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Restaurant Owner Faces a Far Bigger Challenge Than COVID: Brain Surgery

Positive thinking got Paula Vrakas through one hell of a year.EXPAND
Positive thinking got Paula Vrakas through one hell of a year.
Paula Vrakas
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“I just got a haircut,” exclaims Paula Vrakas, owner of the Roxy on Broadway. Her fresh cut includes a shaved portion on the right side of her head, where there's an eight-inch scar from an incision in her skull. “I have to put Vitamin E oil on it all the time, so I thought, ‘Why am I hiding this and being greasy all the time? I should just show it off!'”

For restaurant owners, keeping up with the ever-changing pandemic rules sometimes felt as complicated as brain surgery. For Vrakas, the owner of two restaurant/music venues in two states, actual brain surgery was the topper on one wild year of navigating COVID-19.

In 2016, Wisconsin native Vrakas purchased the Roxy Encinitas in California, which had originally opened in 1978. In August 2019, she brought the concept to Denver, a place she’d fallen in love with over years spent traveling to the city to ski, hike, backpack and visit friends and family, purchasing Syntax Physic Opera at 554 South Broadway and renaming it the Roxy on Broadway.

That name caused a stir, as members of Denver’s music community pointed out that the newcomer's name was nearly identical to that of the Roxy Theatre, a longtime Five Points venue. But by early 2020, the ruckus over the name had subsided, the Roxy Theatre was on good terms with the Roxy on Broadway, and Vrakas's place even won the Best of Denver Readers' Choice award for Best New Restaurant. But that honor was bittersweet: It was announced a week after Governor Jared Polis had ordered all restaurants to shut down as of March 17, 2020 — just six months after the place had opened.

“COVID was awful; it was life-changing,” Vrakas says. “I had to lay off 87 total employees. Then you had the three months following, where you’re on a webinar every day.” Vrakas wasn’t alone as she pored over the nonstop information coming from both Colorado and California; the general managers at each location jumped in to help, despite being laid off themselves. “They are just good humans,” she says.

In June 2020, Vrakas was able to reopen both Roxys, but “as things started to get better, it almost got worse,” she explains. “It was culture shock. We hadn’t seen a human, touched a person’s plate in months; what’s a QR code? I gotta teach eighty-year-old people to use QR codes now?” Add to that morphing mask rules, shifting curfews and changing capacity and table sizes...all times two, as she jumped between her pair of businesses.

By September, Vrakas and her team had reached peak frustration with the fluctuating requirements in the two states, and even the specific counties of San Diego and Denver. “It was almost like, do whatever you want, because it was nearly impossible to keep up,” she recalls. “Everything was different. The only thing that was the same was that there was no staff and no people coming in the doors in both places.”

Vrakas turned her attention to attracting customers. “What do I need to do to get people in and be safe about it?” she remembers thinking. “Because COVID is real, and people are dying.”

And friends of hers were getting sick — though not from COVID. In October, Vrakas learned that her two best friends, one in San Diego and the other in Denver, had been diagnosed with serious types of cancer within two days of each other. And that sparked a new concern.

Ain't no party like a brain surgery party.EXPAND
Ain't no party like a brain surgery party.
Paula Vrakas

In 2011, at the age of 25, Vrakas had suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is similar to a stroke. “That’s when they discovered Fred,” she says, name-checking her brain aneurysm, which at the time was very small. “It was a watch-and-see situation.” For a few years, she had Fred checked annually, and it didn’t grow. “So I stopped getting checked.”

Last November, she decided to get a scan — and learned that Fred had doubled in size. Doctors told her that it was still a “watch-and-see” situation, but Vrakas wasn’t taking any chances. “I was my own advocate,” she says. Because she has a family history of ruptured brain aneurysms, and because stress can lead to high blood pressure, which can cause aneurysms to rupture — and Vrakas was certainly under a lot of stress in 2020 — she pressed for a visit with a neurologist.

As winter brought colder temperatures to Denver, Vrakas made the tough decision to temporarily close the Roxy on Broadway the first week of December. “We were trying so hard here,” she recalls. “Musicians offered to play for just tips and free food; we built a makeshift patio with heaters trying to keep everything good and warm, just to keep the hope alive.”

Meanwhile, in sunny Encinitas, restaurants had been ordered to close again, even for outdoor dining, despite evidence that restaurants observing safety precautions were not hotbeds for the spread of COVID-19. Vrakas decided to peacefully protest by keeping the Roxy Encinitas open, with all social distancing and mask requirements enforced. “We were sold out start to finish,” she says. “I had musicians getting paid money and staff being paid money.”

In February, Vrakas finally got an angiogram. The procedure confirmed Fred’s doubled size — 2 millimeters by 4 millimeters — and Vrakas was told to talk to a surgeon.

On March 3, she met with Dr. Alois Zauner, a surgeon who practices in San Diego once a month. While Zauner didn’t accept Vrakas's insurance, he agreed to take on her case anyway, after the two bonded over a love of food and entrepreneurship. Zauner shared his dream of opening an Austrian bakery one day, and his staffers turned out to be fans of the Roxy Encinitas. “It was a happy accident,” she says.

Zauner said that while Vrakas could put off the surgery for up to a year, he recommended doing it by fall. “But there’s never going to be a good time to have brain surgery,” Vrakas notes, and knowing that she’d be out of work for a minimum of two months, she decided to schedule the surgery before summer. The date ended up being April 20. “I was more fucked up than everybody else on 4/20, I can promise you that,” she says.

In the three weeks she had to prepare for surgery, Vrakas took her dog from Denver to California, made sure that the Roxy on Broadway could run smoothly — it had reopened on February 11 — and booked three months of music for both Roxy locations; she also trained a new general manager in Encinitas (the previous one is still part owner of the company) and navigated the rapidly lifting COVID restrictions. She also had a “Fuck You, Fred” party with staffers and friends in both cities, complete with an F balloon, a U balloon and a giant red balloon with a Fred name tag. “Anytime anything is so life-changing and awful like this, I find that it helps to try to have a bit of humor about it,” Vrakas says.

She apparently shares that trait with her mother, who on a call with Zauner before the surgery said, “Hey, doc, would you mind just taking out the whole lobe so she doesn’t want to open up any more restaurants?”

But beneath the humor was real fear. “I was so scared,” Vrakas admits. “I put on a brave face, but there’s a certain different thing that happens when you find out they’re going to cut into your brain and you’re not going to be the same. ... I was convinced that I was going to come out of surgery and everything was going to fall apart, and I was never going to be this multi-functioning, high-octane person again.”

By the time the fast-growing Fred was removed, it was 4 millimeters by 6 millimeters. “The surgeon said that if I had waited until fall, or even possibly just until May, more than likely I would have passed,” Vrakas says. “I blame COVID — not the disease, but the stress."

Vrakas spent less than five days in the hospital. A week after surgery, she was on her laptop (“Who let me have that?” she asks, laughing), booking music again. “I made so many mistakes,” she says, “but the music community in Denver is so forgiving.”

She also started another project.

At 3 a.m. Pacific Time on April 22, less than 48 hours after surgery, Vrakas used her cell phone to post an Instagram story from her ICU hospital bed, giving an update. In the following weeks, her stories continued. Having had trouble finding information before her operation, she wanted to be transparent about the process in order to help people facing the same situation. “The stress of having the surgery broke me a couple of times, to be honest,” she admits. “But after it broke me, it built me.”

So she decided to be "super vulnerable,” she says. “I want to put everything out there for the people like me that are terrified. I’m going to answer questions for people, and I’m going to try to find the positive spin on this very scary thing.” And it’s working. So many people have reached out with positive feedback, thanking her for sharing her story, that Vrakas plans to post the series on YouTube in hopes of reaching even more people.

Seven weeks after surgery, Vrakas returned to Denver and stepped inside the Roxy on Broadway. “There are people here, there are smiles on people’s faces, there’s music and comedy and food and drinks,” she says, grinning. She still can’t open her jaw all the way, and sometimes she has trouble finding the exact word she’s looking for, “but I feel like Paula again."

Vrakas is ready to get back to her usual fast-paced routine, and she’s already considering a third location (don’t tell her mom). “I’m thinking Boulder or Fort Collins,” she says.

As for Fred, she'll carry the experience — if not the aneurysm — with her for the rest of her life. “Anytime I see a Fred walking down the street, I’m probably going to laugh,” she says. “I might get a chainsaw tattooed on my scalp, and every year I’m gonna watch Drop Dead Fred on 4/20, and I’ll probably be super stoned when I do it.”

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