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Opinion Columns

Opinion: I’m the owner of seven Denver restaurants. Coronavirus just forced me to lay off 200 people.

I’ve been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, and 12 of those have been here in Colorado, a place I am proud to call home. 

I have built a mini restaurant group with seven locations (12@Madison, Osaka Ramen, Sushi-Rama, and The Empire Lounge & Restaurant) with close to 200 family members by my side. On Tuesday, I was forced to lay off all of them because of the new coronavirus.

In my 30 years, I have never experienced anything like this. How can a few letters and a couple numbers, COVID-19, be so life changing in such a short amount of time?

Chef Jeff Osaka, who owns Sushi-Rama, Osaka Ramen, 12@Madison, and The Empire Lounge & Restaurant. (Provided photo)

The restaurant industry has never been for the faint of heart. It’s a roller-coaster ride, but also a savior for me and many others. Even when that coaster twists and turns, goes up and around that big loop, we all cry for more. We continue to wait in line to ride another day because there’s nothing quite like it and nothing in the world that I’d trade for it. 

We have survived hurricanes, earthquakes and even 9/11, but when it hits this close to home, passion and commitment must turn into resilience and survival.

Like that roller coaster, the business creates many emotions, most of which I have never shared, but have been more intense as of late. The one that I have felt strongly in the pit in my stomach this week has been one of fear.

It is not a fear of not doing enough for my staff, but a fear of what their lives will be like during this challenging time. I feel fear of what lies ahead for everyone when we do get back to some sort of normalcy. 

READ: Colorado Sun coronavirus coverage

Another emotion that’s been prominent this week has been hopelessness. This is what I felt when I had to make the tough decision Tuesday evening to close all of my concepts, instantly disrupting the lives of 200 people. 

Even worse? Not being able to physically be at seven restaurant locations at once. No handshakes, no shoulders to cry on, not even hugs to give as the social norm has become “social distancing.” It’s like seeing a loved one for the last time, even though you know it’s only temporary.

Luckily for me, my fear turns into anger and anger into action. I did my best to give my management team the tools to succeed in their jobs — information to continue to help our organization and empower them to make precise decisions when others aren’t thinking clearly. 

They have been, and always will be, the key to our success. I surely couldn’t do this all alone.

By nature our industry attracts the most generous people. People who give their time and money to nourish lives, to provide memories of meals out and time spent around a table with friends and family.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

We are a humble breed, but now it’s time to get out from behind our aprons and ask for help, not for a handout. We need our local and state leaders to get behind us when we need it the most. We are small business owners and taxpayers — 250,000-plus in Colorado, to be exact — which should speak volumes. 

As the dust settles, some won’t be as fortunate as others, but we as an industry are strong. We will persevere and we’ll be in a better place than before because of it. 


Chef Jeff Osaka is the owner of 12@Madison, Osaka Ramen, The Empire Lounge & Restaurant and four Sushi-Rama locations. He has been in the restaurant industry for three decades.

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