Last week, the owners of the Fresh Fish Company announced that they had closed their forty-year-old seafood restaurant in southeast Denver. Karen Kristopeit-Parker and Tim Bell had tried to make the restaurant work during the coronavirus pandemic, but the restrictions proved too much for them to overcome.
"We had to lay off everyone in March, and we tried doing takeout with just me and Chef [Bell], but it wasn't nearly enough to even pay the bills," Kristopeit-Parker explains. "We reopened from May 29 to June 28, but with only 50 percent occupancy or fifty customers allowed, we were only at 12.5 percent of our occupancy. And with Proof, we never got a chance to reopen."
The Fresh Fish Company and its attached club, Proof (originally named Proof of the Pudding), had weathered plenty of other changes over the decades, including an ownership change. The original ownership group, which included restaurateur Bobby Rifkin (who passed away in 2003), sold the restaurant to Kristopeit-Parker and Bell in 2004. Bell had been the chef since the day the restaurant opened, and Kristopeit-Parker had already put in fifteen years as a manager. "I was one of the original 'undercover managers,'" she recalls. "I accepted a job as a manager and worked undercover as a server at first."
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After the sale, not much changed; even the seafood supplier stayed the same. "We've worked with the same vendor, Northeast Seafood, all these years," she adds. "We flew in whole fish and broke them down in the kitchen every day. We always stated that we had the largest selection in town."
Like many Denver restaurants, the Fresh Fish Company saw early signs of trouble in January and February, typically the slowest months in the business. But even with the minimum wage increase that hit on January 1 and the gradual slowdown of business as customers began to grow wary of going out in public, the owners were looking forward to March, April and May, the restaurant's three busiest months, with an annual crab festival, Easter and Mother's Day all hitting in quick succession.
COVID-19 changed all that, and Kristopeit-Parker thinks the city's restaurant community is in for more hard times. "Denver was on the cusp of being such a great dining scene, but unfortunately, places won't be able to make it with reduced capacity," she says.
But while this may be goodbye for the Fresh Fish Company, it's not for the owners. "Chef and I have talked about opening something smaller, possibly next year," Kristopeit-Parker notes. "Neither of us are ready to retire. We know there's life after Fresh Fish, and we'd love to be there for all of our loyal customers."