Aspen restaurants thinking outside box to survive winter season
Reservation deposits, minimum spending requirements in place at some local eateries
Empty chairs at empty tables won’t bode well for Aspen restaurants this winter after a challenging year of closures, tight capacity restrictions and strict COVID-19 protocols.
It doesn’t help that Aspen has something of a “cancel culture,” said Candice Olson, who owns Local Coffee House, Here House and the new Firefly at Here House restaurant. Often, Olson said, diners make reservations weeks in advance only to cancel the day of, leaving venues hustling to fill seats in time for the dinner hour.
So some local restaurateurs are getting creative this season to ensure customers keep their reservations. Nearly half a dozen eateries now require a deposit when guests make their bookings; some also implemented minimum spending requirements and others have increased their cancellation fees to brace for an uncertain season ahead.
“No one’s doing it out of greed,” Olson said. Firefly currently charges a $75 per person minimum spending requirement, submitted as a deposit at the time of the reservation. This isn’t some cash-grab from restaurants looking to find an extra source of revenue, she said. It’s a matter of necessity.
“Hopefully, it will change that culture,” Olson said. “There’s just too much history of people canceling in Aspen at every level.”
“None of these restaurants will be open in a month if you have (a high) cancellation rate,” she said.
Acquolina and Duemani, two contemporary Italian restaurants in downtown Aspen, are among those charging a deposit for each reservation. There, a $95 fee is refundable so long as the cancellation occurs more than 72 hours in advance; the deposit will apply toward diners’ checks as a minimum spending requirement.
According to Gretchen Leary, who owns the establishments with her partner Luigi Giordani, the decision to implement deposits and minimum spends at Aquolina and Duemani is largely due to capacity restrictions and the financial reality of operating a restaurant during a pandemic.
This is a limited list and rates are subject to change. Contact individual restaurants for the latest information.
7908: $75-$150 per person minimum spend, submitted at the time of reservation as a nonrefundable deposit (higher rate applies during the peak holiday period, Dec. 21-Jan. 2)
Acquolina: $95 per person minimum spend, submitted at the time of reservation as a deposit (refundable for cancellations made more than 72 hours in advance)
Duemani: $95 per person minimum spend, submitted at the time of reservation as a deposit (refundable for cancellations made more than 72 hours in advance)
Firefly at Here House: $75 per person minimum spend, submitted at the time of reservation as a nonrefundable deposit
Kenichi: $100 per person minimum spend, submitted at the time of reservation as a nonrefundable deposit (goes into effect Dec. 22)
“(Cancellations have) always been something that’s been hard on the restaurant business,” Leary said. But the COVID-19 crisis has put many restaurants in “survival mode,” she said. Cancellations during a normal year might put a dent in restaurant margins, but at 25% capacity, losing a possible seating at a table has a disproportionately high impact on a venue’s ability to keep the doors open.
“The restaurant community as a whole has been having to think outside the box on how to survive this winter,” Leary said, “We can’t afford the typical no-show cancellations that come through during the peak holiday season.”
She emphasized that the charge is aimed at “encouraging people to both support and commit” — this is an incentive for customers to keep the flame alive at the restaurants they love, not a punishment for those who have a habit of canceling last-minute.
“It’s such a sensitive time right now — I need my clients to know that they’re my number one,” Leary said.
DINING OPTIONS: Restaurant listings for Aspen, Snowmass, Basalt
She said she’s optimistic about the future, especially looking toward next summer, but in the meantime emphasized the need for “creative solutions” like these to keep restaurants going into the new year.
But other restaurants in Aspen have taken entirely the opposite approach to staying open through the challenging months to come.
At Jimmy’s, an American restaurant and bar, there’s no reservation deposit or minimum spending requirement, specifically because the restaurant wanted to offer diners the comfort of flexibility during a stressful time. (A standard fee of $50 per person for parties of five or more still applies for no-shows and cancellations within 48 hours.)
“It’s just not the way we roll. … We don’t really like charging anybody and that’s not really the goal,” said Jessica Lischka, the general manager and a business partner of the restaurant’s namesake Jimmy Yeager. “As long as we’re doing OK, then we don’t feel like we need to enact policies that will cause a lot of stress.”
While Jimmy’s has experienced some of that Aspen “cancel culture” in the past, Lischka said the restaurant is not worried about filling the tables because there’s still a high demand for dining in town and a limited supply amid 25% capacities. If one party cancels, it’s likely that another will be there to fill the space. Plus, Lischka said, diners don’t seem as likely to back out as they once were.
“Most of our diners are more conscientious than they used to be,” Lischka said. “If they have to cancel last-minute, they’re incredibly apologetic.”
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