blizzard. Zarlenga, like so many operators, is grieving and ground down after nine months of trying to run his restaurant during a pandemic. Here’s what he wrote to us:

Smiling man with white beard wearing apron standing in restaurant kitchen holding a piece of fresh fish.
Tony Zarlenga of Cafe Brazil. / Courtesy Tony Zarlenga

I watch people go in and out of the restaurant across the street all day. They are seated outside in enclosed storage containers, tents, and patios. Please explain to me the difference in health concerns between enclosed patios or storage containers in comparison to a spacious, ventilated dining room with all its doors open. Not to throw stones at any operator who is able to find a way to maintain some sort of capacity to serve their guests, but to raise the question to the powers that be: Explain how people can be seated in a dining bus with the windows slightly open and not in a more comfortable setting with six doors open.       

We have endured nine months of mandates. We will not recover the trained staff furloughed due to these mandates. We will not recover the revenue lost from the limitations imposed on operation and service. Our landlords suffer as well. All the while, for the most part the public is  conditioned to no longer eat well: to eat pre-prepared foods; to consume more junk food; to eat great food that would be hot at the table, but not so great after a half-hour drive to get home, leaving the impression that it was really not very good for the dollar spent. To dine in a very novel but uncomfortable setting is diminishing the quality of what most dine-in restaurants do. 

If they have the space for [expanded outdoor seating] and can afford that, they probably are on a different playing field than 85 percent of the city’s restaurants to begin with. 

The issue of enclosed patios is not unique to the restaurant across the street. We see this everywhere. Those that can afford the additional expense of $1,300 a month or more for an outdoor enclosure, plus logistical and equipment costs for enclosed outdoor seating, are fortunate. However, if they have the space for that and can afford that, they probably are on a different playing field than 85 percent of the city’s restaurants to begin with. 

It’s quite a different dilemma for small independents without the financial resources or space to comply with this ridiculous double standard mandate. Ridiculous because shopping malls and big-box stores, grocery stores, and the like are free from these restrictions. Why not force these venues to have curbside pick-up only, to furlough all of their staff, and limit their hours of service. Why not? How come? 

The culinary history of restaurants goes back some 2,000 years in one form or another. Restaurants are as important to the communities and public they serve as any other cultural or social entity which brings people joy and happiness. We gladly comply with the needs of public safety, but the need to comply with public safety should apply to all businesses.

Restaurants that are based not only on unique, creative, good food, but ambience, service, and a special dining experience as well are being choked out of existence. Hardworking proprietors and restaurant people are so undeserving of this. The general public is undeserving of this.

Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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