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How the closure of two Vail restaurants shows coronavirus’ domino effect on the food-service economy

Hundreds of workers and business owners in the Eagle Valley felt the pinch when Matt Morgan was forced to close Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard in Vail Village.

Fourth generation Eagle County rancher Mike Eaton visits a newborn calf, Friday, April 3, 2020, at his ranch in Edwards. Eaton believes he will lose one third of his income this year because he wonÕt be able to supply beef to restaurants that are closed due to the virus. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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EDWARDS — The cows are calving, and of course they come during a surprise blizzard. 

“That one there about froze to the ground last night,” says Mike Eaton, pointing to a calf huddling in the mud beneath his mother’s hooves as the morning sun melts spring snow. 

Eaton is dumping fresh hay on a trailer for five cows and his bull, Jack. His historic ranch on the banks of the Eagle River in Edwards has been in his family for many decades, long before the second-cousin he called Uncle Earl founded the Vail ski area up the valley. He’s wondering what to do with those hungry cows. 

“They don’t really have a purpose,” he said. 

Fourth generation Eagle County rancher Mike Eaton feeds cattle Friday, April 3, 2020, at his ranch in Edwards. Eaton supplies the beef to the Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard restaurants in Vail Village, which were among all Colorado restaurants closed because of the coronavirus. Five of Eaton’s cows were due for slaughter but now have reprieves because of the restaurant closures. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A month ago he moved the five healthy heifers from grass to pricey Olathe sweet corn — mixed with maple syrup — preparing them for processing. Then he heard the news that Vail’s venerable Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard restaurants were closing after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. 

Eaton sends 15 of his cows to the two sister restaurants in Vail Village every year. When they closed suddenly on March 14, he canceled his order for more feed in Olathe. He’s wondering how he’s going to afford the June bill for $20,000 worth of hay without the restaurants buying his cows. 

“It’s definitely a chain reaction,” says Eaton, a fourth-generation rancher.

The ripple effect from millions of businesses suddenly closing and even more millions of suddenly idled workers is rattling communities across the planet, including the tourist-dependent towns in Eagle County. 

When Matt Morgan had to close his 43-year-old Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard on March 14, the reverberations bounced up and down the Eagle Valley. The impacts of suddenly closing a business that prided itself on using locally sourced ingredients, produce, meat and services touched every community in the valley, revealing an interconnectivity that is a microcosm of the economic flogging underway across the planet right now. 

Matt Morgan, owner of the Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard restaurants in Vail Village, is pictured Friday, April 3, 2020, in the Mountain Standard kitchen. Morgan closed both his restaurants March 14 in response to COVID-19, and the impacts are being felt by his suppliers, which include an Eagle County cattle rancher, baker and a lettuce farmer. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Once this whole thing came down, everything came to an immediate halt. We went from 100 miles-an-hour to zero in about 20 minutes,” says Morgan, standing in the second-floor Sweet Basil kitchen he remodeled a few years ago. “We are OK for a while, but I’m not sure who can hang on for four months or six months or whatever. Our immediate plan was stop, freeze and conserve cash and wait till we see where this unfolds. We just turtled. It’s heartbreaking to see the trickle down of this, you know.”

In a small community built around feeding and entertaining tourists, the pain of the closure of Morgan’s restaurants has spread not unlike the hostile virus behind this whole mess. From the team of cooks, servers and managers he has cultivated, to local farmers, bakers and suppliers of produce, wine, groceries and bread, to renovators poised to revamp his restaurants. It’s a narrative unfolding across the world right now.

Matt Morgan looks out the windows of his Mountain Standard restaurant in Vail Village on Friday, April 3, 2020. Morgan closed the restaurant in response to the coronavirus, and the impacts have trickled down to his suppliers. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Let’s start with Mark Smith. 

He’s been waiting tables at Mountain Standard for four years. His girlfriend is a host at the restaurant. They are among the 160 employees who lost their jobs as the restaurants closed their doors. It’s not just the loss of a couple months pay that has them rethinking life in Vail. They worry about the upcoming summer season. Will the always bustling Vail Village be busy? At least enough to earn them the tips they need to pay Vail rent? 

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Instead of paying more than $4,000 for a couple months of rent at their West Vail apartment for the next couple months, they are planning to move into their cars and live somewhere rent-free, maybe in a tent in the woods somewhere nearby.

“We are professional campers,” Smith says. “So we aren’t worried about that. But it’s hard for us to picture affording a place in the Vail Valley without making any wages, you know? And what is tourism going to look like this summer? People in the service industry might not be able to make the money we have been used to for months, maybe even a year. All this really has us debating. Maybe it’s time to focus on something other than the service industry.”

Next are Peri and Robert Berman. 

A few years ago they opened Buttercrunch Farm, an aquaponic farm in Eagle where they grow crispy lettuce year-round in a 3,000 square-foot greenhouse and raise tilapia in a 1,500 square-foot fish house. Diners at Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard love their lettuces. 

Without stocking the restaurants, the two entrepreneurs are delivering bags of greens to homes. Some restaurants, like Hovey & Harrison in Edwards, are selling their lettuce with take-out dinners. 

MORE: This is how much Colorado’s mountain communities stand to lose without skiing, restaurants, bars and lodging

“This really reaches everyone in this valley,” says Peri Berman, as she delivers her greens to buyers up and down the Eagle Valley. “Once the restaurants open back up we hope to be back. But right now we are driving everywhere trying to get lettuce to people’s houses.”

Up the road from the Buttercrunch Farm, Steve Anzalone directs a team of seven reps for Breakthrough Beverage Group, a wholesaler distributing across North America. On the Western Slope, they sell wine, beer and spirits to restaurants and stores. With restaurants shut down, they are losing about half their business, Anzalone says. 

But his team is seeing strong sales at liquor stores downvalley from Aspen and Vail. People are buying lots of booze in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, which is offsetting declines in the shuttered ski towns. Anzalone worries that without restaurants like Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard offering up-and-coming boutique wine, beer and liquor labels, those little guys might not survive a sustained shut down. 

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“All the companies with new products, no one is selling them. Stores don’t want to see us,” says Anzalone, who has not laid off any of his reps as liquor sales and support are essential businesses during the lockdown that has people staying at home until at least April 11. “Everyone is hurt by this. Everyone is wondering how long it’s going to last. I think it’s going to be a pretty long time before we get back to normal. I hope we are back by next ski season.”

It was only a matter of days before all the restaurants in Vail Village shut down following the sudden closing of Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard. It’s a tight community of restaurants, and many workers have shifts in multiple restaurants or visit other locations and even share apartments. The probability of cross-contamination was high. 

The sweeping closures hit Zach Jakubowski hard. He sells gourmet meats, cheeses and ingredients to restaurants in Vail, Avon and Edwards for Denver’s family-owned Italco Food Products. So far the company, which has a limited retail presence, has had to lay off about 40% of its workers, Jakubowski says, including five from the sales team. The company is strategizing about a pivot to consumer online sales, he says, but “that’s not something we can do overnight.” 

Jakubowski works closely with independent restaurants. He sells high-end cheeses, gourmet spices and charcuterie to Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard. And business was good in Vail Village, where years of a booming economy saw both diners and restaurants spending big on high-end food.

West Vail resident John McManus and his dog Kingston walk through Vail Village on Friday, April 3, 2020. Business in the village has nearly halted due to the coronavirus and subsequent closure of Vail Resort. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We are a specialty company so a lot of what we sell are luxury items, and we are going into a situation where luxury is not going to be an option,” Jakubowski says. “I think we are going into a situation where more people are going to be living paycheck to paycheck, or not even having a paycheck. It could be a struggle to just put food on the table with basic items and luxury could become something that is out of the question.”

The trades feel the pinch, too

It’s not just those dealing with food who are feeling the pinch from the closure of Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard. Morgan was working with a local real estate broker on closing a deal for employee housing. That sale is not happening. He was planning renovations in his restaurants, including a new floor in Sweet Basil. He pulled the plug on those projects as well. 

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Balz Arrigoni had about 30 workers lined up for the surge of flooring projects in the coming months, including the new floor at Sweet Basil. Many of those jobs fall in the late-April, early-May window before the summer season in Vail. Now the co-owner of 22-year-old Arrigoni Woods in Minturn is scrambling to keep his workers busy as businesses tighten spending. 

“I will take care of my employees because it’s not just them, it’s their families and I want to make sure that when things start back up, I want to have the same team together,” Arrigoni says.   

Arrigoni’s flooring business weathered 9/11 and survived the fallout of the recession in 2009. He’s prepared for setbacks. But like everyone else, he’s worried about how long this may last. 

“In a month, I need to see a light at the end of the tunnel so we can get started on all the installs we have scheduled,” he says.

MORE: The ski resort industry is hoping for federal relief from its $2 billion in coronavirus losses

Morgan thinks summer business will be down. A full-rebound in a few months just seems hard to fathom. 

“We are guessing summer will be 50%. If we are lucky,” he says. “There’s no way we are going to be back to 100% by the summer. No way.”

Chefs Gretchen Hovey and Molly Harrison married five businesses when they opened Hovey & Harrison in Edwards in 2017. The coffee shop and bakery that provides fresh bread to Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard also sells locally harvested produce and prepared meals on top of catering and serving nightly dinners and drinks. 

Gretchen Hovey, co-owner of the Hovey & Harrison market in Edwards, bags bread Friday, April 3, 2020. Hovey supplies bread to Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard restaurants in Vail Village, which are temporarily closed because of the coronavirus. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Delivering baked goods to Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard was not the largest of Hovey & Harrison’s revenue streams but it was consistent. And it kept the growing bakery and restaurant in tight with the valley’s culinary heavyweights.

Since closing their doors, Hovey and Harrison have had to lay off 30 workers. Today, the two chefs spend their days cooking whole meals for families for $40 and preparing 240 sandwiches twice a week for workers at Vail Health’s six locations. They also are selling lettuce from Buttercrunch and other local farm produce to families who pick-up prepared meals. 

“I feel like everything going on right now has kind of forced us back to our roots,” Hovey says. “We are returning to meals for families and we are going back to hyper focusing on local purveyors.”

And while the valley’s closed restaurants aren’t buying, locals are, but not at pre-COVID-19 prices. Hovey and Harrison are barely covering their costs, selling dinners for $10 a person. 

Gretchen Hovey, co-owner of the Hovey and Harrison market in Edwards, carries out to-go orders for customers to pick up Friday, April 3, 2020. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We are really thoughtful about every single part of our meals and … I think people are appreciating that,” Hovey says. “I don’t think any restaurant is killing it right now with the meals-to-go. But this is really important to our sense of self and our identity as a restaurant. We feel an obligation to keep this up.”


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