Businesses pivot — and succeed — through year of pandemic

Emily Dudley showcases one of the masks at Ohana in downtown Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Emily Dudley started to panic.

It was March 24, 2020, and all nonessential retail businesses were forced to close in Routt County. As owner of Ohana, a downtown Steamboat Springs shop for apparel and home goods by Colorado artists, Dudley was forced to close her business. Her livelihood, one that she worked years to develop, was suddenly thrust into uncertainty — as it was for so many business owners because of COVID-19.

It wasn’t long before Dudley, and her co-owner husband, Luke, regrouped and shed the initial panic.

“It just became clear that we needed to transition,” she said.

Ohana would become a go-to in the Yampa Valley for facial masks. Suddenly, the three tall trees synonymous with Ohana were striped across peoples’ noses and mouths all around town.

It would be a couple months before Gov. Jared Polis implemented a statewide mask mandate — Routt County had already established one weeks earlier — so in the meantime, Dudley used the business’ closure to focus on its online presence.

“We had to do what we could in our business model to make the best of the situation,” Dudley said.

Dudley shifted her focus to e-commerce, and the business ultimately tripled its online sales during the pandemic.

Navigating through the first month or so of COVID-19, Dudley admitted she wasn’t sure how the business could continue. She was forced to lay off her staff as restrictions put a stranglehold on operations.

It was initially difficult to find masks in the county, she said, and also hard for Ohana to source them for selling. Most of Ohana’s suppliers stopped making T-shirts and switched to making masks. She did the same, found a way for it to work, and the masks quickly became a local hit. Ohana donated money from sales of the masks to the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

“We wanted to give back,” she said. “It didn’t feel right to pull a profit off masks in such a scary time.”

A loft and high ceiling provide more space to display products at the new Ohana store in downtown Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

As local businesses started to reopen in late spring 2020, Dudley heaved a slight sigh of relief. Ohana was able to bring back its staff, and the stabilization of COVID cases throughout the summer allowed for sufficient tourism to return to the area. During that time, a space became available in Breckenridge, and Dudley started working on opening a second Ohana location there.

“It was something we’ve been wanting to do for years,” Dudley said.

That location opened right around Jan. 1, 2021.

Both locations are still going strong, despite the continued restrictions and public health mandates. Ohana places a strict limit on the number of customers allowed in the store at one time, which Dudley said helps to create a safe and healthy environment.

The business also has adopted numerous procedures for staff, including the prerequisite social distancing and mask wearing, but also sanitizing products hourly, minimizing overlap with staffing hours and allowing some employees to work from home when possible. Some of those procedures will endure after the pandemic.

“Something close to normal is on the horizon,” Dudley said. “We needed to remain flexible, and we had great community support through all of it.”

On Saturday, March 14, Old Town Hot Springs announced it would be closed for two weeks effective Sunday, March 15. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

‘Herculean efforts’ by Old Town Hot Springs

In the first quarter of 2020, Stephanie Orozco and the team at Old Town Hot Springs were glued to the news as it related to the coronavirus.

In the early morning hours of March 13, 2020, before there was any call to action from government officials, management at Old Town Hot Springs met and decided to close the local nonprofit recreational facility. Hours later, schools would be shuttered and not long after Steamboat Resort closed down operations.

“At that point in time, although we had amped up all of our cleaning protocols and procedures that we would normally do during flu season, there were no policies or procedures in place, and we wanted to ensure safety,” said Orozco, executive director of Old Town Hot Springs.

The initial closure was meant to last two weeks, but it continued until June 5.

“We had never closed before,” said Vanessa Cory, director of communications and marketing for Old Town Hot Springs. “We’re open every day except two days a year (Christmas and Thanksgiving).”

But the time wasn’t wasted. Old Town Hot Springs hired a consultant and worked to create new policy and procedures for every facet of the business, from its pools to its climbing wall to child care. The consultant, Roberta Smith, would go on to become Routt County’s director of public health.

“She essentially helped us to establish a way to operate,” Orozco said. “There was an enormous component for employee health and safety, and she established all cleaning procedures that were to be taking place.”

Despite being given only 24 hours notice before being allowed to reopen in June, Old Town Hot Springs was ready.

“What we knew based on the number of people we support in the community with this organization, we needed to be prepared,” she said. “What we set up was in complete alignment with the state’s protocols at the time.”

Orozco said the first day of reopening was emotional.

“There was a line out the door,” she said. “We unlocked the doors — members were cheering. People were so grateful that we were opening. I will never forget that morning.”

Since then, Old Town Hot Springs has consistently stayed the course.

“We did a lot of restructuring on how we managed certain situations,” Orozco said. “The team here is what made us successful during that time frame.”

Sam Groeschel works out in the fitness area at Old Town Hot Springs. The downtown pool and fitness center made a number of changes to protect the safety and health of members and employees including heightened cleaning and disinfection measures, clearly marked traffic flow patterns and a limit on the number of people admitted to an area at any given time. (Photo by John F. Russell)

The organization’s 131 employees were resilient, Orozco said, and adapted quickly to change and eventually the change fatigue.

“That’s a testament to this organization and the people that work here from the top to the bottom,” she said. “It took Herculean efforts to do what we did.”

Old Town Hot Springs has been known as a community gathering place for over 100 years, but due to the pandemic it’s role has shifted.

“There are certain things you just don’t see here,” she said.

Normally an active spot for greetings and conversations, the main lobby is now a “fly-through” zone, and there are plastic barriers everywhere. Still, Old Town Hot Springs is continuing its health and wellness mission.

“The other day there was a member that hadn’t been out of her home in a year, and this was the first place she was coming,” Orozco said. “She was so excited. She had brought her daughter in, and we were renewing her membership. She had all her (vaccine) shots, and this was the place she was coming.”

Diego Effinger, wearing a mask and gloves, serves up takeout at Johnny B. Good’s Diner in downtown Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Focus stays on local restaurants

As part of the state’s CAN DO campaign, Gov. Jared Polis proclaimed May 28, 2020, as Johnny B. Good’s Diner Day in Colorado.

Across the state, small businesses had turned “can’t” into “can do” during the pandemic, and Polis made it a point to honor those businesses that “found creative solutions to make ends meet” while ensuring safety.

Johnny B. Good’s in downtown Steamboat was one of those businesses.

“When ski resorts were closed, they knew restaurants would take a hit,” Polis said of the diner’s owners, Mike and Kathy Diemer.

The popular downtown eatery quickly transitioned to takeout only, utilizing its ice cream counter, but then started “going above and beyond,” as Polis said.

“I’m just in shock … this is not what I had on my agenda today,” Kathy Diemer said when she found out about the governor’s proclamation. “It was great to be recognized, especially by the governor. It’s so much fun … I mean it’s just great.”

The Diemers expanded the restaurant’s normal services to include delivery, selling groceries and other necessary goods. That was helpful especially for seniors who weren’t comfortable going into busy grocery stores, Polis said.

Johnny B. Good’s went on to fill camping coolers with food and picnic packages through the summer, without touch or interaction, and then turned to giving away food to those in need, who were unemployed or under-employed.

Kathy Deimer estimated the diner had provided about 25 meals each day since restaurants were closed to in-person dining Nov. 20, 2020, as it further impacted a struggling workforce.

“The support we’ve gotten from the community has been great. People we know as customers came in and gave money toward it, and there were people I know who really did not have the money to give, and they were giving,” Kathy Deimer said.

In an effort to keep industries afloat, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stimulus — CARES —Act on March 27, 2020. It was a $2 trillion stimulus that included the Paycheck Protection Program, which authorized up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses to pay their employees during the pandemic.

That was the major lifeline offered to businesses in the early days of the pandemic. For some it wasn’t enough, especially as the pandemic stretched into the winter, when outdoor dining wasn’t really an option.

Restaurant owner Phil Armstong thought that yurts were a great idea before COVID-19, then added then out of necessity during the winter months of the pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

Phil Armstrong had another idea. He was among the first in Steamboat to add structures for people to eat outdoors, while keeping socially distanced and warm.

That was after Armstrong and his Destination Hospitality, which owns Aurum Steamboat, Table 79 and The Periodic Table in Steamboat, as well as Aurum Breckenridge, made the pivot to strictly takeout orders.

“It didn’t make money, but I think it kept us fresh in people’s minds,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong then established his outdoor seating for the winter to include 12-foot circular yurts with a glass dome at the top and infrared lights and heaters. He called it a “dining experience,” one that also happened to be COVID-friendly.

While the idea helped with many of the issues brought on by COVID-19, he was considering adding the yurts before the pandemic. He first saw them the previous year at a hotel in Aspen.

“We just really focused on doing what we do,” he said. “We just tried to focus on being a great restaurant, and that seems to have worked.”

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