Latest CRA Survey Shows Many Eateries Won't Survive Reduced Capacity

Courtesy of the Lobby/Facebook
Restaurants like the Lobby will need more than takeout sales to survive.
Colorado's food-service industry is in a holding pattern as it awaits word from Governor Jared Polis on how and when restaurants and bars will be able to reopen; he's said he'll consider the data and announce that decision as early as May 25. While health departments in some cities and counties have begun to give guidance to restaurants so they can prepare for reopening, such guidelines still haven't come from state agencies.

When those guidelines are finally announced, they'll have a huge impact on restaurants' ability to stay in business — or even reopen at all, according to a recent survey by the Colorado Restaurant Association.

While restaurant owners are expecting to be able to reopen their dining rooms and patios soon, the percentage of capacity at which those eateries can operate could spell the difference between whether a place stays shuttered, reopens with a small staff or hires back most or all employees. The CRA's survey asked its member restaurants what they would do if they were allowed to open at 25, 50 or 75 percent capacity, and if Colorado officials choose the smallest capacity, it could be a disaster for the industry.

At 25 percent capacity, 46 percent of the CRA's respondents said they wouldn't reopen their dining rooms at all and would get by on to-go service only; 23 percent said they'd have to consider closing permanently within a month. At this level, restaurants said that almost no staff would be rehired. Only 8 percent said they'd be able to rehire half of their staff while operating at one-quarter capacity, and a shocking 70 percent responded that they'd have to consider closing permanently after three months.

click to enlarge Hopefully, these signs will soon read "expanded outdoor seating." - ETHAN HERROLD
Hopefully, these signs will soon read "expanded outdoor seating."
Ethan Herrold
At 50 percent capacity, the numbers look a little better; 80 percent said they would reopen, 33 percent said they'd rehire at least half of their staff, and only 9 percent said they'd consider closing within a month (although statewide, this would still add up to possibly hundreds of establishments). But half-full restaurants are not very profitable; 47 percent said they might not make it three months at this level.

Reopening at 75 percent capacity would allow almost all restaurants to get by, according to the survey, but about 20 percent said they still wouldn't make it three months.

One of the big remaining questions is whether opening with interior space at 75 percent capacity would be safe for both diners and employees. There would certainly be high demand to sit next to those big roll-up garage windows. Restaurateurs and business boosters have made a proposal to the City of Denver and surrounding municipalities that calls for relaxing outdoor seating regulations and the closing of some streets, alleys and parking areas to allow for the expansion of patios and outdoor community dining areas (picture European-style cafe seating spilling out onto closed traffic lanes, for example). That would make it easier for many restaurants to ramp up to 75 or even 100 percent of normal capacity and still maintain social distancing, at least during the summer months.

The Downtown Denver Partnership has already proposed closing the 1400 block of Larimer Street, which would allow restaurants along this dining destination — including those operated by James Beard Award-winning chef Jen Jasinski — to greatly expand their space.

Proponents of this concept have suggested slosing other streets around town by some of the city's James Beard Award-nominated restaurants, including chef Dana Rodriguez's Super Mega Bien (closing 25th Street in RiNo would also benefit Cart-Driver, Work & Class, Death & Co., Port Side and Uchi) or chef Kelly Whitaker's The Wolf's Tailor at West 41th Avenue and Tejon Street, which is also home to Ramen Star, Cherry Bean Coffee and other businesses. And at the Stanley Marketplace, chef Caroline Glover's Annette, along with all the other restaurants and cafes at the shopping center, could spill out onto the many plazas and open spaces surrounding the expansive building.

In Boulder, Frasca Food & Wine and chef Carrie Baird's Rose's Classic Americana would both benefit from street closures and sidewalk patio expansions, something that restaurateur Kimbal Musk, co-founder of the Kitchen Restaurant Group, has publicly proposed.

In other neighborhoods with a large number of restaurants, bars, cafes and markets, such as the intersection of West 25th Avenue and Elliot Street in the Federal Boulevard Business Improvement District, closing one of those streets, or the entire intersection, to vehicular traffic would allow many of the small, independent businesses to show that they're open for business and spread out as they serve customers.

Tens of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue hang in the balance as the industry waits for the state to announce regulations that will guide the reopening of restaurants. The current combination of to-go sales of food and liquor and grocery/pantry supplies, which 83 percent of CRA members say they're offering, is simply not enough to sustain most establishments.