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A year into pandemic, restaurants in Pine River Valley feel ‘optimistic’

Owners anticipate good year ahead after surviving COVID-19
Ashleigh Tarkington, co-owner of the Billy Goat Saloon in Gem Village, said Wednesday that she took advantage of the COVID-19 shutdown to replace windows and do some remodeling at the bar.

Ashleigh Tarkington, co-owner of Billy Goat Saloon in Gem Village, said her personal savings took a hit as the bar adapted to COVID-19 restrictions – but a year into the pandemic, she viewed the past challenges as learning opportunities.

Kristy Davis said closing KD’s Alley Caffe in Ignacio, which she owns with her husband, was extremely difficult. But she’s optimistic about the year ahead for KD’s altered form: a food truck, called KD’s Back Country BBQ.

Long-standing restaurants and bars in eastern La Plata County are looking back on the first year of the pandemic as a mixed bag of hard times and silver linings.

The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on restaurants and bars, both of which were identified as places where the coronavirus could spread more easily. Restaurants faced closures and increased restrictions, while bars in most Colorado counties remain closed for service.

But in the Pine River Valley, which stretches from Vallecito to Ignacio, most restaurants weathered the economic impacts. But not all of them – the 13-year-old Pura Vida Cafe in Vallecito closed for good, citing the pandemic as the nail in the coffin.

“We’re not going anywhere. My savings account took a hit, but I’m very optimistic,” Tarkington said.

“If our county and our state will keep us open, we have a great year ahead of us,” Davis said.

Other restaurants in La Plata County were less fortunate. Durango lost five restaurants, and the Subway on U.S. Highway 160 closed.

Ashleigh Tarkington, co-owner of the Billy Goat Saloon in Gem Village, said community support helped the Billy Goat stay afloat during the pandemic.

Some business owners expressed frustration about the health restrictions and concern for the future of their businesses. Some protested or periodically operated in violation of health orders.

Currently, La Plata County meets criteria for Level Yellow on the state’s COVID-19 dial. That means bars are closed, unless they include operating restaurants, and restaurants can operate at 50% capacity.

As of March 24, the state changed its dial to allow bars to open (with limited capacity) under Level Green and Level Blue, the least restrictive of the six-level system.

The Durango Herald reached out to six long-standing community restaurants in the Pine River Valley, but four could not be reached or declined to comment Wednesday.

Looking ahead, the owners of the Billy Goat and KD’s Back Country BBQ said they felt optimistic, mostly.

Keeping the Goat open

The Billy Goat Saloon has been a community hangout since 1982. The saloon’s staff members were operating seven days a week, almost every day of the year, until the statewide shutdowns in spring 2020.

“It was like going from 100 mph to zero,” Tarkington said. “Getting completely shut down ... it was so foreign to us.”

Nonprofit fundraisers and live music at the bar stopped, which meant local organizations and artists also lost income.

Bars were closed unless they included restaurants, so the Billy Goat ramped up its food service. Still, it took a 40% loss because of the pandemic. Grant funding and community support kept the Billy Goat afloat.

“I’m literally in the kitchen flipping hamburgers to be open,” Tarkington said. “It’s been exhausting. It’s not anything I thought I’d be doing at this point in my career, but it’s what we have to do.”

The bar adapted. Tarkington and her business partner, Cindy Hemphill, upgraded the building. They set up roadside stands to sell to-go cocktails, T-shirts and Bloody Mary mix. Then they expanded their patio and added heaters.

Businesses around La Plata County adapted to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Ashleigh Tarkington had metal panels installed at the Billy Goat Saloon, which lift to provide ventilation in a partially enclosed area.

They might keep some changes. They are closed Mondays and Tuesdays, which were never busy days pre-pandemic. That could stay, Tarkington said.

They’re thinking about keeping an earlier closing time and continuing with to-go drinks. Tarkington said she is feeling hopeful about the state’s future recovery legislation.

“If you look at all the stages of grief, I’m to the point where I’m ready to move on, and I’m optimistic for the future,” Tarkington said. “It was a huge learning process. I don’t think it was all negative, I think some positive did come out of it.”

Transforming KD’s

In Ignacio, KD’s Alley Caffe opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2012, attracting employees from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe or BP and local families. Kristy and Sean Davis poured their heart, soul and retirement into it, Kristy Davis said.

When the state and Southern Ute tribal government issued stay-at-home orders in spring 2020, KD’s lost its primary clientele, Southern Ute employees. The tribe did not officially lift its stay-at-home order until this week.

By June, they decided to walk away and close the brick-and-mortar restaurant.

“It was a really tough thing,” Davis said. “We had a lot of family and friends helping us with our living expenses to pull us through that time, which was huge.”

Customers line up outside KD’s Back Country BBQ. Kristy Davis, co-owner of KD’s, said launching the food truck helped the business adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.

The same month, they launched the new form of their business, a food truck called KD’s Back Country BBQ.

It was a 90-day stretch without a day off as they made the transition – and a blessing in disguise, Davis said.

“Now, we look at our food trailer, and it’s like ‘wow,’” Davis said. “We are so much better off in our food trailer.”

Looking ahead, she just hopes the state does not close service for restaurants again. When in-person dining was halted in La Plata County in November, KD’s saw its business drop by 50% to 60%, even as a food truck, Davis said.

KD’s offers food service at Family Dollar in Bayfield, the Billy Goat and Forest Lakes subdivision. The owners will soon start up at the Fox Fire Farms Winery, Animas Surgical Hospital and will cater multiple large events this summer.

“We felt like we were blessed to be able to move on in the food trailer,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of great opportunities ahead of us.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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