In Colorado mountain towns, restaurant owners surprised by record summer

Torri Donley

“Fantastic,” “crazy busy,” “packed.” These aren’t the words you would expect to hear from restaurateurs after six months of operating during a pandemic. But in Colorado’s resort and mountain towns, business owners say they were baffled by their numbers once they opened their doors in July and August. Heading into […]

“Fantastic,” “crazy busy,” “packed.” These aren’t the words you would expect to hear from restaurateurs after six months of operating during a pandemic. But in Colorado’s resort and mountain towns, business owners say they were baffled by their numbers once they opened their doors in July and August.

Heading into the holiday weekend and this last push of summer, from Aspen and Snowmass to the Vail Valley and on up to Steamboat, restaurants are capitalizing on tourism while they can, because winter will be another story altogether.

“I sincerely contemplated just writing off the summer and not opening till December,” said Scott Engelman, a restaurateur in Steamboat and incoming chairman of the board for the Colorado Restaurant Association.

After three months closed during and after the shutdown, Engelman sat down to crunch the numbers and weigh the cost of reopening his gondola-side restaurant, the Truffle Pig, at all this season. He and his partners decided to open five days a week instead of seven, with just one operating crew, and “kind of cross our fingers and hope we got some traffic,” he said.

Instead, they hit their projected summer sales within three weeks of opening.

“People were eager to get out and have the experience of going out to eat. So then, we did great,” Engelman explained. “It’s a complete 180 (degrees) from what we’re anticipating for the winter.”

Back in town, at his sports bar Carl’s Tavern, Engelman said business was also up year over year, even without the mountainside patio. The tavern would have lost more than 60% of its capacity had it not been able to expand seating onto the sidewalk, but seating was down by only 30% once the outdoor tables were added.

Sales jumped from 80% lower year over year between March and Memorial Day, back up to just 25% lower by June before reaching higher than their typical July and August. Engelman said he thinks this was due in large part to Steamboat Springs’ downtown pedestrian entertainment district, which allowed for open containers through mid-September.

Some members of the city council were concerned “it was going to become a frat party down here, and the park would be overrun,” he said of the district. But without waiting areas and bars in restaurants, the streets provided walking space for diners before and after their meals. With fewer tables available immediately, patrons could hang around outside with a beer or wine and then take away cocktails for a stroll after dinner.

“We would put a drink in their hand and let them walk around the core of downtown, and we would ping them when the table was ready,” Engelman said of a process that turned out to be crucial.

In the Vail Valley, Edwards restaurateur Chris Schmidt said business at his Craftsman sandwich shop was booming this summer as well because of a few key ingredients. Schmidt added outdoor tent seating in addition to his existing patio. He shortened the business’ operating hours slightly and closed on Mondays. And he kept up to-go service, which has turned into 60 or 70% of the restaurant’s revenue.

“Overall revenue is down a little bit, but our bottom line is up,” Schmidt said. “We actually have done better this summer (than last), which is crazy to say.” Schmidt also timed the opening of his Thai-style fried chicken shop just right over July 4 weekend at Outer Range Brewing in Frisco. While he couldn’t have known when he started planning the new concept over a year ago, fried chicken and takeaway have been big hits during the pandemic. Business at Bird Craft has been steady since it started.

RELATED: Giving diners the bird: More and more restaurants turning to fried chicken during the pandemic

Aspen and Snowmass chef Mawa McQueen had a similar story to tell about her two restaurants, The Crepe Shack and Mawa’s Kitchen. “I think this is the last push,” she said of Labor Day weekend, “but I don’t think it’s going to slow down as much as it usually does. Nobody wants to go to the big cities still, so we’ll see.”

Diners sit outside Sweet Basil in downtown Vail. (Provided by Kristin Yantis)

These resort and mountain town restaurateurs seemed to agree that a combination of city-fleeing tourists and second homeowners contributed largely to their bump in sales.

“Thank god that’s gonna save us,” McQueen said.

But the wealth wasn’t spread evenly over Colorado’s summer destinations. In Grand Junction, restaurateur Josh Niernberg says his restaurants are experiencing summer sales closer to those in Denver, which are down significantly year over year.

“By end of September, we will have seen a million dollar loss in revenue,” he said of his decade-old flagship Bin 707 Foodbar. The tourism Niernberg sees in this part of Colorado is mostly outdoor-recreation based, “which is great for our community and the economy as a whole, but not necessarily for a destination restaurant,” he explained. 

To accommodate, Niernberg has focused on keeping business up at his quick-service restaurant, Taco Party, while opening an entirely new lunch restaurant, Bin Burger, to make up for the lost daytime business at 707. All spring, he wrote a new menu every day for that restaurant to attempt to survive the shutdown with takeaway service. And he’s been able to retain 97% of his staff throughout the process.

But then came the wildfires, I-70 closing in the midst of peak season and schools reopening, signaling the end of summer. Niernberg is now “considering options” as his 10-year lease on Bin 707 Foodbar comes to an end in February.

“What Bin 707 has been since it opened in 2009, that type or style of restaurant, at the place that we are in the world, it’s just not even feasible at this point,” he said, adding, “The story of regionality through food is so little and unimportant compared to some of the larger challenges that the industry is facing.”

Those challenges deal with access to meals at a time when more and more Americans are facing food insecurity and homelessness, and the ability for workers to survive in an industry that’s always been fraught and is now failing.

“When we opened, our mission was to create longterm well-paying hospitality jobs,” Niernberg said. “Fast-forward 10 years, most of our salaried staff is working 40 hours a week and making 10-20% more than they would in Denver.” He’s already thinking about a few new projects for 2021 that would lower price points for quality food and serve a broad range of customers.

“Let’s pay well, make it easy for people to (get) good food, and sort of use that as the driver,” he added.

Photo provided by Josh Niernberg

The to-go window at Taco Party, Josh Niernberg’s quick-service restaurant in Grand Junction.

Whether they’re considering that shared future or not restaurant owners across the state are preparing for a shift as soon as Labor Day is over and the countdown begins toward ski season.

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