It’s Friday night at a restaurant in the heart of Denver that’s served as a culinary beacon in the Mile High City for 23 years.
The servers are hustling. The chef is keeping watch over flame-licked pans as his kitchen staff calls out orders. The phone keeps ringing.
But the tightly packed tables in Potager, a farm-to-table restaurant in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, are empty. The patio that is normally filled with a warm hum of conversation this time of year is quiet. All the seats at the bar, usually packed shoulder-to-shoulder, are vacant.
It’s been this way at Potager — and at eateries across Colorado — since mid-March, when Gov. Jared Polis shut down restaurants to in-person dining because of the coronavirus crisis.
“A huge struggle,” is how Eileen Warthen, who co-owns Potager with her husband, Chef Paul Warthen, and three others, puts it.
And that’s really putting it lightly. The truth is that the coronavirus has dished Colorado’s restaurant industry a body blow and Potager, like other places, is feeling the pain. They’ve shifted to takeout to keep money coming in, serving chimichurri flatiron steak, spring chopped salad and hand-rolled fettuccine. But the changes haven’t made ends meet.
Every day Potager is open is another day Warthen and her partners are losing money.
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“We’re hearing on average, when we did our recent survey, the restaurants are down 76%,” said Sonia Riggs, who runs the Colorado Restaurant Association. “Some are down upwards of 90%.”
Across Colorado, an estimated 173,000 restaurant workers have been laid off or furloughed since the coronavirus crisis began in March. In the association’s survey, just 10% of restaurants have reported that they haven’t had to lay off or furlough workers
About half of the state’s eateries have shut down temporarily as a result of the pandemic, unable to make enough money on takeout sales alone to justify staying open. The Colorado Restaurant Association believes that 400 restaurants — including some Denver staples like The Market and Euclid Hall at Larimer Square and 20th Street Cafe in the Arapahoe Square neighborhood — have closed their doors and turned off their burners altogether.
“I think we’re going to begin to see more and more close permanently,” Riggs said.
“I think we can make it to the end of the year”
The staff of about 16 people at Potager, where all of the food that’s served is locally sourced, can count themselves among the lucky ones.
When the governor ordered eateries to close on March 16, Eileen Warthen made the not-so-easy decision to take the financial hit and stay open. She said she couldn’t leave her close-knit staff without a paycheck.
“We couldn’t lay everybody off and say we are closing,” said Warthen, who has co-owned Potager for about a year. “It just made more sense for our restaurant family (to keep going).”
Employees often spend off-days with each other. A few even formed a band. “It’s not just a job,” one server said.
So the restaurant family stayed together, much to the relief of staffers anxious about their financial future when the realities of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, set in.
David Ball, who has been a server at Potager for four years but recently was working there only part time, was laid off from his primary job as a waiter at a restaurant in Cherry Creek North.
“I was extremely worried,” he said. “I obviously have bills to pay. I have rent to pay.”
Potager stepped in to fill his financial gap, giving him more hours. The restaurant boosted its hourly wage to $15 for every staffer to make up for lost tips. All employees are also given two free meals a day, whether they are working or not, so that they won’t go hungry.
Anthony Sorrentino, a 23-year-old line cook who has worked at Potager for about two years, said he told his parents he might need financial help when the news about restaurant closures broke. “I was really scared.”
For him, too, Potager has stepped up.
“I’m, like, part of a very small percentage that were able to actually keep their job,” he said.
But the reality is that the efforts to help Potager’s employees have come at a cost.
Eileen Warthen estimates the restaurant is bringing in about half its normal revenue. Whereas in a typical week they might do about $25,000 to $30,000 in food and beverage sales, they are now making only $12,000 to $16,000.
The restaurant secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan under Congress’ coronavirus aid package. The money has given the restaurant more runway, but Warthen has had to rethink her employees’ roles to keep them busy. Servers are now answering phones, packaging meals, delivering food and taking on projects in the building.
Potager’s landlord has allowed the restaurant to put off lease payments, which has helped, too.
Still, financial realities loom large. You can’t keep losing money forever and eventually, if things don’t change, there will be an impact.
Warthen said takeout sales have grown since March, but she’s still worried about how Potager can hang on.
“It’s really hard to predict because I think we’ve seen an increase,” she said. “In March, if we continued the way we were those first two weeks, I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to run out of money in three months.’ But then April got a little better and we lost less money. May looks even better, we lost less money. The closer we can come to breaking even the longer we can continue to go.”
She added: “I think we can make it to the end of the year if things continue the way they are. Then I don’t want to think about 2021.”
The staff isn’t focusing on the future, but in the back of their heads, they know the reality of the situation.
“Right now, all we can do is just hope they can make it through,” Ball said. “We’re all anxious and we’re all kind of wondering: ‘What’s next? When is going to be the day they say we can’t do it anymore?’”
The stakes are high
Coronavirus hit Potager — named after the French word for a kitchen or vegetable garden — at a time of change.
About a year ago the original owner, Teri Rippeto, who helped bring farm-to-table restauranting to Denver, decided to sell. Eileen and Paul Warthen took the keys, fulfilling a longtime dream by joining forces with the restaurant’s sous chef and two regular patrons to make the financial ends of the deal meet.
“It just fits everything that we had wanted to do someday,” said Eileen, a sommelier who came to Denver from New York with the hope of opening a restaurant.
But here’s the truth: “It was a financial stretch,” said Eileen, 36, who started at Potager as a server.
And while business over the past year has been good — “we were doing so well in our first year of business ownership that we made a profit,” Eileen said — it wasn’t good enough to carry them through the pandemic shutdown unscathed. And summer revenues traditionally bolster a winter slowdown.
Potager adapted quickly. The menu morphed to focus on dishes that will hold up on the trip from the restaurant to the dining room at home. They created a system to process orders. But for every delivery and takeout ticket that goes out the door there is an empty table that would normally be filled.
Eileen and Paul Warthen went all-in — psychologically and financially — when they purchased Potager. Eileen says the couple, like their staff, will be financially devastated if the restaurant closes. They won’t have jobs and won’t be able to pay the rent on their home if Potager goes under.
They have a 6-month-old son, Gardy, whom Eileen was carrying around on Friday night as she kept watch over the business.
“We will be unemployed with nothing to show for it with no money left,” Eileen said of if things should go bad. She has forgone six weeks of pay to help make ends meet.
While restaurants can reopen to in-person dining across Colorado as soon as this week, that’s only expected to make a bad situation less terrible. Guidance released by state health officials calls for keeping tables at least 6 feet apart, which would shrivel the capacity of most restaurants.
“A restaurateur doesn’t open putting a business model together on a 25% or 50% capacity,” said Riggs, of the Restaurant Association. “They do it based on 100% capacity. So any limits on bringing people back are going to be really financially challenging. And the longer those limits on capacity go on, it’s going to make it even more challenging.”
Local governments are working to make seating an option in parking lots, sidewalks and even surrounding streets, but for some places that’s just not an option.
Eileen said Potager won’t use its parking lot, which connects to an alley, as serving space. The street the restaurant sits on is in one of the densest residential neighborhoods in Denver and the sidewalk out front is busy with pedestrians.
Potager expects to operate at about 50% capacity in the indoor dining room, which seats a few dozen people, and a little more than that on two patios, which are now serving as storage for plants and stacked tables and chairs.
“It’s not enough if you haven’t been (fully) open already,” she said of the revenue that will come in. “It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing. Maybe that’s because we’ve been open and trying all along. We’re not going to discontinue takeout, delivery. We’re going to utilize both.”
“I think we can come out on top”
For the Potager staff, it’s been strange to work in an empty restaurant.
Sorrentino, the line cook, said he misses peering from the kitching and seeing the reaction of customers as food he’s cooked is brought to their tables. Ball loved trying to make people’s day with conversation.
“We’re coming up into what would normally be the busiest time of year and my favorite time,” said Erin O’Neill, who has been a Potager server for four years. “It’s, like, a total shift. We’ve had to completely change the restaurant and the way that we’re working and interacting and everything. It’s crazy. It’s sad to not have people in there drinking and eating and having a good time.”
But there have been bright spots, like new customers who only discovered Potager after the pandemic began.
“It’s one of the things that has kind of surprised me throughout this whole process.” O’Neill said. “We have a lot of new regulars, which is really funny.”
And the Capitol Hill neighborhood — which has long revered Potager as its local spot, even an attraction — has stepped up with support, too. On Friday night one employee ran a food order to a house across the street from the restaurant. It was close enough that it was almost like bringing an order to a table.
“I think that people just really want to be able to go out again and we want to provide that, even if it still means we’re not necessarily a profiting, bustling, happening restaurant,” Eileen said.
Staying focused on a community-driven mission has always worked out for Potager. The hope is that it can carry them through.
“Potager has stood the test of time for almost 25 years and has been through so much,” said Ball, the server. “I think we can come out on top of it, honestly.”