South Indian cuisine was a revelation to Denver diners in 2015, when Biju Thomas unveiled his brightly painted Biju's Little Curry Shop in RiNo in 2014, serving bold and spicy dishes from a point-and-order counter. While the spice blends were new to the downtown scene, the food of Thomas's childhood in Kerala, India, felt familiar and comforting — and it caught on in a big way.
But skyrocketing rents forced Thomas to close his original eatery at 1441 26th Street last summer, though it left him more time to focus and improve the service and dining room at the newer Biju's at 4279 Tennyson Street. After rolling out a new menu and reconfiguring seating, the owner says, "We had our best month in five years this last February after our redo, then it came to a grinding halt the week of March 4, and we closed up the shop after service on March 15."
Because of the rapidly spreading COVID pandemic, people were beginning to stay home, and on March 16, Governor Jared Polis ordered all restaurants to close their dining rooms. Thomas says that he knew that day that he'd never reopen Biju's. He applied for loans and relief funds, but none came. "We are a very small, independently funded business which has received a ton of national press and buzz, and we were at the forefront of bringing south Indian food to America," he adds. "I'm very happy we were able to do that, but we simply cannot continue."
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While closing his restaurant was an extremely difficult decision, Thomas expressed relief that "it has become abundantly clear that the time has come to pull the plug." Without a Payroll Protection Program loan, the owner could no longer afford to continue paying employees and bills out of his own pocket.
Thomas has had other ventures during his tenure as restaurant owner, including authoring cookbooks for high-performance athletes, selling a line of Biju's Little Curry Shop spice blends and working with pro cyclists on health and nutrition. But he says for now he just needs to take some time away from the business to figure out his next moves. "I really don't want to get back into restaurants, or at least not restaurant operations," he notes.
Before the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, Thomas points out, rents in Denver were already too high to make operating a restaurant a sustainable business. And with revenue not expected to return to normal levels for months or even years, he thinks landlords and restaurateurs will have to work together to keep businesses afloat.
"I'm going to take some time off, but I'll let you know what my plans are after that," Thomas states. "I'm looking forward to getting back to being a little more creative."