In mid-March, Thach Tran, executive chef at Ace Eat Serve, was at his restaurant when he got a call from a company offering to fog the kitchen's oven hood with disinfectant — at a price that he and Ace's owner, Josh Wolkon, agreed was far too high. People were already beginning to avoid going out because of concerns over coronavirus, and business was down.
Tran decided he could probably do the job more cheaply himself, so he talked to his partner, Dusty O'Connell, the bar manager at Joy Hill, a spot that had just opened on South Broadway about two weeks earlier.
"A week before the government started to shut down restaurants, we started to see some red flags, so we were looking for ways to disinfect our own restaurants," Tran explains. "Dusty said, 'Why don't we just start our own business?'"
"He's being nice," O'Connell adds. "It was mostly his idea!"
Tran got on Amazon and ordered the appropriate equipment and chemicals to do the job, then sprayed Ace to eliminate any potential coronavirus. From there, it was just a matter of getting some business insurance, ordering a few more supplies and setting up a website for their new company, Mile High Disinfectant Services. The startup costs ran about $2,000 for everything; O'Connell saved some money by designing the company's logo, a stylized virus with a slash through it.
"We had the ball rolling two days before the shutdown," Tran notes, citing the March 17 date when restaurants across the state were closed to dine-in service.
While restaurants seemed like an obvious choice as the company's first clients, Tran and O'Connell didn't want to saddle already hard-hit chefs and restaurateurs with additional expenses; besides, with dining rooms now closed to customers, there was less need for ongoing disinfecting. Instead, the two turned to businesses considered essential during the stay-at-home and shutdown periods, including supermarkets and liquor stores; they've also offered their services to schools, workplaces and even homes.
Among the company's first clients were a spa and an arts-and-events center in Manitou Springs, both currently closed but taking precautions for when they can reopen, as well as the H Mart locations in Westminster and Aurora. "Grocery stores know that they can inspire consumer confidence by demonstrating that they have been disinfected, and employees feel safer returning to work," O'Connell explains.
So far, most services have been one-time trips to the clients' locations, but Tran says many businesses that have remained open to the public will need repeat treatments. "When we negotiate a contract, we make sure to offer a deal for return visits," he notes.
Each visit entails fogging to eliminate airborne contaminants, as well as spraying surfaces and wiping down door handles, touch screens and other objects with which customers and employees come in contact. O'Connell and Tran wear protective suits, gloves and masks to do the work, and they've also enlisted some of their restaurant colleagues for bigger jobs. "I've employed some of our cooks to give them a side gig and keep them working," Tran says, since Ace is completely closed for now.
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Running the new business has not been without challenges, since the supply chain has been disrupted and many items are in short supply. "We use a food-safe chemical that hospitals use for the same purpose," O'Connell says, and coming up with some of those chemicals has been tough. After an initial Amazon order, that source dried up, and the first local vendor they approached said that he had more than 150 cases on back order. But another vendor had a few cases in stock, so Tran ordered just enough to keep the business going for a few weeks, with the idea that more could be procured at a later date.
"PPE [personal protective equipment] has been a struggle, and we're sensitive to the needs of front-line health-care workers, so we don't want to be accused of hoarding the chemical equivalent of toilet paper," O'Connell explains. "We've been getting creative on sourcing masks, too."
If you work at one of the locations that Mile High Disinfecting is treating, you probably won't recognize Tran and O'Connell when they enter the building; they'll be suited up from head to toe in their own PPE rather than their standard chef's coat or bartender's apron. The two look forward to donning their standard restaurant uniforms again once the shutdown is lifted, which is currently scheduled for May 11 in Denver.
But even after restaurants fully reopen, they recognize that disinfection services will be in demand — and play an important role in restoring the public's faith. "Once the general public is allowed to go in and out," Tran says, "we want to give people that peace of mind that they're safe."