Flexibility, adaptability and creativity guided several restaurant crews in Durango on Wednesday, the first day they could begin serving in-person guests.
Conditions were less than ideal if you wanted to turn a buck.
For instance: Tables had to be 6 feet apart, capacity in dining rooms was limited to 50% with a maximum of 50 patrons, parties could be no bigger than eight people, increased cleaning is required, and voluntary logs are being kept to allow customers to note the date and time they ate to aid contact tracers if that’s needed later.
San Juan Basin Public Health planned to have a restaurant self-certification document on its website by the end of the day Wednesday that restaurants will have to fill out by June 2 to keep their dining rooms open.
Despite the health requirements that have become another cost of doing business in the COVID-19 era, restaurateurs found ways to welcome guests.
“I was up at 5:30 this morning reading all the emails, seeing if there was anything new, but we’re getting like three emails a day (from the state and local health officials). It’s hard to keep up, but I decided I’m going to open,” said Lucia Thompson, the new owner of Hermosa Cafe, formerly Hermosa Coffee Roasters.
Thompson closed off her back room, spaced her tables, scheduled her frequent cleaning sessions and began greeting guests.
“People have been so happy to sit down and enjoy small talk over a coffee and a scone. We were ready to go, and our loyal customers were ready,” she said.
Hermosa Cafe’s capacity is down to 35 people from 70, but Thompson said she never got close to her capacity Wednesday morning, and for that slow start, she was grateful.
“I think, I would be pretty nervous if we were getting close to 35 people,” she said.
Thompson, who had closed for two months before reopening earlier in May for to-go only, said she purchased the business right before the COVID-19 pandemic put restrictions on her operations.
The forced closure allowed her to learn the computer system and to focus on how to emphasize locally grown products.
But she had obtained a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and that set the clock ticking for her to reopen.
This week she hired two employees to bring her payroll back to seven, the number of employees on staff when the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. Seven employees are the magic number she needs to ensure her loan will be forgiven.
“We’ll meet all the restrictions, and make it work. I don’t know what we would have done without it,” she said of her PPP assistance.
Katherine Walker, co-owner of Durango Coffee Co., said with the state’s operational health rules changing along with the situation surrounding the novel coronavirus, it is important for her to remain nimble.
“We’ll need to adjust and adapt accordingly because I’m sure the rules are going to keep changing,” she said. “But we’re really excited to have people come in again, that’s the whole point of a coffeehouse, to come in and experience community together.”
Marcos Wisner, co-owner of the 11th Street Station, also received a PPP loan, and was up to 12 employees Wednesday as he began seating guests at his mostly outdoor facility.
Staff numbers are about half of normal for this time of year, and Wisner is eager to see business improve so he can bring on more employees to ensure his PPP loan will be forgiven.
“It’s pretty hard to go for forgiveness when the clock starts ticking as soon as you get the money but the government tells you that you can’t open,” he said.
Operating an outdoor business, Wisner would like to see the best summer possible given the situation with the virus. Summer is when sales must be strong enough to carry 11th Street Station through slow winters. But Wisner is unsure what the season will bring with people still wary of traveling.
Matt Arias, owner of Gazpacho, is pessimistic summer will be anywhere near normal for Durango.
He estimates 25% of normal summer sales given the reluctance of people to travel.
He noted even the Colorado Tourism Office is asking travelers to keep Colorado in mind for visits when it’s safer to travel later on.
“Even when the messaging gets out that it’s safe to travel, it’s going to take some time to sink in,” he said.
Operations at Gazpacho, like those at 11th Street Station, where table runners now bring customers food to assigned seats, have been modified to limit contacts – both with people and surfaces, such as menus.
At Gazpacho, orders are now taken upon arrival. The process eliminates the need for a disposable menu, a requirement for reopening.
“We normally had five or six contact points before you got your food. Now, we’re down to two people,” Arias said.
Staff numbers at Gazpacho are at 75% of normal, which is artificially high given the slow business. Given the current level of business, he said, Gazpacho would probably be at 30% of the normal staff for this time of year.
Requirements of the restaurant’s PPP loan are keeping staff numbers higher than what business would warrant, Arias said.
In Congress, discussions have begun about extending the time businesses have for bringing back their full staff from eight weeks to 16 weeks from receipt of their PPP loan. Arias said extending the time period to bring back a full staff would make PPP far more functional for restaurants, which are still dealing with required closures in some states and with increased restrictions on operations in other states like Colorado.
Still, given the options, PPP has helped Gazpacho and its employees.
“It helped us keep people on staff, and it’s allowed us to open our doors,” he said.
Brent Melville, bar manager at Fired Up Pizzeria, said restaurateurs will have to get comfortable dealing with rapidly changing situations as much remains unknown about COVID-19, and rules will change with the situation on the ground.
“We’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty, but everything around this whole thing is uncertain,” he said. “The people who are most creative will excel during this. What you’re going to need is a lot of creativity.”