Road to Recovery: Restaurant owner cooks up ideas in face of COVID-19, including adding yurts for diners
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The past five months have been a learning experience for Phil Armstrong and many other restaurant owners in Routt County.
“Staying open during the off-season and being there for the community was really clutch for us,” Armstrong said of switching to a takeout model after his three Steamboat Springs restaurants and one in Breckenridge were closed during the stay-at-home order that began in March. “It didn’t make money, but I think it kept us fresh in people’s minds.”
It was also a big switch for Armstrong Destination Hospitality, which owns Aurum Steamboat, Table 79 and The Periodic Table in Steamboat, as well as Aurum Breckenridge in Summit County. However, being flexible and willing to make changes is a big part of surviving the global pandemic that has dramatically impacted the leisure and hospitality business.
“There’s definitely been lessons learned during this,” Armstrong said. “I think the mountain towns in general are very blessed with people escaping urban communities. So, in general, we’re a lot better off than places like Denver.”
Armstrong said the summer has been better than he expected, but with fall approaching, he is preparing for the next big challenge — the loss of the outdoor seating. Outdoor dining has been key to drawing customers back to his establishments and improving profit margins with the current capacity limits that face restaurants.
Armstrong said he is lucky because he has large indoor spaces, and he plans to use an upstairs dining area that wasn’t always used and the bar area for added seating this winter. Aurum Steamboat also has an enclosed deck upstairs with heaters that he will use this fall.
But he is going a step further by adding four yurts to Aurum’s Steamboat location and two at Aurum Breckenridge. He said while the idea will help with many of the issues brought on by COVID-19, he was actually thinking about adding the yurts before the pandemic.
“Last winter, I was at the St. Regis Aspen Resort, and I saw these outdoor dining yurts,” Armstrong said. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s super, super cool.’ They were all decked out with nice heating, and they were very classy.”
Armstrong reached out to the hotel and eventually got in contact with the person who creates the yurts, located just outside Bend, Oregon. He was able to line up the yurts, which are expected to arrive in October.
Armstrong said the yurts will be decked out with Pendleton blankets and chairs with fur and can seat up to eight people. The yurts will be used during the winter months to add 32 seats. In the summer, they can be taken down and stored until they are needed again.
“They are 12-foot circular yurts that have a glass dome at the top and infrared light and heater, which keeps it pretty toasty in there,” Armstrong said. “It’s going be a dining experience, and it just so happens that it’ll be COVID friendly.”
To make it work, Armstrong said there will be a food and beverage minimum for the weekdays and another one for the weekends. He said a chef’s tasting menu will be offered or guests will be able to order off the menu. A light will be used to signal wait staff, so that the yurts will remain warm and guests can fully enjoy the experience.
“I was planning on doing the yurts anyway, but it became apparent that I needed to do it now,” Armstrong said. “The side yard dining that’s probably something we’ll keep in summers in the future because people really seem to like it. I mean we’ve definitely done some things differently.”
But Armstrong said all three of his restaurants have remained focused.
“We just really focused on doing what we do. We never pivoted to like the grocery model or the to-go prepared foods,” he said. “We just tried to focus on being a great restaurant, and that seems to have worked.”
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.
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