WineInk: Bobby Stuckey and “Saving the Restaurant”
Stream it on SOMMTV
I spent a virtual year in an hour with Bobby Stuckey this past week and it was as hard as it was rewarding.
At 8 a.m on March 17, 2020 – exactly two years ago this week – Gov. Jared Polis ordered the closure of dine-in services at restaurants and bars throughout the state as part of the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. “Saving the Restaurant” is a newly released film streaming on SOMMTV that follows Stuckey, founder and an owner of Boulder’s Frasca Food and Wine, Denver’s Tavernetta and the casual Pizzeria Locale locations, from the time the pandemic first shuttered his and Colorado’s restaurants.
As I sat and watched “Saving the Restaurant” on my laptop, I felt both the darkness of that spring and the sense of hope that we are finally moving towards a brighter day.
At least in terms of COVID.
For 64 minutes, the film – meticulously directed by Andrew Ackerman and produced by SOMM TV’s Nadine Nettmann and Jason Wise – chronicles the challenges faced by Stuckey as he juggles not only keeping his own businesses afloat, but his new role as a founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) which was formed in March 2020 to lobby for the industry’s hospitality workers.
It is a wrenching experience to watch Stuckey, a genuinely caring guy, cope with keeping his staff while making sense of the changing economic landscape and attempting to educate Colorado’s governor and congressional representatives about the importance of family restaurants.
It seems strange, two years on – now that we have vaccinations and are dropping mask mandates and getting back to what feels, for the first time, a bit like things were in the “before days” – to watch a film that revisits a place and time when despair and confusion was so palpable. But “Saving the Restaurant” is an important snapshot of this difficult moment in our history, and it will live long as a lesson in how to persevere through troubled times.
To use a baseball expression, Bobby Stuckey is a “five-tool” wine guy. He makes it, sells it, serves it, teaches it and advocates for it.
I first met Stuckey a little over 25 years ago when he came to Aspen from his native Arizona to work at the Little Nell hotel as a sommelier.
With his chiseled jaw, penchant for distance running and captivating personality, he cut a charismatic figure on the floor. But it was his passion for wine that was his most defining trait. He was only at the Nell for five years, but he left a blueprint for those who followed, pairing wine knowledge with hospitality as the foundations of service.
To this day he returns to the Valley each year to run the trails, share wine with friends and give seminars at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. But in 2000 he traded the Nell for Napa and a stint with Thomas Keller (who makes a cameo appearance in “Saving the Restaurant”) at the French Laundry, where he met Chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson. The pair opened Frasca in 2004, the same year Stuckey passed his Master Sommelier exam. The next 15 years saw Frasca, a concept celebrating the foods and wines of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of Northern Italy, flourish. A darling of the food and wine cognoscenti and media, the restaurant spawned a wine label – Scarpetta Wine Company – and a number of other restaurants. Things were good.
Until they weren’t.
“Saving the Restaurant” begins in that grim spring of 2020 as Stuckey walks through an empty Frasca. Taking a seat in front of his laptop, he lets out a heavy sigh and launches a Zoom call, just like the rest of us did. Only his was with U.S. Rep Jason Crowe of Centennial. Stuckey was attempting to encourage Congress to sponsor a bill to assist the 500,000 independent restaurants in the U.S. and the 11 million people they employ. It is obvious that this was the beginning of an uphill battle.
Right around that time, in April 2020, this column told the story of how Stuckey was searching for ways to financially survive the shutdown by doing Zoom tastings and by selling wines to raise funds to support furloughed employees. It also touched on his initial involvement in founding the IRC to lobby the Federal government with a group of high-profile independent restaurant operators.
“Saving the Restaurant” tells what happened in the weeks and months that followed.
Wine has always been a tough thing to convey on the big screen because it is something that needs to be experienced. The key is to come up with compelling stories that revolve around wine and feature interesting personalities who viewers can actually care about. And a film about the pandemic is an even harder ask for an audience. But to their credit, the SOMM TV team took the difficult and important path of making “Saving the Restaurant” about an event that affected us all and made it a personal story. They had the skills, and the right persona in Stuckey, to use little details of everyday life to tell relatable story.
Stuckey and his wife, Danette, are seen in private moments in their kitchen as she offers her husband peanut butter as needed sustenance. Stuckey is followed by the cameras as he gets his haircut in the backyard while masked. His daily runs get him away from the pressures and are breaks in these relentless days. He greets friends and customers in their cars with bags of food and bottles of wine, once take-out becomes a thing. All of this is punctuated by exclamations of Stuckey’s enthusiasm: “Hospitality is all about the other person, not your-fricken-self” he tells his staff as they gather for a meeting. At another point he exhorts: “I’ll take all the service I can get.”
Whether we are in the industry or not, everyone goes to restaurants. The filmmakers deserve kudos for their own perseverance in completing the film. While the film is currently only available for streaming on SOMM TV, there are plans for it to go on iTunes and Amazon in the coming months. But it deserves a watch now. Especially in this anniversary week.
For Frasca Food and Wine, things are looking up. After successfully reopening during the pandemic Frasaca closed for a six week remodel at the end of 2021 only to open refreshed and filled with customers just before Valentine’s Day. But for the industry, trouble remains.
Last week the IRC released a statement following reports that Congress will not add money to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) in the newly passed $1.5 trillion budget. It estimates that during the two years of the pandemic, 90,000 restaurants have already been shuttered.
“We are beyond disappointed that this massive government funding proposal ignores the needs of 177,300 neighborhood restaurants and bars impacted by the pandemic,” IRC executive director Erika Polmar said. “I hear from business owners every day who are having to close their doors and since Congress and the White House couldn’t see their way to refill the RRF, hundreds more will face the same fate in the coming weeks.”
For those who wish to “save” independent restaurants, the task remains even as the coronavirus is currently on the wane. Go to the IRC website at saverestaurants.com for information on what you can do to help and how to contact your congressional representatives.
And go to SOMMTV.com to stream the film. It’s a sobering experience.
Scarpetta Pinot Grigio
Hard to believe that we are getting closer to the summer season when the bright, light white wines will grace our table once again. This example of the Pinot Grigio of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region that inspired and informs the Scarpetta project is a perfect way to kick off the season of the sun. Young, vibrant, and simply delicious, this wine’s minerality and acidity make it perfect accompaniment to pair with summer salads, seafood, even grilled veggies.
Or you can just sip it on its own. A treat from the north of Italy.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.