Food News

Bonanno Concepts Adopting Vaccine Requirement for Employees, Guests

Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno run Bonanno Concepts.
Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno run Bonanno Concepts. Bonanno Concepts
One of Denver's biggest players in the dining community has made a big move regarding COVID-related health and safety measures. Bonanno Concepts, a restaurant group that includes Mizuna, Luca, Osteria Marco, Green Russell, Russell's Smokehouse, Vesper Lounge, Lou's Food Bar, Salt & Grinder and the Milk Market food hall, announced on August 9 that it is requiring all staff to be vaccinated by September 30. At that time, the group also plans to require that all guests show proof of vaccination.

"It was just apparent it was time to make a big move," explains Jessica Kinney, Bonanno Concepts director of people. "And hopefully if we can make this big move now, it will save us from having to make lots of little big moves down the line."

The announcement follows widespread discussion among Denver restaurant owners and operators about how to address the spreading Delta variant with no guidance from city or state government regarding updated dining regulations. Many have expressed a desire for a mandate making proof of vaccine a standard, in order to take the burden off individual restaurants and the front-line staff left to enforce such policies.

"It would be great if this was just a mandate and we weren't the ones having to create our own police structure, so to speak," Kinney says. "But it didn't deter us. ... We need to do what's right, especially for the safety of our staff."

Bonanno Concepts joins Cafe Aion in Boulder, whose proof-of-vaccine requirement for guests dining indoors goes into effect August 11, and Bar Max, at 2412 East Colfax Avenue, which re-established a proof-of-vaccine policy on July 31, after becoming concerned about increasing levels of COVID transmission.

Unlike Bar Max and Cafe Aion, which are opting to have guests show vaccine cards, the Bonanno Concepts plan is to ask guests to fill out health declarations, either online when booking a reservation or upon arrival for walk-ins. The company's more casual concepts, which include Milk Market, Lou's Food Bar and Salt & Grinder, will not require declarations, but will have additional signage noting that guests must be fully vaccinated.

At least that's the current plan. "I don't think anyone expects that this system will stay exactly the way we're saying it will right now, and that's okay," Kinney notes. While a lot can change by September 30,  Bonanno Concepts chose that date in order to give unvaccinated staff — which accounts for about 15 percent of employees —- time to become fully vaccinated.

"Within 24 hours of the vaccine [plan] rollout...20 percent of our non-vaccinated staff signed up to get vaccines," Kinney says. As for Bonanno Concepts employees who ultimately choose not to get vaccinated, "we want time to work with them on an exit strategy," she explains, adding that the overall reaction from employees has been supportive of the policy.

"It exceeded my expectations in terms of how positive it was," she says. "We were, of course, nervous —  everyone is struggling with staffing, our managers are working so hard to get the restaurants staffed — but everyone has been overwhelmingly positive. It's been really inspiring, honestly."

Another supporter of the Bonanno Concepts move: Bar Max owner Marshall Smith. "We are very happy to see that other businesses are joining us in prioritizing the health and safety of our guests, workers and the community by encouraging vaccines for everyone with this policy," he says.

Don't be surprised to hear of other Denver bars and restaurants adopting similar policies soon. 
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin