Tessa Delicatessen owner Vince Howard thought he had left the world of dinner service behind when he opened his first sandwich shop in Los Angeles. Breakfast and lunch were a better fit for Howard's family life and desire to get out of fine dining.
He brought that thought with him when he moved to Denver. And the plan was going smoothly for the first few months at Tessa, which he opened at the end of 2019 at 5724 East Colfax Avenue. The chef/owner was slowly attracting a neighborhood clientele, and if business wasn't exactly booming, it was growing in a way that suited his pace. But that was before the pandemic, and before every restaurant in town was forced to figure out how to make ends meet with takeout and delivery only.
"In a lot of ways, I felt lucky," Howard says as he points to Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant and Phoenician Kabob across Colfax. "Most of what we do was designed for takeout. These places are used to having people sitting down for long meals."
But the pandemic has proven a long and difficult ordeal for nearly every type of restaurant, food truck, caterer and other business relying on serving food to people. Howard attempted to add delivery but was burned early on by third-party delivery services, as drivers ignored mask policies and became belligerent when confronted.
"I'm kind of old-school," the chef admits. "I thought we could just use the phone to take orders, but customers wanted online ordering. And once I had it in place, it doubled what we were doing in a single day."
Online ordering (for pick-up, not delivery) was only one of the ways Howard changed his thinking to help his restaurant survive. But the biggest change, from his perspective, was adding a dinner menu. Beyond Reubens, Cubanos, muffalettas and other deli classics, Tessa now sells pasta dishes, risotto, burgers, salads and roasted vegetables from 2 to 7 p.m. Howard explains that he wanted to keep things inexpensive for customers and fairly easy for his kitchen while offering families additional options. The chef in him still come out, though; he's making burger buns from scratch (you can also find them on Tessa's breakfast sandwiches), and the pasta choices include penne with brisket and portobello mushrooms or linguini with salmon, both of which ring in at $15 or less.
The end of November were the darkest days for Tessa, and Howard wasn't sure if he'd be able to pull through. The business had been unable to qualify for grants and loans available to the restaurant industry because he couldn't show the 25 percent drop in revenue that most programs required for qualification; Tessa was too new. So he and his wife, Jessica, turned to the community for support and received enough direct contributions to allow the business to survive the winter. Howard says that gift card purchases have been a pleasant surprise, too.
And Howard kept adding more ways to keep his customers coming back. Now you can stop in for a sandwich or entree and leave with a bottle of tequila (one of several choices from the bar beyond beer, wine and cocktails), a bag of locally roasted coffee beans, and a few pantry staples for your home cooking needs — all in addition to deli meats and cheeses by the pound and Tessa's housemade cookies and soups. Other attractions have included pop-up dinners and weekend specials (ramen, banh mi and other off-menu dishes have proven popular), barbecue nights, guest chefs (such as the recurring Mama Jo's Biscuits appearances from Ben and Jodi Polson) and various versions of NTMRKT, the traveling food and artisan-goods market that started with KREAM Kimchi pop-ups and added more vendors over the past several months. The next one up is BRNCH MRKT, which will take place from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. this Sunday, January 31.
Howard expresses a little more confidence now than he did a month or two ago that Tessa will battle through the remainder of the pandemic and come out stronger, making the changes necessary to keep going. But his humility shows through as he talks about the rest of Denver's dining scene: "It's so much harder for some of them than it has been for me, and I want to see them all make it."
Tessa Delicatessen is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for breakfast, lunch and dinner for takeout and limited indoor and patio seating. Call 720-746-9138 for details.
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