Erika Thomas is the chef-owner of High Point Creamery, and along with her team makes award-winning ice creams at 215 South Holly Street, 3977 Tennyson Street and 2669 Larimer Street (inside the Denver Central Market).
When I was in elementary school learning about the day of the 1929 crash, I didn’t understand why so many people were so upset over such a silly thing as money. This week I got it. Their devastation wasn’t about the money; it never was.
This past Monday I watched as my friends — chefs, managers, line cooks, scoopers, servers — all staggered around the Denver Central Market trying to figure out what was happening. The look on my friends’ faces as they grappled with how to tell their teams that they no longer had jobs was heartbreaking. Giants of the Colorado food scene were ashen-faced, realizing in real time that all the work, all the dreaming and planning, all the amassed debt, all the team-building and worry and insanely long days and nights and everything else that comes with being a restaurant owner — all of it — had turned into ash. Here we are, and everything we’ve worked so hard for, our lifeblood, has irrevocably changed. Just like that.
In Colorado there are approximately 11,800 bars and restaurants, and more than 75 percent are independently owned and operated; 285,000 people work in the Colorado food-service industry. That’s 10 percent of the state’s entire workforce. That number does not include farmers, distributors, graphic designers, event planners and all of the other industries that we help support. But the bottom just fell out. I watched the backbone and soul of this industry get crushed, the wrecking of a community of creative, savvy, vibrant people whose jobs had been to offer good food and good company to the neighborhoods we serve.
Monday at the market, the Curio Bar was doing a final inventory count as Temper Chocolate cleaned their display cases. The Crema coffee counter gave us their milk and coffee beans to sell as they closed up shop; too many of their workers are scared to come in. I get it, we’re all scared. None of us wants to get sick, to spread it, to make it worse.
This is what “to go” looks like. Last Friday 250 people were eating lunch and picking up groceries for dinner [at the Denver Central Market]. This week I’ve watched people come to the door, hover, walk forward, step back, all in a strange dance of indecision, of uncertainty. Are you open, can I come in, hey, love, can I get a milkshake? Yes, of course, it just needs to be “to go.”
Beyond that? I have no idea; we’ll know more in two months.
As to where I am today: I’m exhausted, I barely sleep, I wake up at 2 a.m. and I'm up, my brain will not turn off. It’s a constant scramble of what needs to happen RIGHT NOW in order to save the business. In the early hours of being uncomfortably awake, I send the emails I haven’t had time to address during the day… Stuart: I’m open but I need to reduce the linen service. Brandon: I need more pint containers but less cups and spoons. Catherine: I’m sorry but I have to cancel my yoga membership.
This morning I asked my husband, Chad, how little money we can make in a given week until HPC is shuttered for good, we lose our house, our community. He says he doesn’t know. Today he’ll close February’s books, project our cash flow, rewrite the budget, pay sales tax — and by the way, whose turn is it to home-school the kids? Chad, being Chad, has made a color-coded schedule charting out the kids’ daily activities and school work. We try not to talk too much about what’s going on in front of them, and I try not to make all the jokes I want to about how much fun it’ll be when we’re camping full time, or which of our friends has the nicest basement for us to live in (by the way, Heidi, it’s you!). They are still little and don’t really understand why they are not in school and what the world is dealing with.
Everything feels so heightened, so life-and-death. We’re all trying so hard not to fail each other, to do the right thing, to remember to be kind. At 10 p.m., Yasmín, a chef at the Denver Central Market, group-texted that she had found gallons of hand sanitizer and will drop some off to anyone in need. Within my own awesome team, Rae, Rochelle and Megan have volunteered to give up their hours for other employees who need the paycheck more. Brian, a customer, came in to buy some scoops for his boys. I remember a not-too-long-ago night when Brian and his wife stopped in to grab a pint of Mint Chocolate Bark on their way home from the hospital, their brand-new baby in tow; last week, Liam turned five. I try not to cry in front of them. Everyone’s grace and kindness are so overwhelming.
The real devastation the day of the Great Crash was not about the money; it never was. It was always about the community that had been created, and then watching all of it get dismantled in a single day. I get that now.
By 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, almost 7,000 Coloradans tried to claim unemployment insurance, so many people that it crashed the system. And it’s not just happening here, it’s happening everywhere.
This is an unprecedented halt to our daily way of life. Once we flatten the curve, there will be a new normal, and we’ll have no choice but to adapt if we want to survive.
In the meantime, we’ll try to-go, delivery, curbside. We’ll try it all; I will do everything I can think of to save my company, to save as much of my staff as I can. Not because I don’t care about public health or I don’t want to lose my house to our creditors.
On May 15, High Point Creamery turns six. Like all restaurants, we navigated through HPC’s challenges, and like other chef-owners, handled the personal ones — like not taking a salary, and buying our family groceries from the tips I made scooping — but it was all worth it. HPC’s motto is “Lavishly Crafting Joy,” and that is what our employees radiated into our new community, which enthusiastically supported us right back. We now gratefully have three shops, a food truck and forty stellar employees.
I will fight to keep us operating because I love my team, I love the neighborhoods that we contribute to, and I really, really love what I do. I love being there for your first dates, for when your team wins, for when they lose, for your birthdays, your friendships, your good grades, to help cheer you up, to be the bright spot in your day. I even love the drunk frat boys who order fifteen Cookies & Cream milkshakes three minutes before we close. I love it all.
This was a bad week for small businesses. This was a bad week for everyone. Now it’s time to brush off the ashes, get creative, get to work, and figure out what’s next. Together. Supporting each other, supporting our neighbors, and supporting the most vulnerable among us.
For as long as we are able to, High Point Creamery will continue to operate as artisans that make delicious ice creams. Our mission remains the same: to use happy ingredients, to make happy ice cream, in order to make you happy. We are still Lavishly Crafting Joy — but for now, only as to-go and delivery.
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