After the Flood

The pandemic is finally receding, but the landscape has changed. What comes next?

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Watercolor painting of a ship with billowing white sails moving down a blue, green and yellow river.
You fought the current in 2020. This year, the industry is still in motion.

“If you didn’t build in 2020, I don’t think you can consider yourself an entrepreneur,” says Josh Schmitz, of Denver’s Bellwether (now called Horror Bar) on Colfax Avenue as well as Hidden Gems, Drunken Bakery, and the forthcoming Ghost Coffee Saloon (all on Larimer Square). It’s a statement that’s bound to make some people suck their teeth. But Schmitz, a hard-charging huckster of energy, is fine with that. Despite the pandemic’s long shadow, he’s uncovered slivers of opportunity. The Denver native gobbled up three spaces on Larimer Square (something that would have been out of reach pre-pandemic) and, along with friend Nathan Szklarski, reimagined Bellwether, the all-in-one coffee shop, whiskey bar, and barbershop, into scary movie–themed Horror Bar. The driving force behind Schmitz’ candid outlook? “Young entrepreneurs realized that the price for entry has never been cheaper,” he says. It may be surprising to learn that data from Colorado’s Secretary of State somewhat backs up his claim: Filings for new businesses were, in fact, up 8.9 percent in 2020. (Of course, many of these new businesses were spawned from the 375,800 Coloradans who found themselves suddenly unemployed due to lockdown.)

Up in Summit County, private chef Alyssa Block certainly found herself on the receiving end of favorable circumstances. “I almost hate to say this,” she says. “But the pandemic helped me open the cart. It was a little opportunity during a dark time.” Indeed, in May 2020, Block’s friend Keegan Casey, who co-owns Frisco’s 10 Mile Music Hall, asked if she’d open her dormant food cart at the venue. Her response? Hell, yeah. She went into high gear coming up with a name (Graze & Torreys for the area’s popular twin fourteeners) and a menu (creative sandwiches), and driving to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, to pull the cart out of storage. A successful run at the music hall led to an invitation to vend at Breckenridge’s Broken Compass Brewing Company over the winter and then a shot at a brick-and-mortar location at the Pad, an eco-friendly hotel and hostel opening in Silverthorne this summer. “[The opportunity to open a restaurant] was big, it was scary, and you’re never really ready for it,” Block says. “But it was an affirmation of my path.”

Watercolor painting of deep blue, pale grey-green and deep green and orange mountains against a green field.

As audacious as Schmitz’ philosophy about growth is, there is some truth to it—dire circumstances can bring you down and seed ingenuity and evolution. At opposite ends of that enterprising spectrum are the big, make-a-move-and-open-a-place approach (like Schmitz’ and Block’s), and the quieter, more nuclear tactic of finding strength by digging deep. Both are forward motion. “Entrepreneurship is deeply personal,” says Jim Deters, a tech-savvy serial entrepreneur who recently opened Gravity Haus, a pair of boutique lifestyle hotels in Breckenridge and Vail. “There are a lot of ways to build a business.”

This is precisely where Risë (pronounced Risa) Jones, the owner of TeaLee’s Tea Co., a teahouse and bookstore in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, finds herself. Jones and her husband Louis Freeman did not qualify for the first round of PPP because they didn’t have any employees. They took the bold step to eschew takeout and instead closed the teahouse from March 17 to August 20. “Tea and coffee and pastry go out the door easily, but we had built a reputation on good service and good food,” Jones says. “I didn’t like sending our food out the door as takeout. Everyone rushed to do it but I took the time to say, ‘Mmm, it’s not that I won’t; it’s that it’s not the best representation of our food.’” Standing firm was scary—petrifying, actually—for a business that had just celebrated its second birthday when the spring shutdown took hold.

Jones and Freeman took those months to evaluate the business, to look hard at what was working, what wasn’t, and what to take forward. Part of the vision was bringing on two employees. (Sadly, Freeman passed away from a heart condition just one month after TeaLee’s reopened its doors.) Now, Jones’ customers are returning to the teahouse, but with them she senses something else: pandemic PTSD. “Everything is disrupted,” she says. “There is some sense we’re in recovery, but I’ll say we’re not post-pandemic yet. I anticipate that there’s going to be a lot more loss as people try to find this path on wherever we’re going.”

“There’s the tension: Where are you going to find the staff and how are you going to pay that higher wage?”

Risë Jones, TeaLee’s Tea Co.

As part of that loss, the industry must count employees. “A lot of the industry doesn’t want to come back,” says Jesus Silva, executive chef of the newly opened Golden Mill in Golden and Denver’s soon-to-reopen Broadway Market. “We’re training a lot of new people, young people from the bottom up.” Every operator in the state is telling the same story, but this isn’t just a Colorado phenomenon, it’s a national one. “[Anyone] who was on the edge before the pandemic,” says Paul C. Reilly, chef and co-owner of Coperta and the late Beast & Bottle in Denver, “is gone.” In April, The New York Times reported on the staffing hurdle and interviewed Camila Ramos of All Day, a beloved and award-winning coffee shop in Miami, Florida. Ramos recounts she used to require three years experience of applicants—no exceptions. Now she’s asking customers if they want a job. 

The ripple effect has brought skeleton crews and service upsets. Even as capacity has returned to 100 percent (something the industry was desperate for), some operators aren’t able to reopen (or reopen in full) because staffing has them in a stranglehold. “The issue even before the pandemic was a living wage,” says Jones. “Now, if you’re an employer and your revenue isn’t back to pre-COVID levels, you need customers. There’s the tension: Where are you going to find the staff and how are you going to pay that higher wage?”

Watercolor paining of a yellow, turquoise and deep blue ball of dandelion fluff against a white background.

The balance of running restaurants is more fraught than ever. Never an easy business to begin with, the daily ask of the industry has grown infinitely more difficult. There are the low margins (of course) and the long hours, plus supply chain disruptions, an expectant public, shifting wages, the many public health hurdles, and a labor shortage that is as bad as anyone has seen. It’s a wonder anyone gets into—or stays in—this business at all. But that’s what makes the independent restaurant sector like no other: It draws warriors. “This is a boxing match,” says Schmitz. “We’ve gotten used to being punched in the face and getting back up.” It’s this take-it-on-the-chin heartiness that serves the industry so well and will pave its way to recovery. Schmitz believes that despite corporate chains’ deep pockets, independent operators are more attuned to success; instead of just carrying out someone else’s mission statement, they are the life, the heart of a place. “Independent operators are used to being in their restaurants,” he says. “It means something to them to slap on a coat of paint, to be there, to reinvigorate that space. It’s a mindset.”

“Instead of ‘Let me see how much I can grab for the season,’ I would like to see a change so we stick together, [offer each other] more support, and look out for each other as a community. Let’s make a move. Let’s hit the restart button.”

Byron Gomez, 7908 Aspen

For Byron Gomez, executive chef of 7908 Aspen (and a contestant on Bravo’s current season of Top Chef), it’s important to see that passion bleed beyond the four walls of the restaurant. He moved to Aspen from New York City in the spring of 2019, leaving behind stints at Café Boulud, Atera, and Eleven Madison Park. Despite the town’s miniscule size, especially in relation to New York City’s, Gomez was surprised at the lack of restaurant kinship. “The sense of community [here] is very competitive,” he says, aware that as a relative newcomer his observations will rub some locals the wrong way. “Instead of ‘Let me see how much I can grab for the season,’ I would like to see a change so we stick together, [offer each other] more support, and look out for each other as a community. Let’s make a move. Let’s hit the restart button.”

The hidden gift of the pandemic is just that: rebirth, restructure, restart. When a foundation is torn down, it creates the space to rebuild. That is what Jones of TeaLee’s remains focused on. The closer she looks at her business, the more there is to fight for. “I figure every day the sun comes out I have another chance,” she says. “It’s going to take some tenacity. It’s not going to be an easy road but I’ll work on that.” The industry’s recovery has a very public face, reminds Schmitz. “The one thing that we never get back is a first impression,” he says. “[But] the shutdown gave every physical space a chance to do that—even if it was a simple remodel, a rebrand, or even a menu change.” This is the shine of opportunity.

For Block in Silverthorne, the opening of Graze & Torreys draws closer. The menu is nearly complete and, at press time, she was just beginning the hiring process. Block has a stable crew of people who want to work with her—those who have followed her career from restaurants in Summit County to her time in Denver at Ocean Prime—but she’s still concerned about finding the right team, especially in an area plagued by a transient workforce. She’s also acutely aware that she needs to hire for the food cart, which is already booked for weddings and events through the summer and into the fall. In many ways, Block is back to the beginning of the pandemic, when everything felt new and scary and thrilling. “It’s a vulnerable thing to open a restaurant. You’re putting yourself out there,” she says. But this is what entrepreneurship looks like—with great risk comes great reward. 

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

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