Paula Berg, who owns Oscar’s Cafe in Durango with her husband, Bruce, took a break from doing inventory Thursday to sit outside in a row of carefully spaced waiting chairs. In 45 minutes, three passersby stopped to see how she, and the restaurant, were doing.
“Our hands are bleached and alcoholed to death, but other than that, we’re good,” she told one customer.
Berg sees a stable future for the restaurant – which has grown into a family in the past 40 years – even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to squeeze small restaurants across the country.
Oscar’s Cafe, a narrow restaurant in Town Plaza, is a staple in Durango’s food scene. Its green chile is one of the best in Colorado, according to a 2018 USA Today competition. But La Plata County has already mourned the loss of some of its restaurants because of the pandemic, and others restaurants face financial instability. So far, Berg has used decades of experience to keep the cafe doors open for the community that needs it.
“All restaurants have a really serious role because we take care of people,” Berg said. “Sometimes they just need somebody to talk to … It’s a heavy responsibility. That’s why I never close my doors.”
The Bergs have a long history in the industry, and this isn’t their first crisis.
Oscar’s survived the financial impacts of the 416 Fire in 2018, the 2008 financial crisis and the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002.
“You just learned to navigate it,” Berg said. “‘There isn’t an ill wind that doesn’t blow good’ is what Grandma says, and it’s true.”
When Colorado closed in-person dining, Berg quickly shifted to take-out and hired a COVID-19 manager to handle public health guidelines. She uses her network of food suppliers to quickly adapt to shortages, particularly as large meat facilities close because of viral outbreaks. The restaurant has 24 weeks of federal payroll support. The adaptations have paid off: Last weekend, the cafe reached 100% of its expected sales.
“Oscar’s has kind of always survived,” Berg said.
Still, Oscar’s and other restaurants in town face continuing uncertainty.
The summer tourism season could be compromised. Berg doesn’t want to bring back employees if an outbreak could shut the restaurant down again – particularly because the unemployment system is experiencing delays with a large number of people seeking assistance.
“None of us really know what’s going to happen. Are the customers that used to eat here going to be so frightened they’re not going to leave their homes?” Berg said.
If Oscar’s closed, “I’d pretty much be devastated,” said Steve Hallof, a senior from Vallecito. Oscar’s has been part of his regular routine in Durango for more than 14 years. “It’s the main place where I can find dependable good quality food and a nice attitude from the owners and employees.”
Berg said Oscar’s Cafe is like family. Customers have eaten there for 40 years. The restaurant has employed three generations of families. During the Missionary Ridge Fire, four customers showed up at her house to help her evacuate – the Bergs didn’t even have to ask for help.
“These people … I’ve seen them live; I’ve seen them die. ... I’ve seen them be joyous with weddings,” Berg said.
For her, it’s a responsibility to give them a sense of comfort amid the crisis.
“They really, really depend on us,” she said.
Customers and employees say it’s the Bergs who bring that community together. Sophia Scribner, a waitress at the cafe, used one word to describe Paula: “powerful.”
“She doesn’t let anybody push her around. She teaches people to stand up for themselves,” Scribner said.
The Bergs checked in on her after her mother died in 2019 and kept her on the payroll so she could have a job when she was ready to come back.
“They’re a really good support system. They work with you no matter what’s going on,” she said.
For Berg, the past two months have been tough, she said. She has had to turn away people she’s known for years because she could not allow them to eat inside. She has seen friends and customers who are “scared and really hurting.”
But with restrictions lifting, it’s also a chance for people to come together over a comforting meal, in a hard time, to find support.
“Honestly, at the end of the day, I’m glad to have gone through this. I think it shows people’s strengths,” she said. “If you can survive this, it’s a good sign that you’ll be able to survive something else that’s tough down the road.”