The $5,000 Gift Card and Other Moments of Brightness in the Industry

Mark Antonation
Despite social distancing, restaurant-industry folks and their customers are banding together (metaphorically) to help each other out, providing moments of brightness in dark times. Some restaurants are doing everything they can to keep their employees paid and working, while others are providing free staff meals. And nonprofit organizations are teaming up with restaurants and food halls to help out where they can.

Josh Wolkon, founder of Secret Sauce Restaurant Group, says that once the directive from the city came down to close all bars and restaurants to in-house customers, he had to lay off 180 employees at his four restaurants, Steuben's Uptown, Steuben's Arvada, Vesta and Ace Eat Serve, but Steuben's Uptown is staying open for now for curbside pick-up and delivery. "It's been a few rough, sleepless days," Wolkon says. "With the employee fallout, I haven't even had time to think of myself and my business."

But he's still offering two meals a day to staff and continuing to pay for health care through May. His customers, too, are chipping in; one of them purchased a $5,000 gift card. Earlier this week, Wolkon set up a mini-market on the front patio of Ace to let employees take home perishable foods.

Justin Brunson, owner of Old Major and River Bear American Meats, did something similar, giving away restaurant supplies to his team. "Never in a million years would I of ever thought I would be setting up a free market place for my employees in the middle of my restaurant because of an outbreak," the chef posted on his Instagram page.

At Potager, the Capitol Hill farm-to-table eatery that has amassed a loyal customer base spanning three decades in business, chef/owner Paul Warthen says, "We here at Potager are risking everything to retain our whole staff and offer them two free meals a day and supplies in this time." The restaurant is offering all front-of-house employees twenty hours a week (at a higher rate than the standard tipped-employee rate). Warthen has retooled the menu for takeout and free delivery, and is also offering pre-made meals that customers can reheat at any time.

Keeping employees paid and working was also on the mind of Giles Flanagin, co-owner of Blue Pan Pizza. While the West Highland and Congress Park pizzerias have always operated their own delivery (rather than relying on third-party services), the restaurants also had front-of-house staff who can't perform their usual jobs right now. So Flanagin has converted several servers to delivery drivers (who are paid above the tipped minimum wage and receive gas reimbursement) until normal restaurant business can return. "While it would have been much, much easier (and cheaper) for Smoke [co-owner Jeff Smokevitch] and I to use a third party delivery service from the day we opened, we decided to take the financial and operational risk and hire great people to deliver our products," Flanagin notes.

Neighborhood bar and pizzeria Jackrabbit Slims is doing something similar, keeping customers fed by delivering food themselves to the Cole, Clayton, Whittier and Skyline neighborhoods. So you may see owners Chuck and Katie Freeman bringing you pizza and other menu items. Jackrabbit Slim's wasn't originally set up for delivery, so the restaurant's POS system isn't set up to accept tips on phoned-in orders. Instead, a 20 percent tip is being added to delivery orders, which the owners say will go toward keeping bartenders employed. Complete details are available on the Jackrabbit Slims website.

Some pizza joints are just giving away slices and pies. Denver Pizza Co., for example, is giving away thirty slices of pizza daily at each of its locations. Call ahead to let them know you’re coming in to participate in the “set a slice out” program, then dtop by between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The team does ask that individuals who “truly need the help” accept the complimentary pizza, and will be limited to one slice per person. The two walk-up pizzerias are located at 309 West 11th Avenue (720-475-14710 and 908 Jersey Street (720-475-8601).

Crush Pizza + Tap owner Jason McGovern implemented a pizza donation program that will give a free pizza to someone in need for every $25 gift card purchased by customers. You can call the restaurant at 720-619-3337 to order a gift card and pick it up at 1200 West 38th Avenue. His goal is to give away 100 pies; on Thursday, March 19, Crush delivered eight free pizzas and six pounds of mixed salad greens to residents of the Del Norte Veteran Apartments.

click to enlarge Friends & Family will be serving free meals at Zeppelin Station. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
Friends & Family will be serving free meals at Zeppelin Station.
Danielle Lirette
Friends & Family is a nonprofit organization providing educational opportunities and health and wellness initiatives for food and beverage employees. The organization is setting up a Friends & Family Meal program
at Zeppelin Station (3501 Wazee Street) to provide free pick-up meals from the food hall's vendors and other restaurants to newly unemployed bar and restaurant workers. Meal service is currently scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning March 24 and continuing until May 7. Friends & Family is looking for sponsors to help fund the operation: Contact Kevin Galaba at [email protected] or Zeppelin Station at [email protected] for details on how to donate. Those wishing to pick up food will be given a phone number so they can text their order before pick-up. Visit the Friends & Family Facebook page for details.

Avanti and CHOW (Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness) are partnering for Operation Family Meal, a nonprofit organization formed to help hospitality-industry hourly employees and their families by offering free prepared meals and mental health services. Meal pick-up is being offered from noon to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday (social distancing will be enforced). The organization asks that you just bring a form of identification and proof of past restaurant/bar/hospitality employment. Meals will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis until they run out. Current locations are at Avanti F&B, 3200 Pecos Street; Quiero Arepas, 1859 South Pearl Street; Olivia, 290 South Downing Street; Il Posto, 2601 Larimer Street; American Elm, 4132 West 38th Avenue; and Sloan's Tap & Burger (Sloan’s Lake), 1565 Raleigh Street. Visit the Operation Family Meal and CHOW websites for more details, and the group's Facebook event page for information on the meal pick-ups.

All three Pizzeria Locale locations in Denver will be chipping in for a good cause on March 25. Here are the details from the restaurant group:

In response to the toll on hospitality workers during the suspension of on-site dining at Colorado restaurants and bars, Pizzeria Locale will donate 50 percent of all proceeds from pick-up orders placed through its website next Wednesday, March 25, to the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. The organization’s Crisis Relief Fund efforts are providing direct relief and loans to innumerable hospitality workers and restaurants currently affected by the coronavirus shutdown, detailed here:

Taking place at all three Pizzeria Locale Denver locations (Broadway, Highlands, Stapleton) from open until close, diners are encouraged to place orders on Pizzeria Locale’s website for pick-up only, which allows its system to stagger pick up times and avoid lines forming:
Of course, many other restaurants and organizations are doing the best they can for employees and customers, so remember to tip well and be kind to those working hard to keep the good food coming.