COLORADO SPRINGS — In order to ensure they rebound from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants have changed the entire way they do business to meet the current Level Red restrictions in El Paso County. But one local group of restaurants and bars decided to close temporarily, around a week before the restrictions were announced.
The owner of The Rabbit Hole is Joseph Campana, who also owns Stir Coffee, Supernova, Bonny and Read, Shame & Regret, and Cork & Cask. Campana decided to close all of them, rather than risk his employee's health. "How do you weigh economy over lives? How do you do that?" asked Campana.
He said it does not make sense right now to be open, and that this is different than the situation in the spring when there were increased unemployment benefits. "We have enough money for the next five or six months to get us through for rent, which is great, but you know last time we loaned employees money. We couldn't do that this time," explained Campana.
Between all of the businesses, around 120 employees are furloughed. However, Campana said he cannot stand the thought of losing one of his employees to COVID-19. While Bonny and Read did not experience any cases of the virus, Campana said The Rabbit Hole had around a dozen between customers and employees. "One employee, she's 26, 27 years old. She's young, she's healthy, she eats organic, she went to the ER one night, she couldn't breath," said Campana, talking about one of his employees who did contract the virus.
At a place like The Rabbit Hole, which is an underground restaurant, there's not much room for outdoor seating. Just a few steps away, Bonny and Read does have an area for outdoor tables. However, Campana said for the small amount of parties it would seat, it would not be financially feasible, especially when spending so much on things like face masks or gloves. "I feel bad because they're all trying to put something together to get us back open again, and I'm against it," said Campana, while discussing the adaptations being taken by other businesses.
But Campana is not alone, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association's November Restaurant Impact Survey Report. While restaurants believe winterizing a patio would increase revenue and save jobs, they also report the process on average would cost $17,630.
Campana guesses his restaurants and bars will be open again in the first half of 2021. On The Rabbit Hole's website, it says they will reopen when they can seat 50% of their capacity.
One of his employees is Sophie Mark, who is currently the general manager of The Rabbit Hole. She said that restaurant alone has around 40 staff members. "I feel a little bit more at ease knowing my staff is safe, but there is a part that is genuinely sad," said Mark.
Mark pointed out that outdoor dining does lack a certain element of the restaurant's interior. "People do come to The Rabbit Hole for the ambiance... It just doesn't have that feel, it doesn't have that allure, the excitement, that really is the Rabbit Hole. That is our identity," said Mark.
After over a decade in the service industry, Mark said this year is more difficult than ever. "We're not health care professionals, we're not frontline workers. But during a pandemic, it has reached a whole new height of exhaustion for restaurant workers, for bartenders, for hostesses, for anybody in a restaurant environment right now, it is a difficult time... We need to make sure that we are respecting, that we are appreciating, and that we are understanding the hard work that everybody in this industry is putting in," said Mark.
However, while some choose to close their doors, others are adapting yet again to the new restrictions. Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar in Colorado Springs just opened in January, but after about three months, the restaurant had to close because of the pandemic. They reopened in June, and were successful through the summer. "Had a great time at 50% capacity, did some wonderful business out in the street during Dine Out Downtown, and then as the weather turned cold we had to get a little more creative," said General Manager Johnathan Shankland.
Now, with only two tables outside, Jax is banking on their takeout service. They have a limited delivery area to ensure the food is still warm when it reaches the destination. "We try to get them cooked, fresh, hot and out the door right away," said Shankland.
Right now, they only have around 15 employees, but started the year at around 40 staff members. "We're just happy that we have some folks working. Whatever business we can do, we're happy to do," said Shankland.
The block of South Tejon where Jax is located will be installing surfaces over parking spots to create more space for outdoor tables. For Shankland, it will mean he can schedule an additional 14 shifts a week.
They did see a sharp decrease in service right after the Level Red restrictions were enforced. However, Shankland said they have set up "ghost kitchens," where they partner with other restaurants to sell their food through Jax. For instance, they now offer fried chicken from The Post Brewing Co. "We're doing a little bit of business in a lot of different ways, by trying to appeal to a broader audience. Fresh seafood is definitely a niche kind of menu," said Shankland.
Jax has other projects to expand their menu as well, including those focused on chicken tenders, lasagna, and a Christmas Eve theme.
CLICK HERE to read more from the Colorado Restaurant Association about the COVID-19 pandemic.