Food News

Op-Ed: Two Years Into COVID-19, Local Restaurants Need Our Support More Than Ever

La Chiva on South Broadway made it through the pandemic and a move to a new location across the street.
La Chiva on South Broadway made it through the pandemic and a move to a new location across the street. Molly Martin
March 16, 2020, is a day that no Denver restaurant owner, operator or worker will ever forget. It was a sunny, 60-something-degree Monday in the Mile High City, on the cusp of spring, but the feeling among the local restaurant community was dark, ice-cold and downright scared. That was the day that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ordered the shutdown of indoor dining due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus — and the day that marked the beginning of the worst two years in living memory for restaurants in Denver, in Colorado and across the country.

Since then, our hospitality industry has struggled to survive under the impact of COVID-related operational restrictions, a dire labor shortage, skyrocketing costs and a dearth of federal relief that has led to billions of dollars in lost revenue.

There were two separate indoor-dining shutdowns in 2020, which lasted into 2021 and resulted in an estimated 94,000 Colorado restaurant workers losing their jobs. Thousands of businesses closed — many for good. For those that reopened, there were capacity restrictions and an understandable decline in consumer confidence to cope with.

The cost of food, supplies and alcohol have risen exponentially since 2020, hamstringing operators even on the good days, when global supply-chain disruptions didn’t prevent them from sourcing the items they needed. A glimmer of hope shone through in spring 2021, when the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund launched, but that $28.6 billion in industry grants was depleted in less than two weeks, and 3,099 Colorado restaurant applicants were left out in the cold.

The hospitality business, no matter how it looks from the outside, is far from operating as usual.
click to enlarge Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. - COLORADO RESTAURANT ASSOCIATION
Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.
Colorado Restaurant Association
You’ve surely noticed the results: More than 60 percent of local restaurants have cut back on hours or days of operation, so your favorite spots may no longer offer brunch or lunch, or might be closed on days when they used to be open. Nine out of ten restaurants are increasing menu prices to offset rising costs, which affects the check total at the end of your meal and, in turn, your bank account, amid economic inflation the likes of which Americans haven’t seen since the 1970s.

What you may not see is that eight out of ten restaurants are struggling to hire enough staff right now and local operators have racked up an average of $180,000 in pandemic-related debt.

The sad truth is that even though your favorite coffee shop or sushi bar may look busy and thriving, it’s likely that more Colorado restaurants will close in 2022 than did in 2020 or 2021 due to the lingering effects of the pandemic. In fact, the percentage of local restaurants considering permanent closure within the next year — 54 percent — has doubled over the past six months, and that was before replenishment of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund was left out of the bipartisan spending bill making its way through Congress.

Thank goodness that spring 2022 is on its way, and Denver Restaurant Week is here, too; it lasts through Sunday, March 20. The timing couldn’t be better, providing a crucial boost to our beloved restaurants on the anniversary of tragedy. Please participate in any way that works for you — through in-person dining, takeout or delivery — and show your gratitude to the workers you encounter, not just this week, but as the coming seasons unfold.

Restaurants are the beating heart of our communities, and the workers that make them special need to know that we appreciate all they’ve done for us over the past two years. Together, we can — and must — support them, just as they’ve supported us.

Sonia Riggs is the president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

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