If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the gains and losses of the last year are much more than just the numbers on our roller-coaster-shaped P&L statements. The cost of COVID was messy, human, and raw. But emboldened by displays of heart, innovation, and stamina, the industry trudges on. Now, with light flickering at the end of the tunnel, we asked you to describe the tightrope you’ve walked, the lessons that you hope to bring forward, and how the things that haven’t killed you have made you stronger.
By Cindhura Reddy and Elliot Strathmann, owners, Spuntino
So much of this past year has felt like the ultimate test of, “Why are we doing this?” It’s a test of our commitment, a test of our discipline, a test of what and who we truly care about and the lengths we’d go to for them.
We were lucky in the months leading up to last March’s shutdown order. We had seen a seven-month stretch that was the busiest Spuntino had ever been. We were stretched thin and as overworked as ever, but were so fortunate to have everything we had hoped to build in this funny little space. We were doubly lucky to recognize it in the moment.
The timing felt almost cruel. The rug was pulled out from under us just as we were beginning to see a future where we, as owners, might not need to live in the restaurant to make it work. But we never felt victimized.
Being a restaurant that depended on a small, bustling space was about the worst thing we could be with a highly contagious, airborne disease working its way through the population. We spent weeks accepting this reality. We knew that space was gone, but we knew what we still had: our wonderful staff, our kitchen, and the drive to be a restaurant for the amazing supporters who have built this business with us over the years. We’re problem solvers at heart, and here was our biggest obstacle yet.
During a year so full of insane challenges, we are fortunate as ever for the chance to bring a little joy to this world by doing what we love—even if that looks like elaborate tents and industrial heaters in our parking lot; or delivering Easter dinners in a bright pink bunny suit; or writing silly poems on our scant social media for the few who notice; or boxing meals for health care providers who deserve that and so much more. In the face of a cruel and random world, our real job as a restaurant is to fight back with joy. Knowing we can still do this while providing for our staff and community is more than we could have hoped for and something we will always cherish.
What we’ve lost is a year. We’re thankful we didn’t lose more. We lost 365-plus days of hugs and travel and the millions of tiny little things that were taken for granted. While we still have hard months ahead of us before we can again experience these things, we know the time will come. And when it does, we know we will embrace every detail and carry our gratitude forward.
All That Light
By Lucas Price, owner, La Cocina de Luz, Telluride
March 14, 2020: I had a great day up on the mountain. At around 5 p.m., I heard the news that Telluride Ski Resort was closing all operations immediately. I had just made very large food orders as we were gearing up for the last busy weeks of the season. Like everyone, I was in complete shock; I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.
As the months rolled on, all summer festivals were cancelled and lodging was greatly restricted, but Telluride still had plenty of visitors. It was refreshing to see so many families strolling down the sidewalks with no festivals to rush off to, no lines to queue up for. There was a lot of hiking, shopping, and eating outside in the main street dining areas created by the town. This was a very different Telluride. Energetically, things shifted: More personal conversations ensued, the town felt less commerce-driven, people were kinder to one another. As we return to whatever normal will be, let us all remember that slowed pace, that renewed benevolence, and all that grace.
It’s been a year of practiced patience, a balancing act of being in compliance to protect public health while also advocating for the needs of our staff and the survival of our businesses. The target keeps moving, but we see the light.
I am learning to meditate, to quiet my mind, to be present in the moment. Moving forward, I anticipate a greater ability to stay calm in challenging moments. I hope that society will reflect on how seeking nature helped it find equilibrium during the more difficult parts of COVID. I can see that we have also come to understand how much we value the simple things in life, like going out to a restaurant, hugging freely, and simply being together without fear.
Less Is So Much More
By Jimmy Yeager, owner and proprietor, Jimmy’s, Aspen
My business and personal life are so deeply intertwined that the lessons learned and new patterns created are mainly one and the same. If I’ve taken anything away from this crisis, it’s that less is more. JOMO (joy of missing out) is the new FOMO (fear of missing out). Being busy—so often worn as a badge of honor—is a gross and overrated fabrication of an unhealthy lifestyle. This thought is not new, but the chance to make it a reality seems that way. It will be a welcome day when the pandemic is over, but going back to how things were holds no appeal.
Jimmy’s has become a smaller but healthier business. Changes that were once improbable became instantly achievable under the cover of survival. The old paradigm of chasing revenue was flushed. “More” was no longer a solution. The opportunity to redesign success resulted in a leaner and more efficient model: consolidated demand, limited expenses…doing less—a lot less. In the spring we did everything we could to ensure survival. Later, we did everything we could not to fall into the trap of reverting back. We stayed the course of less is more and for the first time in my life, “no” was not only OK, but healthy.
Five days of service per week has proven to be better than seven days. When our lives become unencumbered by capacity and travel restrictions, we will continue on this newly charted, simpler course. The changes we’ve made have greatly enhanced our ability to achieve a healthier life balance, and furthermore, to obtain a much higher level of happiness—for ourselves, for our business, and for our guests. Less is more.
By Jen Thoemke, owner, Cafe 13, Golden
Let me preface this by saying that I am not an insider. I have only been in the industry since 2018, when I purchased Cafe 13 in Golden. I bought the cafe for three reasons: 1. It neighbored my other business, Connects Workspace, a coworking space. 2. I have always dreamed of owning a coffee shop. 3. I love the idea of feeding people and making them happy. I have the utmost respect and admiration for restaurant owners and what it takes to work in this industry.
Like most, 2020 hit my businesses hard. But as I look back on the last year, I mostly feel very grateful. I live and operate in a community that genuinely cares for each other. COVID shutdowns brought the creation of BGOLDN, a nonprofit that serves our undernourished community by giving away food from local restaurants that receive a fair price (paid for by donations). Community members have purchased gift cards, bought meals for teachers and frontline workers. I have witnessed the best of the human race.
My staff, on the other hand, has seen the worst of the human race. They have been spit at, yelled at, had “heil Hitler” salutes directed at them, been laid off, been brought back to work, asked to reduce hours, and subjected to overtime hours—yet they still show up to their scheduled shifts.
I spent the year working to make sure I could keep Cafe 13 operating and ensuring my team was employed. But I failed to look at the deeper issue of their mental health. Many of my staff have families they cannot visit. Some are supposed to be in school or traveling. They are sad and lonely, and yet they show up. They show up because they care. They show up for the customers who are kind, gracious, and giving. We are now meeting with our team one-on-one and checking in on them. We are sharing resources to support them. We are listening.
While we are still in the middle of restrictions and taking a hit to the bottom line, I feel stable and resilient. I am proud of myself and my team. As I write this, Cafe 13 is closed for the second day in a row due to a water leak from frigid temperatures. In 2019, this would have rocked me. But I sit here in 2021 thinking, “This is life, and thank God for insurance.” I am a stronger person and I am grateful for my health, my team, and my community.
A River to Cross
By Edwin Zoe, owner, Zoe Ma Ma and Chimera Ramen, Boulder and Denver
As we approach the anniversary of the shutdown with so many lives and livelihoods needlessly lost and destroyed, there’s much sadness and anger ready to consume me. What has helped me through the darkness is the goodness and gratitude.
I will remember March 16, 2020 for the rest of my life. The governor had rightly shut down restaurant dining starting the next day to combat the pandemic. It was my birthday, and I had planned to spend the time with family and friends. Instead, after Zoe Ma Ma and Chimera
closed and the kids had gone to bed, I sat in the dark well into the wee hours, worried about how I was going to navigate this crisis and provide for my family.
Like so many restaurant workers living paycheck to paycheck, many local restaurants stay open payroll to payroll. Without help from others, we had a few months before we went under. Two things I’ve learned through the years are that, for prideful men like me, asking for help takes courage and accepting it takes grace.
I don’t think of myself as courageous, so one thing I did was promote gift cards to our friends and loyal customers. I reasoned it was a purchase, not a handout. The purchases poured in, even from friends I’ve not seen in years. The truth is, I knew these were more than just purchases. So, with as much grace as I can muster, thank you all for your kindness! (I get very emotional thinking about this.)
As restaurateurs know, one major expense beyond our control is rent. With no revenue, we can turn off the lights and furlough the staff, but there is nothing to stop rent from sucking us under. Getting help from our landlords was critical. Thankfully, they worked diligently with us on a path through the crisis. Thank you so much, Doug Haffnieter, Sax Family LLC, Jessica Cole, and GLL BVK Properties, for your vital support!
By and large, I share the popular sentiment that large banks are cold, heartless institutions. However, there are also caring community members working at those banks. In early January, I received a call from Lynn Baxter of Chase Bank. She called to check in on me, as she has done regularly since the crisis began, to let me know about the stimulus bill. Thank you, Lynn, for your caring professionalism!
I’ve worked on a statewide paid family and medical leave (PFML) insurance program since 2019, when I had the honor to serve on the state’s task force on this essential benefit for Colorado’s low-wage restaurant workers. Senator Faith Winter helped put PFML on the ballot and Debra Brown of Good Business Colorado (a small business organization I proudly cofounded with her) literally hit the road and drove all across our state to gather support from small business owners. The result—despite the pandemic—was that Colorado’s voters made our state the first to pass PFML by ballot! Thank you, Debra Brown and Sen. Faith Winter, for your tireless championship of this initiative.
There is a song by Jimmy Cliff called, “Many Rivers To Cross.” For me, this pandemic river has been particularly difficult to cross as my heart aches every time one of our beloved local restaurants (like Vesta, the Market, and Brasserie Ten Ten, to name a few) go under. However, we must go on, for there is no other way forward. Much love to our local restaurant community!
It Starts With Resilience
By Emillio Ortiz, president, Colorado Springs Bartenders’ Guild, and bar manager, 503 West Open Kitchen & Craft Bar, Colorado Springs
Last year was the worst year on record for our industry. The devastating toll was paid not just in financial form but also by an elusive mental loss that is difficult to quantify. Colorado Springs has seen staples close—some temporarily, and some for good. Morale has plummeted. We have become head executives of emotional adaptability, fluctuating between desperation and aspiration.
It has been important for me to take a personal inventory of what has been lost and gained during this period. Perhaps the biggest challenge during the pandemic has been maintaining my psychological balance. The proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears” have never manifested themselves more than in this last year. Putting in the physical work and hours have always been part of the game as an owner/operator. The difficulty came in discussing the uncertainty of our staff’s future with them and the distinct possibility that we might not survive. Many of our employees have never known another profession outside the hospitality business. The inability to comfort them felt like utter failure.
Having a command over day-to-day operations is one of the primary reasons many of us ventured out on our own. Losing that control was earth-shattering. In a trade that is constantly beleaguered by uncertainty, it’s especially worrisome that we have no timeline or clear financial path forward.
The things I am willing to leave behind are the conversations that don’t lead to progress or a solution. As our political environment has shown us, chaos brings to light deficiencies that may have otherwise remained out of sight. Mental health has always been an elephant-in-the-room subject, but with the advent of quarantine and drug and alcohol abuse, the stage has been set to take this topic seriously.
I take huge pride in knowing how resilient and innovative our industry is. At 503 West, we pivoted right away with to-go cocktails and managed to offer new and creative ways to imbibe. We condensed our menu and made it more cost-effective and carryout friendly. We expanded our merchandise and created cocktail-scented candles. Our industry will adapt with tech and to-go alcohol, thus making the convenience-driven market a very important driver for our growth.
Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to firstname.lastname@example.org.