Some options beyond keeping dining rooms open in defiance of public health orders are emerging as Durango restaurants explore more acceptable methods to cope with the latest round of COVID-19 restrictions.
The College Drive Cafe plans to offer takeout breakfasts, probably from Thursdays to Sundays with the plan to be tweaked on the fly depending on demand.
The Strater Hotel introduced “Suite Dining” on Friday with dining parties of two to 10 people allowed to reserve rooms for private dining without person-to-person contact with employees.
And Primus built a food truck that will be parked at the Billy Goat Saloon in Gem Village, near Bayfield.
But adaptations, however creative, are viewed only as stop-gap measures as restaurateurs find the most practical and cost-effective ways to endure the Level Red COVID-19 restrictions put in place Nov. 20 that allow eateries to serve only takeout and delivery.
The most extreme answer to takeout-only has been simply to temporarily close down – an option chosen by Carver Brewing Co., El Moro Spirits & Tavern and Old Tymer’s Cafe.
Dave Woodruff, general manager of El Moro and president of the Durango chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said El Moro’s staff decided to close until restrictions ease and in-person dining resumes.
“I think a lot of us are seeing just how hard it is to make ends meet,” Woodruff said. “With takeout only, El Moro is doing 10% of the normal revenue. I think for a lot of restaurants in town, there’s just no good way to do this.”
Some restaurants are better-suited for takeout, but for high-end restaurants, the transition is more difficult.
“When you think of El Moro, you don’t think of takeout. You think of our great service staff, you think about our great food, the atmosphere, you know, the library ladder,” he said. “... That doesn’t always translate to grabbing food in a box and taking it home with you.”
If in-person dining restrictions extend more than 30 days, Woodruff fears anywhere from 20% to 40% of Durango restaurants might fail.
“Ninety-nine percent of restaurants are not modeled to operate in this manner, with takeout only,” he said.
College Drive CafeAt the College Drive Cafe, co-owner Aaron Seitz, said he opened Tuesday as a trial for takeout breakfast. Eventually, he plans to offer takeout breakfasts from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays to Sundays.
“We’re just sticking our toes in the water to kind of see what it’s like,” he said.
On Tuesday, the cafe brought in only 10% of what it normally sells during a regular weekday. With sales like that, it doesn’t make sense to stay open, Seitz said.
The experience with early-week takeout breakfasts has Seitz leaning to opening Thursdays to Sundays with the expectation that demand for takeout breakfasts will pick up.
The restaurant normally employs 20 people, but it is now down to two employees, Seitz said.
“I know this restaurant is not going to make any money this winter. But if we can make enough to support our core group of people here and keep the lights paid, the rent paid – well, you know, that’s something,” he said.
Strater HotelTori Ossola, general manager of the Strater Hotel, credits owner Rod Barker with coming up with the idea to offer “Suite Dining,” which started Friday.
The new offering comes after the inn dealt with a mid-November COVID-19 outbreak after a worker contracted the virus outside the workplace. Testing provided Nov. 13 by the Strater determined seven other workers had contracted the virus. The outbreak at the Strater will come off the state’s active outbreak list Dec. 11, Ossola said.
Workers who tested positive for the virus have been in quarantine, and she said the outbreak will not affect plans to move forward with Suite Dining.
Suite Dining will provide private rooms for a meal based on the Mahogany Grille’s menu.
The banquet room, which normally holds 40 people will be available to parties of up to 10 people. The inn’s private rooms will accommodate parties of two to four people, depending on the room size.
Each person in the dining party must place a $25 deposit to reserve the rooms, and the deposit is applied to the cost of their meals.
Diners will be given a temperature check before being taken to their reserved room. Appetizers, cocktails and entrées will be placed at the entrance to the room so no personal contact is needed between employees and diners.
Diners also have an option to stay the night at the Strater for $150.
Strater owner Rod Barker said, “We think this is a win-win situation. It helps us keep our staff onboard. I’m certain this is not a profitable operation yet,” he said. “But I think it will help us stem the tide of having to send our well-trained staff to sit at home. It’s takeout with style.”
Carver Brewing Co.Jim Carver, co-owner of Carver’s, said brother Bill Carver and he decided to close operations when the county moved to Level Red restrictions limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery.
“With the COVID thing getting worse, it just seemed like it was the right decision to close,” he said.
Before Carver’s reopens, Jim Carver said public health restrictions must allow indoor dining to resume and the resumption must come in an environment in which the COVID-19 situation has to improve to the point where it looks like restaurants will not be forced to close again.
Until it reopens, the brewpub will be selling beers in growlers and crowlers from 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Much like the last closure, Carver’s will take advantage of the down time to do some maintenance – painting the kitchen and replacing the brew kettle.
Carver’s intends to reopen in spring, but if the county eases restrictions, reopening could come sooner.
“I’ve heard two pieces of advice: Don’t listen to the news. And don’t think too far ahead,” he said. “And so, you know, right now, we’re kind of thinking spring, but if conditions improve, and they allow us to be open, and there’s demand, we will reopen whenever.”
Durango restaurateurs see winter as a period to endure with hope of better times coming in spring.
Woodruff said: “Right now, everybody’s circling the wagons with the anticipation that when March comes we’ll hopefully have a vaccine in place, and that alongside with resumption of outdoor dining will be a huge benefit.
“But, you know, March is four months away. Once we get there, we’ll have a better opportunity to survive, but we’re not there yet.”
PrimusJohn Daly, co-owner of Primus in Durango, said relying on only takeout and delivery isn’t going to cut it.
On Thursday night, for instance, the restaurant had about $270 in sales from takeout and delivery. On a normal Thursday night, pre-pandemic, the restaurant was bringing anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000 in sales.
“I can’t keep a business floating on takeout,” he said. “It’s not practical or probable.”
Desperate to keep his business alive, Daly got creative, building a food truck he hopes can supplement lost sales, which he plans to debut Saturday at the Billy Goat Saloon outside Bayfield.
Despite the change in venue, Daly said Primus will still offer the best quality in meats and seafood. If successful, he hopes to find other spots where he can park his truck.
“Failure is not an option,” he said. “What else are we going to do?”
firstname.lastname@example.orgAn earlier version of this story misspelled the owner John Daly’s last name.