Last July, the mood at Slater's 50/50, which was just opening at 3600 Blake Street, wasn't quite as festive as at most restaurant debuts. Customers were certainly pleased with their big, topping-laden burgers and even bigger milkshakes, and staffers were on their toes making sure everything was running smoothly. But the brand-new eatery was opening in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and nobody knew exactly which direction the statistics would go.
"By the time we were getting going, we were into the summer, and we didn't know if the worst of it was over," says Charlie Murray, the franchise owner of Colorado's first Slater's, a small chain out of southern California.
Murray recalls having some discussions about not opening at all, but after two years of working to make it happen, he'd already gotten too far to turn back easily. So the opening continued, with all Denver restaurants at 50 percent capacity, but with the city at least allowing establishments to expand their patios onto previously restricted spaces. Slater's added outdoor seating onto the 36th Street side of the building to go along with the existing patio on the Blake Street side.
But the problem at the time wasn't the number of seats; it was finding customers to fill those seats, even at reduced capacity. "We chose this location and built around the idea of proximity to employment and events," Murray explains.
Above Slater's, an office building held more than 1,500 workers — who all vanished as working from home became the norm last spring. And as the concerts, conventions, sporting events and other activities that should have been drawing thousands of potential customers to the RiNo neighborhood dried up, so did restaurant business. The north end of the RiNo neighborhood has far fewer residential areas than the apartment-heavy blocks to the south, so relying on takeout and delivery wasn't really an option. November's cold weather and the uptick in COVID cases were the writing on the wall: Murray closed his burger bar until a time that he could see the possibility of rebuilding a customer base.
After four months with the doors locked, Murray saw hope, so he reopened Slater's on March 1, recognizing that at 25 or 50 percent capacity, fifty guests were the top end of the space's capacity, given the six-foot distancing requirement. Slowly, burger fans began to return, drawn to the O.G., a burger made with a 50/50 blend of ground beef and bacon, as well as to the wings and the Vampire Dip, a garlicky artichoke dip served in a sourdough bread bowl. The owner says Fridays and Saturdays have been busy (by pandemic standards, at least), with customers keeping things hopping until the midnight closing time. But on other nights, Murray has had to make changes to keep the lights on.
"We're trying to be as lean as possible on labor...and on the cost of goods," Murray notes. To keep costs down, he's pared back the menu and eliminated happy hour (for now, at least). Recently, the Slater's corporate team rolled out an elk burger for $15 that came with a free beer, and that special did well for the Denver outpost. And one new item was added to the permanent menu, he continues: "We put a fried chicken sandwich on the board — us and just about every other restaurant last year. But it has been a good seller for us. And what's really surprising is how many people come in just for a shake."
Over the past month and a half, Murray has seen a return of regular customers, some coming in once a week or so and others stopping in even more frequently. And he's also seen a fair number of purple jerseys (as well as those of opposing teams) since the Rockies' season began earlier this month. "But business is still not even a fraction of what it should be in this neighborhood," he adds.
As more people receive COVID vaccines and the weather (slowly) improves, Murray has been trying to hire more employees, but he points out that the entire industry is short-staffed, which he attributes partially to unemployed restaurant workers moving to other industries and partly to people taking a cautious approach to rejoining the workforce.
Slater's 50/50 has never seen its restaurant filled to the capacity it was built for, and Murray has given up trying to remember what color Denver is on the state's COVID dial. Whether it's blue or yellow or orange, he still hasn't seen more than a handful of workers in the building's offices above. But more customers are beginning to come in from the nearby RTD train station, many of whom are coming and going from Denver International Airport, Murray has observed. And he counts each person who walks through the doors as one step closer to getting to full business. "We're just hanging in there — hoping that we get to 'the other side of this,' as they say," he notes. "It's still an exploratory process for us."
Slater's 50/50 is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until midnight on Friday and Saturday. Call 720-387-7177 or visit the restaurant's website for menus and online ordering for delivery and curbside pick-up.
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