//Rita Price, Angel Neri, Mary Wright and Kendra Anderson. Photos provided by individuals.
More than 75% of bars and restaurants in Colorado are independently owned and operated. Prior to COVID-19, those establishments accounted for almost 10% of the state’s labor force.
Things have changed. With the pandemic still in full swing, inconsistent communication from local government, and winter on its way, these womxn restaurateurs wanted to clear up some misconceptions on how COVID has affected the food industry.
“Everything is not fucking fine,” said Mary Wright.
Wright is the Wine Director of The Proper Pour, a curated liquor store in The Source Hotel and Market Hall. The location was able to remain open for business during the mandated shutdown. But Morin, another Denver restaurant managed by Wright, closed up shop immediately after news of the shutdown broke.
“It was a dual experience of losing one job and keeping The Proper Pour afloat for our team,” Wright said. “We did not receive the initial small business grant, so we decided to stop collecting checks in order to maintain the livelihood of our current employees.” During this time, Wright had to forgo personal pay to preserve the wellbeing of her team and of the operation as a whole.
The Proper Pour had a small burst of business within the first few weeks that prevented derailment of the operation, but the common terror of “what will I do next” still loomed over her head.
The office of Denver Economic Development and Opportunity announced the initial emergency relief program back in early March. The program offered up to $7,500 in cash grants to qualifying small businesses. There has not been a discussion of an additional grant at this time.
Angela Neri is the owner of Pony Up, an establishment known for its close-knit industry ties and its tagline of providing “a real good time.”
“We’ve received zero state assistance,” Neri said. “It was great that the city grant focused on minority and female-owned businesses first, but the amount was not even enough to cover a portion of rent or take care of my employees.”
Neri and other Denver owners banded together when word of reopening came out. They were in regular communication with EatDenver, a local group created to support the community, as well as the Colorado Restaurant Association.
“We were focused on urgent policy and regulation-related communication distilled for the Denver-area independent restaurants, facilitating an ongoing conversation between operators on our email lists, and hosting several virtual town hall-style discussions for restaurateurs,” said Katie Lazor, Executive Director of EatDenver.
The dialogue was open-ended in order to sync up restaurateurs with government officials.
“When the guidelines first came out for reopen, that was a big piece that they asked our opinion on and it took a lot of time. That is really where all of our focus was,” Neri said. “I definitely think they heard us, but my biggest complaint at this point is the lack of enforcement when it comes to those guidelines.”
Individual counties were allowed to propose their own restrictions once the phases of reopening began. The lack of statewide uniformity put the brunt of enforcing the mandates on individual owners and their teams.
“There should have been a bigger task force on the city level to make sure that protocol was being followed,” Neri said, “But instead, there was just a Band-Aid put on the issue by forcing restaurants to close at 10 p.m.”
Initially, Gov. Jared Polis mandated that all restaurants and bars close at 10 p.m., citing the increase in Denver’s COVID cases. At the end of August, he extended operating hours to 11 p.m. Many owners, like Neri, have agreed that last-call should be extended to midnight to ensure their survival.
”That decision made no sense. We were definitely not consulted, and there was no evidence to back it up,” said Rita Price, owner of the restaurant Rita’s Law.
Rita’s Law opened eight months prior to the stay-at-home order and has since struggled to find necessary information about subsequent plans. She feels that Denver may have opened too early and without proper understanding of the grave situation the restaurant industry would face. Although Rita’s Law has seats inside that appeal to her guests, her patio space is where she can comfortably host more people while abiding by the social-distance protocols. Denver recently received a glimpse of upcoming cooler temperatures, but Price and Kendra Anderson of Bar Helix, have not yet heard of any potential solutions regarding outdoor dining or an increased occupancy for their locations. With winter around the corner, outdoor seating may not be feasible during cold snaps.
“Fuck. It’s all bad. I’m not a pessimist, I am an absolute optimist, as most entrepreneurs are, but there’s almost not an upside to this in the near term,” Anderson said, “The curtain has been peeled back to show the instability of the entire industry.”
Since the reopening, restaurants and bars have been able to apply for an extended permit to expand their patio seating onto sidewalks and into the streets. This has assisted with social distancing while maintaining occupancy. But, what happens when it goes away?
“The truth is, takeout, delivery and limited capacity on-site dining have been like life support; many operators are losing money every single month with the hope that they can make it to the other side. With funds coming to an end and patio season dying down without any promise of increased capacity, the fall and winter are looking bleak for independent restaurants, to say the very least,” Lazor said.
Outside looking in, these womxn make surviving a pandemic look seamless. However, the trajectory of the Denver restaurant scene lies in future directives from local policymakers.
“The public narrative has focused on how much this industry is struggling–and it is struggling inordinately compared to other industries. We’ve seen it lose billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs. If it’s going to survive, it needs help–cash relief from the federal government, and all the support it can get from state and local municipalities,” said Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.
So, how do these womxn owners respond when faced with a lack of financial assistance, unsustainable closing times and no concrete guidance? Here’s a peek at their pivots and how they have been able to creatively maintain their livelihood:
MARY WRIGHT AND THE BIG DOOR PRIZE
“Propel–it’s a dual sensation of being pulled underwater at the same time as being pushed forward. You have no choice but to get up and keep going while you have this force shaking everything that you had as your solid foundation,” Mary Wright said. “You have to struggle to keep your head above water to look around and see what you’re able to control right in front of you, right now.”
Wright and her husband, McLain Hedges, decided to take on a new venture with their pop-up, Door Prize. The soon to be brick and mortar is a ‘meat and 3’ Southern-style concept which strives to comfort, nourish and give back to all walks of life. A percentage of the food sales are funneled back into communities in Denver in need. The couple has partnered with the Black Women’s Blueprint and Colorado Black Women for Political Action over the last ten weeks of operation.
“During a pandemic, that was first on our minds: How do we take care of people? How do we feed them? We feed them with something that has comfort built into it,” Wright said.
The couple has been focused on creating a space for their guests to disconnect from everything COVID and will continue to do so when their new location opens later this year.
ANGELA NERI AND PONY UP DENVER
Pony Up has been a late-night, trade-centered, event-driven bar since its inception. The fashion in which Neri has tackled the pandemic is no different. She has recently called on her chef friends to spotlight at the establishment to safely offer patrons unique dining experiences that are all over the culinary map. These pop-ups have gained an eager following and Neri intends to keep them going through the end of the year.
“We’re continuing to evolve in order to refuel the community. Not only our guests, but people in our industry who also need their cups refilled, and not just literally,” Neri said.
RITA PRICE AND RITA’S LAW
Rita’s Law has turned its secluded patio space into a venue for stand-up featuring the female comedians of Queen City Comedy. The socially-distanced shows are ticketed and promptly start at 8 p.m. every other Tuesday.
“This hasn’t been better or worse for anyone, we have all been forced to innovate,” Price said, “I just want my guests to be able to laugh and maybe forget about whatever is going on in their lives, even if only for an hour.”
KENDRA ANDERSON AND CABANA X
“People are incredibly supportive. It’s easy to lose sight of the nature of what restaurants bring to their community. At the end of the day, I am just showing up to do my job. We forget that it really does move people and that they really do care. We are able to connect with them,” Anderson said.
Anderson wanted to offer her guests an escape from the pandemic. Returning with the concept of Cabana X, she created a vacation-inspired experience that hosts food and beverage options from a tropical destination. So far, she has taken her guests to nine different countries, and Cabana X has recently launched the last set of menu items that will carry the idea through patio closure.