For An Estes Park Restaurant, Pandemic Dining Serves New Challenges
It’s a familiar scene inside Bird & Jim, a restaurant a few miles from the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. Families are ordering dinner. Couples drink wine on the patio. But things are clearly different, says co-owner Melissa Strong.
The servers all wear masks. Dining room tables are spaced at least seven feet apart from each other. Even the hard-cover menus have been replaced with disposable paper ones so customers aren’t touching the same surfaces.
“Unfortunately, during this time, it’s producing more waste,” Strong said. “But it’s what we have to do.”
In order to reopen for in-person dining, Colorado restaurants must follow a slew of new public health restrictions designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. They include limiting customer capacity to fewer than 50% of normal business levels. Social distancing must be observed and enforced at all times.
Many restaurant owners, including Strong, say they’re grateful to be serving customers in-person again and are happy to comply. But for most, the struggle to balance their books has only just begun.
“It’s been a very stressful time for restaurants,” said Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “Opening at some capacity is certainly a move in the right direction but we hope to see loosening of restrictions even more in the weeks to come.”
Restaurants typically operate on razor-thin margins, so opening at limited capacity ultimately means places like Bird & Jim still won’t be able to make a profit.
“It goes completely against anything a normal business owner would do,” Strong said. “But I can’t tell you how much joy it brought me to see people at these tables again.”
When the pandemic first took hold in mid-March, Strong shut the business down completely for nearly a month. She had to lay off 53 workers.
Then, after watching the state’s response to the pandemic unfold, she reopened for take-out and delivery in late April. One of the first things she did was offer discounted meals to healthcare workers.
One day, she cooked for an entire group of local hospital workers.
“It was nice to be a part of the community again,” Strong said.
Determined to keep the business running, she applied for assistance from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. After getting approved, she called employees and told them to get ready to come back to work in late May.
On May 25, Memorial Day, Bird & Jim reopened.
Thanks to the federal assistance, Strong said she doesn’t have to make payroll. But that aid is set to run out in a few months.
Local and state financial assistance has also helped locally-owned restaurants like Bird & Jim stay afloat, but those are only seen as a stopgap measure. And it’s unclear how long local restaurants will be limited to 50% capacity.
“It would be nice if Congress and everyone could get together and agree to extend the PPP,” Strong said. “That would only help us deal with limited sales.”
Meanwhile, employees are also finding it hard to adjust to the new normal. Chazz Glaze, a server and manager, said one of her biggest challenges was adjusting to having to wear a mask all day.
“It’s hard to interact with people,” she said. “They can’t see your facial expressions.”
Customers who are older or hard of hearing sometimes have trouble dealing with the muffled sound.
“So it’s trying to remember to slow down, enunciate and be more vibrant with my personality because they can’t see what I’m communicating with my face at all,” Glaze said.
On the customer side of the transaction, the hardest decision may still just be figuring out what to order. At Bird & Jim visitors are asked to wear their masks while walking to their table and if they get up to go to the restroom. Other than that, they can remove them.
Harry Britton, a customer from Indiana visiting Estes Park with his two kids, ordered a veggie burger. Businesses in his state have been open for a while and he’s relieved to see Colorado doing the same.
“It doesn’t feel that much different than when we were here before,” Britton said. “I think things are starting to get back to normal, but it’s gonna be a while.”
Owner Melissa Strong said most customers have been compliant with the restaurant’s new rules. She only had one group that refused to wear masks so far.
“I do think we’re going to have challenges,” she said. “As we get people from other states who may not have seen these requirements in their states. I think it’s just going to be a lot of talking, hand holding and explaining and going from there.”
Despite opening, Strong is still making adjustments to the restaurant’s new layout. She’s planning to install new plexiglass barriers at the bar to allow for more seating. Outside, she’s working with a local contractor to build a new, sturdier awning over the patio.
Strong has also applied for a variance with the town to build a covered tent in the restaurant’s parking lot. That way she can serve even more hungry customers outdoors, where it’s easier to social distance.
“I believe we’ll make it and we’ll survive,” Strong said. “You just have to do things right. Cut back on spending and labor and you wanna keep everyone employed as much as you can though. You want them to make money while they can because the biggest fear is that everything shuts back down again in the fall and winter.”