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Pandemic brings changes to restaurant scene, leading to a new normal

Server Jordan Stibitz takes an order while working at Mazzola's Italian Diner in Steamboat Springs on Thursday. The local restaurant has expanded its seating by using the sidewalk to seat customers and expand the business.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Going out to eat has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has left restaurant owners to deal with new safety protocols and has provided an uncertain future as innovative ways are being sought to keep the doors open.

But since the restriction on in-person dining was lifted in late May, confidence is slowly returning.

“In terms of people dining out, it’s been pretty good,” said Phil Armstrong, owner of Aurum Food & Wine, The Periodic Table and Table 79 in Steamboat, as well as Aurum in Breckenridge. “Generally, I would say the people that are making the conscious decision to go out to eat are not overly concerned.”

Rex Brice, who owns and operates Rex’s Family of Restaurants, has also been happy to see people coming into his restaurants.

“People are coming back out to eat, and people are happy to see that we’re open and it feels good,” said Brice, who owns Rex’s American Grill & Bar, Mazzola’s Italian Diner, Big House Burgers, Lil House County Biscuits, Salt & Lime, Laundry Kitchen & Cocktails and Creekside Café in Steamboat.

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“People are really thankful to be able to get out and get back to a little bit of normalcy,” he said.

The new normal

That normalcy includes a number of safety precautions aimed at protecting customers, employees and stopping the spread of COVID-19 as guests dine inside restaurants.

New protocols include having to disinfect and deep-clean all shared surfaces between guests, the requirement that wait staff wear masks and that a guest from the party fill out a form with contact information in case of a positive case of COVID-19 is discovered.

Other measures limit restaurants to 50% of their posted inside capacity, and tables must be spaced at least 6 feet apart in order to keep a safe distance between different parties.

Armstrong said he has seen a steady return of customers to Aurum Steamboat and also had good response at Periodic Table, which just reopened this week. Table 79 is expected to open July 2.

Seann Conway, the managing partner of Ore House at Pine Grove and Freshies, said his restaurants are trying to adjust to our town’s new normal by keeping all the tables at the Ore House at Pine Grove six feet apart and offering a limited take out menu. Freshies is also supplementing it’s dine-in serves with take-out.

“Instead of just trying to get in half of our capacity we’re just using six feet and staying strict to that to make sure that everybodies comfortable,” Conway said of the seating at the Ore House. “So rather than trying to push the occupancy load to its to its halfway limit, we’re just making sure that everything is within six feet to accommodate safety and perception for everybody.”

The spacing has come with a cost making a normal capacity night at his restaurant impossible. It also means that the restaurant is using more staff to accommodate less people. But it’s even harder to explain to his customers why they can”t come for dinner.

“Telling people that you don’t have a table for them when you’re only doing 100 dinners a night is probably the most uncomfortable and challenging conversation you have to have,” Conway said. “Especially when there appears to be seating available.”

The Moore family enjoys a conversation while having dinner seated on the sidewalk in front of Mazzola’s Italian Diner on Thursday. The family, who owns a second home in Steamboat, was dining out to celebrate Bridger Moore’s, seated at the far left, 16th birthday. His sister, Paige, seated middle left, mother Annah, seated middle right, and dad, Scott, were there to help him celebrate.
John F. Russell

Making room outside

“I know that we’re blessed with our location at Aurum Steamboat,” Armstrong said. “Having that riverfront has been really crucial. … We’re just fortunate because we have that space and the variance doesn’t say that you need to have a capacity limit outside it just states that you have to have table space.”

Armstrong is making the most of his large outside deck and is using his lawn to seat additional tables. He still faces with large losses from event business due to group size restrictions. He indicated that the limited capacity is a factor in losses.

“The number one concern that we are hearing is the current capacity limits for their indoor spaces,” said Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “If capacity limits don’t increase soon, it doesn’t look good for the industry.”

According to a survey conducted by the Restaurant Association in the first week of June, 56% of restaurants would consider closing permanently in less than three months if capacity limits don’t change. Thirty percent will consider closing permanently in less than two months at current capacity.

Brice also sees capacity as a big issue moving forward.

“I think the biggest challenge I would say is just simply the limitation on seating. We have the 6-foot distancing and only being able to have 50% of our inside seating available really creates a challenge to operate profitably,” Brice said. “We’re trying to utilize outdoor spaces as best we can with tables on sidewalks and that kind of thing.”

Brice said Creekside, which had introduced a dinner menu in January, has gone back to serving just breakfast and lunch. The Laundry is now serving dinner on the Creekside patio.

“That provides Laundry with a significant amount of outdoor seating,” Brice said of the space that overlooks Soda Creek. “In addition to that it is a really nice space for people to be able to eat.”

Sticking to takeout

Both Brice and Armstrong said their restaurants would continue to offer takeout service to help supplement their efforts with dine-in service.

“Prior to COVID-19, we had already been seeing a move to more takeout and delivery. COVID amplified this movement,” Riggs said. “We’ve seen the most success in restaurants that have robust takeout and delivery programs and have been able to pivot the menu to offer things like family meals, alcohol to go and provisions. We’ve also seen some success in offering online cooking classes.”

Conway said take-out helped keep Freshies open during the time when people were asked to stay at home and, for the first time, he began offering a take-out menu with limited items that travel well at the Ore House using an ordering app called ChowNow.

“if they’re not comfortable coming into the dining room, yet they have the opportunity to enjoy either restaurant at home,” Conway said. “At Freshies it was the difference in staying open.”

The owners said there is an atmosphere of uncertainty for restaurants and for town’s tourism-based economy heading into the usually busy summer months, and it’s more important than ever to remain flexible.

“We are more than ready to be reactive to what the restrictions will be,” Conway said. “If they open up the restrictions we have the space and the staff to expand as we go, but if they leave the restrictions where they are it will affect probably the smaller environments that don’t have the flexibility that we have. We have nearly 7,400 square feet to maneuver around and get distancing between tables and things. So we’ll be we’ll stay relevant.

Riggs said she is hearing it will take up to two years to recover from the ramifications of COVID-19. Armstrong thinks restaurant owners in resort towns like Steamboat may have a better idea of what the future holds in the next month.

“It’s really all going to depend like these next 30 days,” Armstrong said. “It’s usually like around right now when things really start to ramp back up, and so again, the next 30 days, I think are going to be very telling to what the future will hold for a lot of these businesses.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.


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