Orders from governments, not customers, rock Aspen-area restaurants
This is the first of a two-part series on the challenges Aspen’s dining business confronts during the coronavirus pandemic. The second part will run Tuesday in The Aspen Times.
The owners and management at Bear Den Aspen anticipated ample challenges when they opened the downtown cafe in the middle of February, but nothing like the global pandemic that has battered the restaurant industry.
Five weeks into the opening of the bakery and cafe at the corner of Hopkins Avenue and Monarch Street, public health orders delivered by the state and Pitkin County — where Aspen is the county seat — came raining down as businesses tried to absorb what was happening.
For restaurants and bars, which were already reeling from the pandemic’s disruption to business, the saga became unprecedented when Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, on March 16, ordered they could not allow dine-in or sit-in customers; takeout or delivery were their sole options to stay open.
“I was working 54-hour weeks and I was reduced to 18,” said David Smallwood, one three managers at Bear Den. “And my pay was cut in half.”
Bear Den has yet to close down since it opened Feb. 6, and Smallwood said business is ticking upward.
“It actually gets a little busier every weekend,” he said. “We’re doing well enough to get most of our staff back.”
Smallwood said it made sense to keep Bear Den open because it was one of Aspen’s newest businesses — better to cling to some momentum than surrender it, they reasoned.
“We had to at least try, … we didn’t know if it was going to work,” he said, “but because of support of the locals we were able to keep on the lights.”
To stay open or reopen, businesses must complete what’s called a COVID-19 Business Safety Plan Checklist and file it with the county. The plan includes written assurances from businesses that its employees will practice good hygiene and social distancing, while they also will wear face coverings and commit to other safe health practices to stop the spread of the virus.
Polis said Friday that health data continues to drive what the state will do concerning restaurants and bars reopening, noting in his update that “restaurants need, you know, five to six days to open, a week to open. But we would love to be able to be in a health situation that will allow them to open before Memorial Day weekend.”
The Pitkin County Board of Health last week also said it will seek a variance to the 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 health board would need approval from both Pitkin County commissioners and Aspen Valley Hospital’s board of directors to seek an exception from the state.
The variance process to accelerate the date is “by no means guaranteed,” said Jordana Sabella, the county’s planning, prevention and partnerships manager, during a Pitkin County health board update Friday.
“It has to be approved by those different boards (the BOCC and AVH) and it has to be approved by the state,” she said.
INDUSTRY’S MARCH WOES
Restaurant owners and operators have said something must be done — even if it happens during one of the sleepiest times of the year — to spark the service industry, especially in a tourism-dependent town that currently has a relatively low COVID-19 infection rate, according to health officials. (As of Friday, there have been 54 confirmed cases and two deaths in Pitkin County, according to state data.)
Aspen was considered a “hot spot” for the virus by the third week of March, a month that has been good to bars and restaurants in recent history. In March 2019, the industry generated $16.7 million in revenue, its second-most lucrative month of the year behind the $17.9 million produced in July, according to city sales tax records.
But March 2020 was a bust in the wake of the pandemic’s health orders. The city has yet to release its sales tax figures for March because businesses have been an extra 30 days to remit tax payments. A financial forecast by the city’s Finance Department, however, predicted an 80% decline for restaurants and bars in March, 50% in April and May, 70% in June, 50% in July and 30% in August.
A snapshot of Colorado’s restaurant industry for part of April led the National Restaurant Association to conclude that 173,000 of Colorado’s restaurant and bar employees were either laid off or furloughed since the coronavirus outbreak in March.
The surveys, conducted by the Colorado Restaurant Association and National Restaurant Association, also found that:
• 91% of Colorado restaurant operators laid off or furloughed employees since March, and another 21% anticipate laying off or furloughing more employees in the next 30 days;
• 98% of Colorado restaurant operators said their total dollar sales volume during the period from April 1 to 10 was lower than it was during the same period in 2019;
• 53% of Colorado operators said they temporarily closed their restaurant since March;
• 2% said they had permanently closed their restaurant since March.
For the owners of another corner cafe in downtown Aspen, this one a mainstay for more than three decades, the level of uncertainty was the main reason they shut down before the public orders came down.
“We didn’t know what the right thing was to do, let alone about the money,” said Mark Patterson, co-owner of Paradise Bakery at Cooper Street and Galena Avenue. “But it has been a good time to learn about things and all of the different precautions we need to take.”
The bakery, which is normally open year-round, reopened last week. Health care mantras such as regularly washing hands, wearing a mask in public and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from someone else are now routine, Patterson said.
Paradise didn’t apply for rent relief from the city, which set up a $1 million fund to help businesses pay their rent. The arrangement has the city, tenant and landlord paying one-third of the monthly rent for as many as three months during the April-to-July period.
It did, however, get some help through the Paycheck Protection Program, which is part of the $349 billion CARES Act relief package.
Patterson, however, said that because Paradise applied immediately for PPP relief, it received the money while it was closed. The PPP program only forgives the loans if the recipient spends 75% of the money on paying employees within the first eight weeks or receiving the funds.
That’s what Paradise did and is doing, Patterson said.
“There’s incentive to spend it,” he said.
As disastrous as March was — and there’s really no downplaying its toll on restaurants, if you ask locals in the business — April seemed to be better, said Tom Engelman, who runs a food-delivery service.
“We all lost a lot of money in March, but April was on par with Aprils past,” he said. “We did pretty well compared to other Aprils.”
The à la Car delivery service has about 35 participating restaurants, and visitors and second-home owners are its customer base, he said. Aspen has been primarily a locals town, Engelman noted, as Americans more or less have been stationed at home because of sheltering orders. It’s also offseason, and all of Colorado ski areas have been closed since March 15 under a governor’s order.
“At this time of the year there are only locals, but we are having a lot of repeat customers who are long-term customers,” Engelman said.
Grateful Deli owner Glenn Wood has kept the Main Street restaurant open since the health orders came down; his business wasn’t as affected because the dine-in seating he had available was just a couple of tables outside.
“Sales are down,” he said, “but we were able to keep people working.”
With construction activity resuming in late March, Grateful Deli enjoyed an increase in business, he said. Wood said there was no need to apply for the city’s loan relief program because his landlord has been accommodating and flexible. The deli also has prepared meals once or twice a week for the local incident management team for the coronavirus.
“Sales have been down but when you think about it, ski season would have just ended (by mid April) and this is kind of where we are at this point anyway,” he said. “It has certainly been an interesting process.”