New challenges on the horizon for restaurants this winter
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Restaurant owners like David Eliason should be thrilled after a busy summer, but because of public health protocols put into place because of COVID-19, he is concerned headed into what he thinks will be a challenging winter.
“We are definitely doing a lot to try and survive the winter at this point,” said Eliason, who owns Backdoor Grill, O’Neil’s Tavern and Grill and How Ya Doin Pizza N Eatz. “It’s to the point of we are literally trying to survive, because at 50% capacity — my restaurants don’t make it without our patios, and we won’t make it through winter.”
Eliason said the current capacity limits, aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, are a huge hurdle as he moves into the winter.
Those restrictions mean restaurants in Routt County are currently limited to 50% of capacity, and tables must be socially distanced. In the summer, he was able to overcome those limitations by expanding his outdoor seating space. But the arrival of winter means less seating.
“We’re basically going to be asking our customers to dress warm and be prepared to wait outside until seats are available,” Eliason said. “In the long term, that is going to cost us a ton of revenue.”
Eliason said he has been working hard to line up some sort of outdoor structures that can be heated to expand his seating with the first expected to arrive this week. It will add 30 seats outside at O’Neils. He also special ordered one for Backdoor, but said it takes months to get the tents delivered.
He said the tents were not made for Steamboat’s harsh weather, and he is worried about keeping the space heated to an acceptable level. Electrical heaters, not propane, must be used to heat the tents.
In the meantime, Eliason has initiated a number of strategies to increase revenue at his three restaurants, including offering family meals with entrees for four people and two sides. He also plans on offering delivery.
But Eliason said the most helpful change would be if state health officials eased capacity restrictions to allow customers to make the choice if they feel safe enough to go out and eat.
“We’re feeling pretty comfortable with our indoor dining at this point due to the fact that, in Colorado, less than 3% of total outbreaks have happened in restaurants,” Eliason said. “We’ve done our homework. We’re comfortable with people in our restaurants, and we’re comfortable with our operations.”
That, however, seems unlikely in Colorado, where capacity in Denver restaurants will be reduced to just 25% starting Wednesday
“The biggest concern for local restaurants is the capacity limits and functioning at 50% … and it’s a fairly dire concern,” said Steamboat Springs Chamber CEO Kara Stoller.
She said some restaurants have gotten creative with outdoor space, but for others, there is no outside space to be had or they don’t have the capital to make an outdoor space possible.
“Most owners are setting themselves up as best as possible, putting in contingency plans so that they can shift quickly,” Stoller said “But it’s going to be a challenge.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis recognizes the challenges facing the restaurant industry, and in a partnership with the Colorado Restaurant Association, the Colorado Restaurant Foundation and Xcel Energy, he announced a Winter Outdoor Grant Program, which will provide funds to restaurants to winterize patio space for outdoor dining.
“We need to continue to support our restaurants, even as we work to contain the virus and reduce transmission,” Polis said in a news release. “This innovative program offers funding and inspiration to make outdoor dining plausible through the cold months. It will give restaurants means to keep their doors open, to keep their staff employed and to continue to safely serve our communities.”
The Winter Outdoor Grant Program is made possible by a seed commitment from Xcel Energy Foundation and Xcel Energy, which made a $500,000 contribution to the Colorado Restaurant Association Foundation. Grant funds can be used toward design, construction, applicable fees and supplies like tents and heaters.
“They announced it a couple weeks ago, but the applications became available today (Monday),” Stoller said. “So that’ll be up to $10,000 for restaurants who are at any stage — they could be planning, could be at the onset of planning or they could have already purchased some sort of outdoor tent and get reimbursed for it.”
Wendy Tucciarone, who owns Mountain Tap Brewery along with her husband, Rich, and business partner Jeff Goodhand, said she said most restaurants are concerned about the limited occupancy due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I understand that this is what needs to happen for us to get to the other side of the pandemic, and so we’re just trying to make the best of it and get through it,” Tucciarone said.
Mountain Tap plans to add three gondola cars to expand outside seating with each cabin seating a party of six adults comfortably. Each cabin has a blue tooth speaker and a small heater.
Phil Armstrong, who owns two Steamboat restaurants, has added four yurts to the lineup at Aurum Steamboat, which expands seating by 32.
“We are taking reservations now, and our first reservation is Nov. 23,” Armstrong said. “We started working on this in June. We just had kind of set our minds on doing it here, regardless. It just happened that COVID was very timely in that we were able to pull the trigger.”
Armstrong has made dining in the yurts a one-of-a-kind experience.
“We’re doing a five-course tasting menu, but there’s going to be lots of fun surprises built into the meal,” Armstrong said. “It will be a totally different experience than what you get in the dining room.”
Pricing for yurt dining is based on a food and beverage minimum, ranging from $500 Sunday through Thursday, $800 on the weekend and $1,000 during holidays.
No matter what approach local restaurants take this winter, Stoller said a key to every restaurant’s success will be the support of locals.
“I would encourage people to order out as much as possible, go out as much as possible and support those restaurants,” Stoller said. “Those restaurants support a lot of employees, and we want to take care of each other and take care of our friends and our neighbors and keep them employed.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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