Restaurants brave an early spring meltdown due to COVID-19
Where were you when Aspen Skiing Co. announced it would close all Aspen Snowmass mountain operations, per emergency order by the Colorado governor amid the novel coronavirus pandemic?
I can pinpoint the moment I heard the news Saturday, midway through a strange special-event dinner at the Maroon Creek Club. Originally the mentalist show had expected more than 100 guests. But since the majority canceled, and because of Pitkin County’s prohibition on gatherings of more than 50 people, only about 30 attended. My date had scurried off to the restroom, so I sat alone at our two-top, situated at least 6 feet from the next closest tables — ominously far, it felt, in the high-ceilinged, mountain-lodge dining room.
A server placed the dessert course in front of me: A 6-inch dome of white chocolate topped with crushed pistachios, with instruction to pour the accompanying carafe of steaming dark chocolate sauce over top. I waited for my friend to return so that we might share the surprise of this showpiece bonbon together.
My excitement disintegrated in short order. “I just got the worst news!” she whisper-shouted, grimacing, as she slid back into her seat. She thrust her phone forward to show the Skico statement onscreen.
Ugh, right? After absorbing 72-plus hours of mounting panic chatter via incessant posts and pings from news alerts, group texts and social media, this breaking communication was heavy. The contagion is here, threatening to demolish our community unless drastic precautions are taken.
So I poured ganache over the white chocolate globe, which melted and collapsed inward to reveal a perfect square of flourless chocolate cake with pistachio mousse and pomegranate gel. I picked apart the mess with my fork, and stress-ate most of the plate. Everything was ruined! It only got worse.
As has happened across the U.S. since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in mid-January, the Aspen outbreak set off a chain reaction of emergency response across industries — hospitality and food and beverage, especially. Constant talk of “containment,” “community spread,” “social distancing,” “isolation” and “self-quarantine” is paired with communications about rigorous surface sanitation and hand-washing practices. Hand sanitizer pumps are ubiquitous around town — except on grocery store shelves, where toilet paper is frequently out of stock, too.
The first confirmed case of coronavirus in Pitkin County was announced Sunday, March 8, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The city of Aspen declared a state of emergency on Thursday, March 12, closing and/or severely restricting public recreation and entertainment spaces. The Wheeler Opera House and Belly Up Aspen went dark and all events in town were canceled. The Snow Lodge canceled après-ski and sent workers back East. The W Aspen announced a grab-and-go breakfast menu.
On Friday the Aspen Mountain Sundeck was packed as usual during the lunchtime rush. Saturday morning, all tables adhered to the 6-foot social distancing rule. Meanwhile in Snowmass, the outdoor patio of Elk Camp thrummed with DJ beats, clinking glasses and the stomp of ski boots. Then on Sunday none of that existed: all four mountains plus a slew of local businesses had shuttered. The patio of Ajax Tavern petered out promptly at sundown.
At dusk I stopped by a mostly empty Victoria + Co., where two hapless vacationers from New York asked, “Where can we go tomorrow, is anything open?” On Monday a chalkboard outside of Jour de Fête alerted: “Cleaning out inventory. Stock your freezers. Closing Wed.” Another definitive sign of Aspen’s emerging vibe as a literal ghost town? Free public parking! That also went into effect Monday.
Some restaurants were able to adapt with takeout, others closed voluntarily. Quite a few proclaimed they would wait for a legal order. Kenichi pulled its bar stools on Friday night. Matsuhisa Aspen didn’t open for service on Saturday; Vail and Denver locations closed, as well.
On Sunday, L’Hostaria owner Tiziano Gortan texted Mayor Torre: “Hope you can request to shutdown Aspen. We must learn from other cases as in Italy.” (24,747 cases, 1,809 deaths by Sunday, a 368-death rise in 24 hours.)
Gortan, a native of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, where his family is healthy but on nationwide lockdown, offered free delivery in collaboration with à la Car before closing Sunday. “To err is human, to persevere is diabolical,” he signed off.
When I spoke to Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop owner Wendy Mitchell on Friday, she reported an 18% dip in revenue (compared with last March) — the first negative growth month since opening five-and-a-half years ago. Eat-in operations stopped Monday, but she launched a new service in addition to takeout.
“We’ve never done delivery before … what a great time to start a new business!” Mitchell joked. She hopes these services will help to cover operating costs and keep back-of-house employees working while minimizing person-to-person exposures. “My number one concern is helping my guys pay their rent,” she says. “I’m seeing what’s happening in Los Angeles and Chicago and I’m thinking that’s gonna happen to us.”
Hours later on Monday afternoon, it did. Gov. Jared Polis banned operation of dine-in restaurants and bars for the next 30 days, though takeout, delivery and drive-throughs are permitted.
Chef Barclay Dodge had already decided to close Bosq on Sunday after dinner service, until May. “We started to see a huge decline in reservations last week,” he says. Despite suffering a stream of private buyout and dinner reservation cancelations following a strong early March, the family-run restaurant was buoyed by supporters who called in to order gift certificates for future meals. Some guests tipped generously during the final days of operation, “knowing that their servers’ money-making moments have been cut short,” writes Molly Dodge of Bosq.
“This has been very emotional as (I’m) reminded about the love that this town holds for its community in a time of great need,” she continues. “As much as it hurts our small business, we are deeply humbled by the support of our guests. (Aspen) is like nowhere else in the world and we are forever grateful that we are able to operate here. We just hope we can continue to do so!”