Food Matters: Aspen restaurants survive strange times with takeout and delivery
The lights are on. Tables have been polished. Stevie Wonder croons from speakers overhead. Yet on Saturday at 11 a.m., the bar and both dining rooms at Hickory House in Aspen are empty of customers.
Jimmy McDaid, today’s sole front-of-house employee, will answer the phone and pack takeout and delivery orders until lunch ends at 2:30 p.m. Business has been “steady,” he says — Hickory House is a rare restaurant in town with established distribution, and among few offering food to-go since the government-ordered coronavirus closure of dine-in eateries — but, boy, this is weird.
“On a Saturday morning a month ago, it would have been full — always full!” quips manager Mariano Celso, who arrives from shuttling food in a red-and-white logo-wrapped pickup truck. Hickory House is running on a skeleton crew, with just one cook. That will double for dinner tonight, served by two deliverymen.
“It’s getting better,” Celso continues. “We sold out of pork and beef last night. We need to do more lunch. Construction is stuck (in limbo) … and they get a lot of food for takeout.”
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As residents settle into a new reality of sheltering in place, wearing masks on supermarket runs and cooking most meals at home, local restaurants face a catch-22: Stay open with takeout or delivery in an effort to make rent and keep struggling workers employed, yet lose money anyway; or shut down for offseason weeks prematurely and forfeit revenue nevertheless.
“I’m losing $500 a day being open,” says Ryno’s owner Ryan Sweeney, who cut staff at the pizzeria by two-thirds, started delivery just days before the shutdown, and is advertising for the first time in years. “I can continue doing this in the name of taking care of the people who have taken care of me over the years—they don’t have savings to live off. (But) people are not ordering often. Everyone is terrified of spending money.”
Customers who can afford the occasional restaurant meal—and delivery often means a limited menu, order minimum and automatic service charge — help keep businesses afloat.
“We gotta support them,” urges Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, a longtime Hickory House fan. “We all gotta eat!”
Hospitality veterans, meanwhile, grapple with a service industry standstill. Aspen native Erik Strauss — a seasoned chauffeur — snatched the chance to deliver food for Ryno’s when it launched door-to-door service. His wife is currently more than six months pregnant.
“I try not to keep track of numbers, so not to stress about money,” says Strauss, who finds a silver lining in traffic-free streets. “I’m helping to spread the love, so (other people) don’t have to be running around.”
Most delivery workers earn tips only, and tippers have been generous. Concerning safety, folks seem to respect social distancing, sometimes paying via credit card and receiving food dropped on a doorstep, if requested. “I haven’t had friends try to give me a hug,” Strauss says. “Everybody seems to be observing this well, doing everything proper.”
Oliver Bacharach, a Jimmy’s server-turned-volunteer deliveryman helping out in exchange for a post-shift meal, is grateful for any work at all. He might run just a half-dozen orders in four hours (takeout and gift card sales are Jimmy’s bread and butter now). Plus he surrenders tips to Jimmy’s kitchen staff and employee relief fund. But the gig allows him to see friendly faces and stay connected to the community, with purpose.
“I love when (bartender) Kayla and I answer the phone at Jimmy’s and hear a familiar voice,” Bacharach explains. “It’s weird having an empty restaurant when (we are) so used to a packed house, but everyone (is) chipping in, and we’re grateful for the support. It’s definitely a scary time. We’re all hoping for a good summer.”
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