Local restaurants, which have already taken a major hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, will face a daunting task this winter, having to financially stay afloat amid restrictions on seating capacity and the removal of outdoor seating.
“It’s going to rear its ugly head, really quickly,” said Rustin Newton, owner of Mutu’s Italian Kitchen.
Recently, the Colorado Restaurant Association reported that statewide, an estimated 65% of restaurants could close within the next six months under current conditions and if no aid is received.
“That’s a very real statistic,” said David Woodruff, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association’s Durango chapter. “There’s a lot of trepidation as we enter into the fall and winter, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Efforts are afoot, however, both at the state and local levels to help ailing restaurants.
Gov. Jared Polis, for instance, created a working group to look at innovative ways for eateries to operate in winter months, and Woodruff said partnerships have formed here in Durango to get creative in these difficult times.
Still, it’s not going to be easy, Woodruff said, and there looms a huge risk Durango could lose some of its most-treasured haunts, which are a significant part of the local economy.
“Hopefully, we can do everything we can in Durango to prevent as many restaurants from shutting down as possible,” Woodruff said.
Restaurants were among the first businesses to be seriously impacted as the pandemic broke out, after Polis ordered eateries to stop indoor service March 16, though they were still allowed to offer take-out.
After more than two months, restaurants were allowed to open for dine-in service in late May, but with a number of restrictions and guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19.
The new guidelines, invariably, affected profits: Restaurants were limited to 50% of customer capacity and not to exceed 50 people, groups were limited to a maximum of eight people and tables were required to be spaced 6 feet apart.
Barbara Martinez, who has owned Kachina Kitchen for 24 years of its 38 years in operation, reopened June 3. But the restaurant’s seating capacity was effectively cut more than half, from 75 people to 30 people.
“We have booths,” Martinez said. “So we can’t move tables around and do what a lot of other places do.”
Despite being allowed to reopen, several restaurants closed permanently, at least in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as Eno Cocktail Lounge and Wine Bar, the Palace Restaurant and the Irish Embassy Pub.
To the surprise of most restaurant owners, this summer was busy in Durango, as tourists vacationed in the area on road trips, escaping cities and avoiding air travel amid the pandemic.
“We weren’t sure people were going to travel,” Newton said. “That ended up being better than we expected.”
One saving grace, some restaurant owners said, was the city of Durango allowing an expansion of outdoor seating. Virtually overnight, Main Avenue went from a four-lane road to a two-lane road to allow for bump-outs.
John Daly, co-owner of Primus, said he intentionally designed his restaurant to have a close, tight-knit atmosphere, which doesn’t lend itself to the restrictions put in place with the COVID-19 pandemic.
While his indoor seating went from 12 tables to six, the bump-outs allowed several extra tables. But bump-outs were removed citywide Nov. 2, and while they are expected to return in the spring, winter poses a daunting challenge.
“It’s going to get harder before it gets better,” Daly said. “No doubt about it.”
Restaurants already operate on tight margins. With the initial financial loss at the outset of the pandemic, and now heading into winter with limited indoor seating, owners are questioning how to make it.
Newton said Mutu’s usually sees a huge financial boost over Thanksgiving and Christmas, with multiple holiday and office party bookings, which can easily fill up the restaurant’s 120-person capacity.
But what will happen this year, likely without all those parties?
“We all wish we had a crystal ball, but we don’t,” Newton said.
Kachina Kitchen’s Martinez said the situation puts restaurant owners in a helpless situation.
“I can’t do anymore than what I can do,” she said. “I hope we make it through.”
Daly said he and his wife, Kerry Daly, put everything they had into opening Primus, now in its second year of operation, selling their house in Denver and cashing in on their 401(k).
“Everything is on the line for us,” he said. “I just won’t allow it to fail. I can’t.”
But there are some positives in restaurants’ corner, Woodruff said. First and foremost, the survival of Durango’s favorite eateries hinges heavily on whether locals show up to eat and support local businesses.
Sari Seedor, who has run Yellow Carrot in north Durango for 12 years, said her restaurant has been kept afloat by her loyal clientele. But to keep going, that support needs to continue, especially in the coming months.
“If we want these amazing places to survive, the locals have to support it,” she said. “We have to come together.”
The COVID-19 restrictions have also forced restaurant owners to pivot and look for new lines of revenue, such as increasing take-out options, selling take-and-bakes and offering to-go drinks.
And another major jolt should come with the reopening of Purgatory Resort, which was forced to close during its 2019-20 winter season.
“The best we can hope for is lots of snow and a great ski season,” Daly said.
While Paycheck Protection Program loans, though criticized, did provide some aid earlier this year, a more recent federal government relief effort, called the “Restaurant Act,” would have injected $120 billion directly into the restaurant industry.
Though the act received bipartisan support, it has now effectively stalled after President Donald Trump said he would not support another stimulus until after the November election.
Given those complications far out of local control, Woodruff said it’s up to the Durango community to step up and save its restaurants.
“Instead of sitting on our laurels,” he said, “we have to rely on locals.”