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Duo's Stephanie Bonin Collected a Million Signatures...but Are Those Enough?

Duo's dining room is empty today.EXPAND
Duo's dining room is empty today.
Scott Lentz

Stephanie Bonin, who founded LoHi mainstay Duo with her husband, Keith Arnold, back in 2005, quickly realized what stay-at-home orders would do to the dining industry.

And she took action, creating a change.org petition. "I have a really hard time not being in control," she admits. "I immediately felt a need to put into words what I felt people needed right then and there to feel safe. I had at that point laid off all my staff. It was the caretaker in me who wrote it."

Here's what went live March 20: 

$2000/month to every American #moneyforthepeople #covid19

My name is Stephanie, and I am one of millions of Americans who fear for my financial future because of this coronavirus crisis. With businesses and schools closing across the country to control the spread of this virus, many people have already lost their jobs. Others are being forced to stay home.

This is catastrophic for working families like mine.

I’m calling on Congress to support families with a $2,000 payment for adults and a $1,000 payment for kids immediately, and continuing regular checks for the duration of the crisis. Otherwise, laid-off workers, furloughed workers, the self-employed, and workers dealing with reduced hours will struggle to pay their rent or put food on the table.

My husband and I own a restaurant in Denver and these past two weeks have been a blur. Our restaurant community is wrestling with seeing everything we all have worked so hard for irrevocably changed. Our hearts were breaking as we watched our staff divide the ingredients in our kitchen to bring to their homes: a dismal token for employees who worked tirelessly every day. Our talented and cherished team, some of whom have been with us since we opened our doors 15 years ago, are now without an income. Like our team, my family has lost all of the income from our restaurant, and business owners and the self-employed can't claim unemployment. This is the story of America right now.

For our team and other Americans who can claim unemployment, even the maximum payments will not be enough for most people to continue paying their bills – and avoid slipping into poverty. The facts are, even successful small businesses can’t go months with their doors closed.

But supplying Americans with monthly support until they can get back on their feet can save our communities from financial ruin.

We need immediate checks and recurring payments so that we can keep our heads above water. Congress needs to make sure that we won’t be left financially ruined for doing our part to keep the country healthy.

Bonin's petition took off quickly, faster than any other coronavirus-related post on change.org, according to the platform. "It was an incredible response," recalls Bonin. "It was brave that everyone signed on."

Within a month, the petition had collected more than a million signatures, and Congress had approved emergency stimulus checks of at least $1,200 for most Americans, with unemployment throwing in an additional $600 a week for those collecting benefits.

But as Bonin has learned, her initial ask might not be enough to save Denver's dining industry. When she posted her petition, Colorado's restaurants had been closed to dine-in service for three days. Now it's gone past five weeks, and the gamble of many restaurateurs that they'd be able to cover bills through to-go sales and delivery service hasn't paid off.  "From the outside," Bonin says now, "it looks like we've figured it out, we're still here."

Just barely. Duo was able to bring four of twenty staffers back for that limited service, "at a fraction of what they used to work for," she notes. But it had to cut its optimistic six-day-a-week schedule way back, to just four hours a day Thursday through Sunday.

And while the restaurant can limp along for a few more weeks, perhaps even until that still-undefined day when Denver restaurants might be able to open on a limited basis (though a recent survey conducted by the Colorado Restaurant Association looks grim), it's impossible to predict what the new realities will be then. Not that owners aren't trying. Right now, Bonin is estimating that business will be at 50 percent on July 15, but that's just a guess.

"As entrepreneurs, we're using numbers so we can make plans so they can change next week," she explains.

The Big Eat, an EatDenver event, brought out local restaurateurs in 2019.EXPAND
The Big Eat, an EatDenver event, brought out local restaurateurs in 2019.
Nikki A. Rae Photography

While she tries to predict Duo's future, Bonin hasn't limited her outside actions to the change.org petition. A co-founder of EatDenver, the association of independent restaurants in metro Denver established the same year Duo opened, she came up with the idea for Double Down for Denver Restaurants, a campaign that started April 20 that gives a matching donation to the organization from a sponsor-contributed fund for every gift card bought from an EatDenver member. The EatDenver website was quickly overloaded (you can also see participating restaurants here), and the $43,000 pool almost immediately exhausted. But Bonin keeps pushing for more...more help for the industry, more help for the independent restaurants, more help for the individual workers.

Bonin and Arnold moved to Vermont in 2012 with their two children, but Denver is definitely on her mind. "We actually just had a Zoom call with the entire staff, with my crystal ball," Bonin says.

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But other topics on that call were far more concrete. "In talking with my staff, we're having discussions about food stamps, what things you can change to bring down your monthly bills," she recalls. "It's rattling to me, all these people who are going to fall back on these systems they've never had to lean on.

"We're all without that feeling of security."

Even so, she says, seeing her staff on that call carried a "message of hope and camaraderie in such a grand way."

And so Duo will keep cooking, offering some of its specialities (don't miss the bison brisket when it's on the menu) for four hours four days a week, serving up hope that someday, some way, restaurants will find a way back.

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