Whenever Sadie Russo finally reboots her French bakery in Arvada and her café and dessert bar in Denver, she’ll remove some tables to allow for social distancing. She and her employees will wear gloves and masks, even though she hates concealing her favorite confection — smiles.
Another life-saving strategy learned from the coronavirus shutdown not only saved her businesses from ruin, but also will spill over as life gradually veers back toward normal: flexibility.
“If we’d continued with the status quo,” Russo says, “we would have been locking doors on two small businesses.”
At bars, restaurants, gyms, nail salons and retails businesses across Colorado, the gradual easing of Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home order, starting next week, means reimagining their operations in a new environment. Social distancing and other safety measures, plus reduced hours or scaled-back availability, will continue to challenge commerce as the state takes its first, cautious steps toward reviving the economy.
Those businesses resourceful enough — or lucky enough — to survive this far into the battle against COVID-19, the illness associated with the coronavirus, still face an economic landscape that disconcertingly shifts beneath their feet. Meanwhile, efforts to thwart the pandemic are defined mostly by their uncertainty.
What is and isn’t allowed to open
ALLOWED TO OPEN
With social-distancing guidelines in place
- Dental offices
- Elective medical services
- Childcare centers
- Hair and nail salons
- Pet grooming
- Tattoo parlors
- Personal training
NOT ALLOWED TO OPEN
- Higher education
- Yoga studios
- Concert venues
- Restaurants, bars, breweries: Not allowed to open for in-person dining, but can still sell to-go orders.
- Retail stores including clothing stores: Allowed to open for curbside pickup only.
- Office workplaces: Allowed to open May 4 at up to 50% capacity, with as many workers as possible telecommuting
- Real Estate: Allowed to open for private showings, no open houses.
But many businesses, while severely hobbled by the restrictions on public interaction, are emerging from the experience with new perspectives on how their operations, and their industries in general, will adapt to the pandemic’s disruption in the future.
Russo, a former environmental consultant, decided in 2012 to pursue her passion for sweets by taking over La Patisserie Francaise, for 30 years an Arvada fixture, with her husband, Randy. The business, she says, had certain comfortable standards and traditions. The coronavirus, and the shutdown, forced her to rethink everything.
“You have to look at who your customer base is, and how you can be flexible in getting them more of what they need instead of what they might want,” Russo says. “Everybody right now is wanting comfort food, but what they need is eggs, flour and yeast. The grocery store doesn’t have them, but as a bakery, those are things our suppliers have — and we have extra.”
So Russo sold those staples — at cost — even as her wholesale baked goods market all but collapsed and retail sales fell by half. That was a goodwill gesture to her customers, but her next exercise in flexibility, offering liquor delivery and take-and-bake meals at Bonbons Café and Dessert Bar in Denver, helped reshape her business model.
“On that, we had to flex a whole lot more,” she says of the 8-month-old bakery “spin-off” the couple opened about 10 minutes away in the heart of the new Midtown neighborhood. “I imagine anybody who suddenly has to go outside the norm, be outside their comfort zone, learns it’s a little painful. But at the same time it’s satisfying.”
Across the state, a wide variety of public-facing businesses grapple with the uncertainty surrounding both the epidemiology and economics of a commercial reset. How will safety measures impact their ability to operate? How soon will they be able to operate at full capacity? And can they survive that long?
Their experiences so far could be harbingers of what lies ahead.
CrossFit Lodo let its clients take home dumbbells, kettlebells and even rowers and stationary bikes during the shutdown. The gym near the ballpark in downtown Denver has managed to keep about 85% of its members as paying customers even while the building is closed, general manager Lindsay Khan Weber said.
The gym holds two live classes each day via Zoom and posts daily workouts that clients can take on whenever they have the time.
Still, the 2,000-square-foot gym is prepared to open — with proper social distancing and sanitizing — as soon as the governor says it’s OK. Gyms are not on the list of businesses that get to reopen next week.
“We’ve definitely started brainstorming,” Weber said. She envisions classes with up to eight clients at a time, each inside their own 6-foot perimeter and using their own weights, bike and rowing machine. Classes would run about 40 minutes, instead of the usual hour, to allow plenty of time for wiping down equipment and emptying the gym of one class before another set of clients arrives.
“The previous class would be gone well before the next class would come,” she said.
But Weber figures that even when the gym is allowed to open, some clients won’t yet feel comfortable working out in person. She expects CrossFit LoDo, which has more than 300 clients who mostly live or work downtown, will continue to offer virtual classes for weeks or months to come.
“It’s tough because I think there are a lot of people who don’t feel super comfortable resuming normal things,” she said. And for those folks, coaches will continue to try to motivate them virtually — whether they’ve borrowed a kettlebell from the gym or they’re lifting a paint can they found in their garage.
“We’re still trying to get that group vibe and mentality, to get the most out of this,” Weber said.
The Hair Salon
Zuma Hair Studio in Grand Junction is sparkling clean, and the salon has already worked out a schedule that has only every other hair-styling station in use at one time.
But, “you can’t cut somebody’s hair and be 6 feet away,” said owner Angela Lema. “That’s not a thing.”
Lema, along with other hair and nail salon owners in Colorado, is allowed to open her doors after the governor’s shutdown order lifts on Sunday.
“We’re ready to open,” she said. “It has the fresh aroma of Clorox wipes, Lysol, whatever we’ve got!”
The day the salon was ordered to close, Lema’s hair stylists saw their last client at 6 p.m. and “the entire team just gloved up and went after it and top to bottom cleaned the place,” she said. Her nine employees have not been able to work since then, but at least they qualified for unemployment benefits, she said.
Even before the closure, the salon was wiping down surfaces multiple times per day and had stopped allowing guests to serve themselves at the coffee bar. Instead, a staff member took coffee and tea orders.
In addition to the salon, Lema owns a nearby cosmetology school, just down the block from the salon in the heart of Grand Junction. At the Salon Professional Academy, 65 students have been learning to cut hair through online courses. It’s been four weeks, the maximum length of time Lema figured would work for virtual instruction.
“We’ve gone as far as we want to go with virtual education,” she said. “Is it as good as being in person? No, I don’t think so, but it is keeping people’s lives on track.”
Lema worries, though, that clients won’t rush back to the salon — either because they are worried about catching the virus or because they’ll see hair color and facials as unnecessary during the economic crisis.
“When you’ve got several million people that have applied for unemployment benefits … they will want to come back,” she said, “but will they have the financial position to come back?”
Kimball Bayles tries to picture a day when people will feel comfortable buying a glass of cabernet at the wine bar in his lobby and then settling into a crowded theater to watch a movie together.
“People aren’t going to flock to theaters even if the governor says fine,” said Bayles, who has been running Kimball’s Peak Three Theater in downtown Colorado Springs for 25 years. “How do you social distance in a lobby? Even in The Mayan (in Denver) or any place like that, it would be a joke. How would we do it?”
The governor has not yet said when theaters can resume operations, but it won’t happen until at least the second phase of loosened restrictions. Bayles has bigger problems, though.
For starters, Hollywood is pushing its spring releases into the fall or beyond. Bayles planned to show “Mulan” and the new James Bond film, but both releases have been delayed for months. Universal, Disney and Sony are sending titles directly to video-on-demand so people can stream them from home.
Even if he did have movies to show, Bayles wonders if anyone would come.
“The movie business is a little different than opening up a restaurant again,” he said. “My crowd is an older crowd, in that age group that is risky (for the new coronavirus). I don’t want to see anyone get ill or hurt. We’ve got to be careful. I don’t have any animosity about what happened — it happened to all of us.”
People had already stopped going to the movies in the 10 days or so before the theater was closed, with “only a few brave souls” coming through the doors, Bayles said.
For now, the theater — the only independent theater in the Springs — is promoting a handful of films on its website for patrons to screen at home, with about half of the ticket proceeds going to the theater. The offerings have brought in only about $500 or $600 so far, Bayles said.
The theater’s landlord has given Bayles a grace period on last month’s rent, and all of his employees — save the general manager, who lives in an apartment inside the theater — were let go. Most of them were high school students who worked part time.
Bayles applied for a federal coronavirus stimulus loan for small businesses but just like thousands of other Coloradans, found out his application was not even processed before the money was gone. He has received some local grant funding to stay afloat, however.
To comply with social-distancing rules, Kimball’s Peak Three could cut way down on capacity — limit its 250-seat theater to just 50 people and its 175-theater to just 30, Bayles said. But he’s not sure how he would make enough money to cover expenses.
“This could be our swan song,” he said. “I hope it’s not. I’m still optimistic. I’m not throwing it in.”
Ask locals where to get a good meal in Sterling and the list is likely to include the J&L Cafe, as homey and familiar as the name suggests. It’s a destination for comfort food and conversation, whether it’s with servers who’ve worked there for decades, area farmers or John McMahon, proprietor of the family business.
“The nice thing about family,” he says, “is that we can run it pretty cheap.”
In normal times, the cafe often is packed for breakfast, lunch and dinner — with some longtime customers taking all three meals there. The shutdown order curtailed business to about one-third of normal, but takeout has kept the cafe above water, and all the extra food that would have fed the bustling crowds has gone to good use.
McMahon feeds anyone who shows up at his door hungry but unable to pay, but also has a “buy a meal, take a meal” deal for customers who want to deliver food to seniors.
“People do better things when their tanks are full, so I don’t care who you are,” he says. “”If you’re hungry and need to eat, come eat. I’ll make something that’ll stick to the ribs to carry them through. I did chicken strips yesterday. If I start to worry that I’m going to lose something, I’ll cook that up to make sure people who don’t have anything are taken care of. So I haven’t had a lot of waste, which is nice.”
These days, McMahon has been cooking up 50 to 70 free meals a day.
He allows that once the stay-at-home order is lifted, the café will have to reduce its capacity, probably to around 20 to 25% of normal, maybe block off some tables with yellow tape, “like they’re doing with the playgrounds.” Turning over tables more quickly to accommodate all the returning customers is a strategy that doesn’t really fit a community social hub, though.
“That’s going to be the toughest,” McMahon says. “For us, it’s the old farmers, this is where they get together and talk and shoot the crap. They’re used to doing what they’re used to doing. You know old farmers.”
He feels certain the cafe will get it figured out once customers are allowed to dine in again.
“We’ll keep social distance and stuff,” he says. “That might be for another year. But I’m prepared for that until they have a vaccine for this thing.”
Jeff Kennedy figures his restaurants reside in the sweet spot of consumer confidence once folks start venturing beyond their own kitchen for meals again.
“When the order is lifted, people are going to be out,” Kennedy says. “There may not be a lot of disposable income, but people will go where they feel comfortable and get good value. That’s Moe’s Original BBQ.”
Kennedy, the co-founder and co-owner of the multistate franchise run from offices in Vail, says Moe’s has about 60 locations nationwide, including several in Colorado. And while the franchise has a mandated menu and recipe book, local owners have flexibility to approach the new rules as they see fit.
“We will have some basic guidelines,” he says, “but we trust them to do what’s safest and works best in individual markets.”
He’s been able to cover four locations in the Vail-Eagle area — one of which is closed — with a core group of 10 employees. But he notes that when the stay-at-home order relaxes he hopes to hire back a couple of workers each week over the next couple of months. But he says his flagship store in Eagle is doing well.
“We’re anticipating a really busy summer, to be honest,” he says. “I want to get people back to work.”
Kennedy anticipates taking half the tables out of restaurants and is counting a lot on deck and patio seating, where customers can spread out in the fresh air. But he also sees the restaurant’s business model shifting in the wake of the coronavirus. In fact, he sees the whole industry learning from the experience.
“My restaurants across the country are typically 80% dine-in,” he says. “But as a trend I think from here on out we’re going to be doing more and more pickup, carry out, third-party deliveries even when this virus is gone.
“I believe it’s changed the industry forever. It’s opened people’s eyes to possibilities of getting food out and having that dining-at-home experience. All restaurants are becoming better at it every day.”
Kennedy’s office studies how and why restaurants work. Recently, he says, they’ve dialed in on how to make a complete online order concept viable.
“We’re doing 125 online orders now,” he says. “A few weeks ago we’d never done one online order. It’s going to be different, but this is going to cause some good things to happen.”
One thing he hasn’t figured out yet is how to approach Moe’s bar business.
“We don’t do enough bar business for it to be a big deal, but we’ll have to address it,” he says. “Our focus is on food. The bar is a bonus.”
Before the coronavirus shutdown, when people walked through the door of The Cherry Cricket, the self-described “burger dive” that has served Denver since 1945, they knew exactly what they were going to get.
Sports on TV, burgers of every conceivable kind, a full bar including Colorado craft beer and, often, hungry diners spilling onto the sidewalk on Second Avenue in the Cherry Creek North neighborhood.
But when it comes to figuring out how this drinking and dining institution will operate once safety restrictions relax, even general manager Heidi Ziepprecht has next to no idea what lies ahead.
“Everything changes every hour,” she says. “ While the state has lifted the order, Denver is still shut down till May 11. There seems to be some confusion between the state and the city as far as that goes, and nobody knows what it looks like.”
Within the desire to adapt there’s also a fear that a gradual loosening of the restrictions might be too little, too late for many businesses — particularly in the restaurant industry, which claims to encompass 10% of Colorado’s workforce.
“People are worried about a lot, where do I begin?” says Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “They’re worried about whether people will want to go out again or be scared? What any restrictions will look like is also scary to them. How flexible will the state and individual cities be?
“They’re worried about the fact that if they’re asked to open at a limited capacity — which is what we’re hearing the governor’s office is likely to do — that many can’t afford to open at all. They’re continuing to worry about whether they will be able to survive as a business.”
At less than 80% capacity, Riggs figures, slightly more than half of restaurants would ramp up. According to the association’s estimates, the longer the diminished capacity goes on, the fewer restaurants will survive.
At The Cherry Cricket, Ziepprecht has made some basic assumptions: That they’ll open at half capacity, move tables 10 feet apart and try to figure out what personal protective equipment the staff will need to wear.
“You can plan as much as you want,” she says. “But I feel like it all changes. I can take chairs out of the bar, but people lean and talk to each other anyway. And how much do you police that? It’s tough to say.”
Like every other restaurant, the Cherry Cricket has been doing takeout, but ambiance has always been a selling point. Ziepprecht estimates the location is doing about 20% of its normal business. She says some third-party delivery services listed them on their websites without asking permission, and the results were frustrating when complaints came back that the order took too long to arrive and was ice cold when it did.
“We can’t say anything about the integrity of the food once it goes out the door,”’ she says. “We’re not fans of it.”
But Cherry Cricket did embrace online ordering for takeout because people really seemed to like it and it was an innovation easily adaptable to the restaurant’s existing operation, in which staff run takeout orders to waiting customers.
“So that’s something we’ll keep,” Ziepprecht says. “We’ve seen we can do this. Can we do it on a Saturday with a full building? It’s proven to be easy right now in an empty room — you can hear the little tablet going off. But when there’s a thousand people in here with the music cranking, I don’t know.”
One other innovation the Cricket will be trying: a golf cart in order to … well, Zieppreckt says she’s not entirely sure what they’ll do with it, but it sure sounds like a blast.
“One day I was thinking it would be fun to have some ridiculous looking golf cart we could drive around the neighborhood and do different things with, dropping stuff off, giving somebody a ride to their car blocks away,” she says. “It’ll be nice to get back to normal again to think those things through more.
“But it should be quite fun when it comes out.”