An uncertain summer awaits Aspen restaurants; tough decision could come by the fall
taking ordersThis is the second of a two-part series on the challenges Aspen’s dining business confronts during the coronavirus pandemic. The first installment on how establishments are navigating the difficulties of local and state public health orders on the is available at aspentimes.com/coronavirus.
Home Team BBQ and Cache Cache are popular Aspen gathering spots with the same co-owner, so the restaurants have a few things in common.
For some of March, all of April and now into May, they also have been initiated by fire into Aspen’s fraternity of restaurants and bars now staring at a summer tourism season that will see limited seating at best, while there will be no marquee events such as the Food & Wine Classic, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and classical and popular/jazz music festivals, including the JAS Labor Day Experience.
Cache Cache, a fine-dining restaurant with a lively social scene, had to close ahead of its previously scheduled offseason break starting April 11. Home Team, a locals-friendly establishment that normally stays open year-round, also temporarily shut its doors after a brief stint doing to-go orders after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis shut down in-person dining March 16.
Without offering the complete dining experience for patrons — enjoying the atmosphere and social scene, as well as the food and drink — the restaurants simply cannot live up to their potential if the public health orders extend into the summer, said Chris Lanter, an Aspen chef who co-owns each restaurant.
“The problem is we thrive on being social businesses and packing them in,” he said. “They’ve both created this vibration and atmosphere and ambiance.”
While Cache Cache remains closed like it has been in previous Mays, Home Team resumed take-out service May 1, “just to get some time behind us and just to see what happens,” Lanter said.
The first weekend of business was solid, Lanter said, and it was nice to see old customers — even if just for take-out.
“Even though we’re all wearing masks, it’s good to see all of our friends,” Lanter said. “It’s starting to feel different.”
Lanter was speaking Thursday morning, hours before the Pitkin County Board of Health declared its intent to seek a variance to a state health order by allowing restaurants to open a maximum customer capacity of 30% on May 20, one week ahead of the May 27 date on the state’s schedule.
The board still needs approval from the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners and Aspen Valley Hospital’s board of directors to seek state approval of an early opening.
“I think it’s important for restaurants to watch the safety of their employees and customers, but I also think it’s important for us to find a balance with keeping the ball rolling a little bit, from an economic standpoint,” said Rob Ittner, a former Pitkin County commissioner and Aspen restaurateur. Ittner has been sitting in Aspen Chamber Resort Association board meetings and health board meetings in a business consultant role.
Expanded yet restricted outdoor dining in downtown Aspen, social-distancing requirements and limited indoor seating are just a few ways eating out will not be the same as the pre-pandemic days.
“Everything is so new,” Lanter said of the possibilities.
Restaurants, like all industries, are grappling with multiple challenges ranging from the financially daunting to keeping their employees healthy and not infecting customers.
A poll conducted by Washington Post-University of Maryland showed the majority of the public is not ready to dine out.
To one question — “During the coronavirus outbreak, most states have restricted the types of businesses that can operate. In your opinion, should your state allow (dine-in restaurants) to be open now, or not?” — 74% of the respondents said yes, and the remaining 26% responded no.
Another 78% of the poll’s respondents said they would feel “uncomfortable” eating out, while the remaining 22% said they would feel “comfortable.”
Ittner said he expects the summer to tell the tale. There will be more layoffs and cuts, he predicted, with owners taking on more work if there isn’t a major turnaround in public health orders.
“You will see restaurants where the owner is directly involved if they maintain their operation,” Ittner said. “The owner can work harder and reduce costs. … If I still owned Rustique and if I had to unfortunately cut half the management and staff, then I would and do the work myself and work 80 hours a week. I’ve got the most to lose.”
A financial forecast by the city’s Finance Department also sees an 50% decline in business for restaurants and bars in May, 70% in June, 50% in July, and 30% in August.
Numerous Aspen businesses have capitalized on the Paycheck Protection Program, but that money will go only so far, cautioned Jimmy Yeager, the owner of Jimmy’s: An American Restaurant & Bar, and his business partner, Jessica Lischka, in an opinion piece published May 6 in The Aspen Times.
“We need at least two weeks to work through the seemingly impossible task of creating a viable business with 50% occupancy,” they wrote. “We need runway length to gear up, work on systems in real time and implement strategies. We need to know that we can survive on a reduced occupancy in the event that restrictions do not loosen.”
At a recent ACRA meeting, Ittner said restaurant owners should be exploring all business options, which could include declaring bankruptcy.
Public pressure also is mounting for landlords to adjust their rents in a time of crisis; some already have.
“There will likely be a point for every independent restaurant in this community,” Ittner said, “probably September or October, where they are going to be forced to make a decision, and that decision is: Do I put $100,000 into my business to keep going or do I walk away from the investment I’ve already sunk in?”
Lanter said he tries to stay upbeat and focused though there’s no sugarcoating the challenges ahead.
“If we’re all working together as one community,” he said, “we will survive this ordeal.”
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