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First-year restaurants stick it out through pandemic

Three businesses in Pine River Valley determined to survive
Porky’s Smokehouse owner Dayson Goetz slices a smoked brisket at the Ignacio business. For newly opened restaurants, the pandemic has made it especially difficult to build a consistent customer base.

A pizza shop became a classroom. A sit-in smokehouse opened a drive-thru window. And an upscale dining establishment began offering carryout service.

After spending most of their first year navigating the coronavirus pandemic, several new restaurants in the Pine River Valley say they are ready to stick it out.

In the summer and fall of 2019, new dining options popped up around the valley, from Vallecito south to Ignacio. The pizza shops, grills and fine-dining restaurants added long-awaited variety for residents and a burst of energy to small-town economies hungry for growth.

But public health guidelines aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus have prohibited indoor dining. Some more established restaurants in eastern La Plata County, such as Pura Vida Café in Vallecito, closed at least in part because of the pandemic.

“There were weeks where it was like, ‘Wow, what a freakin’ year to open a business,’” said Kelsy Westwater, co-owner of Mill Street Bistro in Bayfield.

Small businesses and restaurants have been heavily impacted during the pandemic nationwide. In Colorado, about 65% of restaurants were predicted to close without additional aid.

The state government approved $57 million in relief aid to small businesses, including restaurants, temporary sales tax relief for restaurants and bars, and other restaurant relief measures this month.

More than a third of the outbreaks in La Plata County have occurred at restaurants, according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases, transmitted within a workplace, in a 14-day period.

In November, indoor dining was prohibited after La Plata County entered Level Red status because of a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases.

Three of at least seven restaurants that opened in 2019, Porky’s Smokehouse, Mill Street Bistro and Eepa’s Pizzeria, said they plan to make it through. Others could not be reached for comment.

Shutdowns and stay-at-home orders have made it difficult for Porky’s Smokehouse, a relatively new restaurant in Ignacio, to gain traction and build a loyal customer base.
‘We’ve made it this far’

At Porky’s Smokehouse, a dine-in restaurant that opened in Ignacio in December 2019, business was booming until March. That’s when Colorado issued its stay-at-home order and closed restaurants to indoor dining.

The Porky’s Smokehouse burger is one of the top selling menu items at the Ignacio restaurant.

“We’re in the same boat as everybody else – just kind of hanging in there,” said owner Dayson Goetz.

Goetz and his wife have been putting in more hours to stay open outside of other obligations, such as second jobs and nursing school. He expected the restaurant to be a steady source of income while he traveled for his other job as a bounty hunter, but that wasn’t happening.

In March, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe shut down its campus in response to the pandemic which meant fewer customers for nearby businesses such as Porky’s. Goetz also had a hard time replacing employees – he said people didn’t need to seek work because of federal unemployment aid early in the pandemic.

“We’ve made it this far. I definitely want to keep going,” Goetz said. “I’m not making any money, and I’m not losing money either. I am keeping some people employed – that’s huge.”

Shutdowns and stay-at-home orders have made it difficult for Porky’s Smokehouse, a relatively new restaurant in Ignacio, to gain traction and build a loyal customer base.
The summer that wasn’t

Mill Street Bistro in Bayfield opened in August 2019, about six months before the spring shutdown.

“It’s been a little roller coaster. There were weeks when we felt the weight and severity of the situation,” said Danica Frost, co-owner of the bistro.

Bayfield customers flocked to the upscale but comfortable dine-in restaurant. The owners expected to have a bustling outdoor patio, with engagement parties and live music. They wanted to open brunch service on the weekends and hold a huge anniversary celebration.

Instead, the owners had to lay off their staff members, and they couldn’t bring everyone back. They were applying for grants and navigating public health orders.

Looking ahead, they expect to make it through the pandemic, especially with community support and relief grants that can help with a greater variety of expenses.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Frost said.

Pizza and textbooks

Eepa’s Pizzeria in Bayfield operated for about nine months before the shutdown after it opened in June 2019.

“We were expecting to find a rhythm. With everything changing, especially having young children, we couldn’t do full-service anymore,” said Melissa Gaston, co-owner of the restaurant.

During Bayfield School District closures related to the pandemic, the dining room became a home-schooling area, Gaston said.

After stopping their lunch service for months, they didn’t meet their financial projections.

A 16-year-old employee had to intervene with adults “causing a scene” over face-covering requirements, she said.

“We’re trying to navigate political fights in our lobby,” Gaston said.

Looking ahead, she expects more hard work, but she said they would make it through.

“A lot of people ask us how we’re doing,” Gaston said. “I’m not about to complain because we’re still here.”


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