"Biker Jim" Pittenger says he knew he was in for a rough spring when the downtown St. Patrick's Day Parade, originally scheduled for Saturday, March 14, was canceled to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. The event generally marks the beginning of the busy season for Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs, at 2148 Larimer Street, followed soon after by the start of baseball season at nearby Coors Field.
"We usually roll into the season on fumes," Pittenger explains, since the Ballpark neighborhood slows down dramatically in the winter months. And while there were pockets of drunken revelers ignoring the concept of social distancing that was just beginning to take hold the weekend before St. Paddy's Day, there wasn't the usual spike caused by the triple-header of warmer weather, a public event attended by thousands, and the anticipation of Rockies baseball.
And then came the order from Mayor Michael Hancock on March 16 that all bars and restaurants were to close their dining rooms to customers from March 17 to May 11. Pittenger says he was already worried about the possibility of contributing to the spread of illness by staying open, so after one day of takeout-only orders, he closed the restaurant for the duration of the mandated shutdown. "It occurred to me that we were selling some, but not a ton, and it just wasn't worth the risk to my people to keep it going," he recalls thinking. "I just don't want anyone to get sick selling hot dogs."
The restaurant owner adds that some of his twenty employees (seventeen at the restaurant and three at the mobile carts) relied on public transportation to get to work, and he felt that was an added risk for them. So he furloughed his staff but helped them figure out how to apply for unemployment and other funds available to restaurant workers, and he also set about applying for loans and grants for his business.
Deferred rent and other expenses helped, so Pittenger is confident that Biker Jim's will be back after May 11, especially if the rest of the city begins to return to normal and the Ballpark neighborhood fills up with the hungry crowds that have always been there in the spring and summer, and he'll be able to rehire his full staff, or those who want to return. "This is what's been really cool, is that everybody's coming together over this," he adds, so he's seen industry folks helping each other both emotionally and financially, when possible.
And he's been getting his own social fix online, participating in virtual potlucks through CHOW (Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness) and other web-based meetups with friends and colleagues. Pittenger, who recently cooked at the James Beard House and has appeared on many televised food shows, is also keeping himself busy perfecting his Japanese soufflé-style pancake recipe at home.
If there's a bright spot to this weekend's canceled baseball games, Pittenger says that it's the bad weather. "Tomorrow's supposed to be snowy and shitty, so if we were open, it wouldn't be a great day for sales," he points out. And that's the rare time when the silver lining turns out to be the gray clouds themselves.