Road to Recovery: COVID-19 forces bars to find the balance between safety and social |

Road to Recovery: COVID-19 forces bars to find the balance between safety and social

Justin Keys is the owner of The Barley Tap and Tavern in downtown Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Justin Keys took over the Barley Tap and Tavern in downtown Steamboat Springs three years ago, he wanted to create something special.

“I’ve always wanted it to be a community space — a place where people could come together and hang out with friends,” Keys said.

But in the days and months since a pandemic swept across the county and threatened to shut down his business, Keys was forced to reevaluate his business model and adjust. He started offering takeout.

“We went to a takeout menu as quickly as we could,” Keys said. “Basically we were closed until they changed the laws and allowed us to do alcohol to go and that became our primary focus.”

The Barley also did some food, but Keys had no interest in venturing into the restaurant business.

“I never really wanted to run a restaurant, because that’s just a whole other ballgame,” Keys said. “Most people were interested in the beer, similar to a brewery, or craft cocktails to go, but you have to have some kind of food on the ticket.”

So Keys started offering waffles and other grab-and-go items that complemented his beer, wine and cocktail menu. He made quick adjustments in an effort to survive a situation that undermined what he really wanted to do — offer a community gathering place.

“We pivoted basically through this whole thing,” Keys said. “I’ve continually had to make changes to make the best of a bad situation without losing who we are and what we want to do.”

He said he couldn’t have done it without the customers who ordered takeout when his doors were closed, the employees who came back to work when he reopened his doors at the end of May and a community that has shown up with open wallets to support his business and others around town. He admits the bar business in Steamboat has been hit hard, but he remains optimistic about what the future holds even in uncertain times brought on by COVID-19.

“One of the biggest, like guiding, principles as far as what we do to make decisions, how we handle situations — customers or team members — or really any situation — is that above all else, it’s our job to make sure that we have a safe and comfortable environment for both our customers and my staff,” Keys said. “If you can’t provide that, then something’s wrong and you’ve got to figure it out.”

So instead of complaining and looking for ways to make a quick buck, Keys has focused on making his business as safe as possible. That means following the county’s public health guidelines, learning new ways to bartend and disinfecting instead of just cleaning.

“Ultimately, it’s making things safe, really safe, for everybody by doing the right thing by our customers and for ourselves,” Keys said. “It has come with challenges and learning curves.”

These days Keys said he has to fight the urge not to walk up to customers he hasn’t seen in awhile to give them a big hug.

“We just want to be a place where people can come in and feel comfortable,” Keys said. “If being in a comfortable, friendly environment is not what you’re looking for then we were never the bar for you in the first place.”

The Road to Recovery series is part of the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s ongoing efforts to report on how COVID-19 is impacting Steamboat Springs and Routt County. This series is supported in part by a grant from Google’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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

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