When an October fire in the backroom of El Moro Spirits & Tavern in October caused the popular downtown Durango restaurant and bar to close indefinitely, more than 40 employees feared they were out of a job.
“We really didn’t know when it would open again,” said Sarah Moxam, who has worked at El Moro since its opening 3½ years ago.
But those concerns didn’t last long. The restaurant’s management soon announced it would continue to pay its staff throughout the closure, at the same time encouraging them to find a cause they hold important and volunteer in the community.
“We impressed upon them that the community here has embraced us since we opened our doors, so it only makes sense to have some reciprocity there in terms of giving back to the local nonprofits,” said general manager David Woodruff.
Now, more than four months since a water heater in the rear of the restaurant led to extensive smoke and water damage to the building on the 900 block of Main Avenue, El Moro is expected to reopen by the end of January.
And 36 of the 42 staffers at the time of the fire will return to their jobs.
“Keeping that staff around is a big testament to this company, and it’s a real honor to be a part of it,” said assistant general manager Lucas Hess.
Woodruff said management offered to pay employees as much as they were making before the fire, with the understanding that once the restaurant reopened, the staffers would return.
For many, the restaurant’s closure allowed employees to step out of their daily routine and see another side of Durango.
“A lot of our employees are in school or work a lot and have busy schedules to juggle, so they aren’t able to get out there and volunteer as much as they’d like,” Woodruff said.
Moxam, who bartends and runs El Moro’s wine program, said she volunteered a couple times a week at Community Connection’s Holly House, a non-residential day program for adults with developmental disorders.
There, Moxam spent time with clients, went on day trips to the Durango Community Recreation Center, and generally was just there as a helping hand for whatever was needed throughout the day.
“They just really made a difference and built some lasting relationships,” said Marc Allwang, adult services program manager. “And it was nice to have extra help during the holidays.”
Kathe Hayes, volunteer program director for San Juan Mountains Association, said several El Moro employees helped with the annual Christmas tree sale, the nonprofit’s largest fundraiser that goes toward conservation education.
“It’s huge for us to have volunteers because there’s not a great profit margin in any fundraiser,” Hayes said, “so it’s essential to have people to donate their time during the holidays.”
And Paula Watson, director of Wolfwood Refuge, said the El Moro volunteers worked “hours and hours and hours” helping complete much-needed projects at the wolf refuge.
Woodruff said he heard other staffers volunteered at the La Plata County Humane Society and Sexual Assault Services Organization, among others.
“It’s been really cool to hear everyone’s stories,” Woodruff said.
Kris Oyler, chief executive director of the parent company of El Moro and Steamworks Brewing Co., said the repairs to the building were mostly focused in the back, and the interior of the building will remain essentially unchanged.
He said the restaurant has its sights on a mid- to late January opening, but that’s dependent on when the last necessary equipment is delivered and how quickly inspections can be approved.
“We’re thankful for the community and their patience,” Oyler said. “We know the community is excited to get back in there, and we’re excited to get back up and running.”
Moxam said the experience has left a lasting impression, and she hopes to continue volunteering during her free time. However, she, too, is ready to get back to work, reassured by the fact her company values its employees.
“I definitely feel like we were well taken care of and we’re more of a family now,” Moxam said. “It’s a pretty wonderful thing to know they wanted to keep us around.”