Simeran Baidwan, the owner of the Little India restaurants at 2390 South Downing Street and 330 East Sixth Avenue, was in no hurry to reopen his dining rooms in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. "It's such a big risk for our employees," he explains.
But after nearly five months of takeout and delivery, the South Downing Little India opened to dine-in customers on August 1, spreading out tables in the parking lot and on the existing patio to allow open-air dining for the restaurant's loyal customers.
Baidwan and his parents opened the original Little India 22 years ago and added the Sixth Avenue location several years later. The restaurateur's parents have since retired and moved back to India, but the graduate of Manual High School and the University of Denver has continued to grow the business by building catering relationships with Denver hospitals and serving familiar and comforting Indian cuisine.
"We were planning to open for dine-in on July 4, but there was a spike in cases, so we decided to wait," Baidwan notes.
His other pandemic-related decision was also driven by his commitment to Little India's employees: Baidwan never furloughed any of his staff. Instead, he shifted servers to delivery and other positions, telling them that he couldn't promise they'd collect the same kind of tip money they made waiting tables, but offering a fair hourly rate for everyone. "These employees who have been with us for fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years, it was devastating to think about telling them to just go home," he explains. "So we just adapt to these changes and keep going."
Planning has allowed Baidwan to tap into reserve funds to keep employees paid during the pandemic, he notes: "My parents always told me to save for a rainy day, and that rainy day came."
While revenue is down, the kinds of Indian dishes that Little India serves travel well, making the transition to takeout and delivery easier. And the restaurant owner points out that "our landlords at both locations have been wonderful."
Baidwan is hoping to open the second Little India to on-premises dining next week, but one thing customers won't find at either location is an all-you-can-eat buffet, because state and local health departments have made them off-limits for now. But even that restriction has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
"At one point, you were able to sample a lot of different dishes at a fairly nominal price to get acquainted with this food," he points out. "But people are more familiar with Indian food now," and both food and labor costs have dropped because maintaining a buffet required more prep time in the morning and more food — which often goes to waste — on display at lunchtime.
But Baidwan has plans for those customers who want a buffet experience; he's looking at creating a special that would offer three vegetarian options, for example, plus naan and rice, for a set price, and meat or seafood dishes could be selected for a little more. This kind of "aggressive deal," as Baidwan calls it, has helped keep the Little India name in people's minds even when they couldn't eat at the restaurant. He recently ran a special giving away three bottles of wine with the purchase of one, and also offered a free cocktail with every entree. The restaurants have also been donating thirty meals a week to several hospitals that had had to curtail their regular catering orders.
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Baidwan's approach to keeping the doors open in the long-term is about "getting over the speed bump right now. I don't think it's about percentages; it's about what we take to the bank."
Every restaurant's situation is a little different during the pandemic, and some are better built to weather the crisis than others. Baidwan knows that the masks and face shield his employees wear won't be going away any time soon, and that the outdoor seating won't help once the weather turns chilly.
But heading into the colder months, typically Little India's best time of year, the restaurant owner feels well-positioned to make it over that speed bump, as big as it might be.
Little India at 2390 South Downing (303-298-1939) is currently open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with online reservations and ordering for takeout and delivery. The Little India at Sixth and Grant (303-871-9777) is open for takeout and delivery during the same days and times.