Farley McDonough is feeling like she’s been through all of this before.
The owner of Adam’s Mountain Café in Manitou Springs said her business has survived a series of shocks: the Waldo Canyon wildfire in 2012; flooding in August 2013, when water, mud and debris poured into the restaurant, which then was located in the Manitou Spa building; a move in October 2013 to its current location on higher ground; the impacts of nearly three years of construction on the Westside Avenue project; and the closure of the Cog Railway for repairs.
So when COVID-19 hit, “we were quick to react,” McDonough said. “We knew what to do.”
Like other restaurant owners forced to close their dining areas on March 17, McDonough bolstered the to-go system she already had in place.
“I’m posting on social media every day, telling people where we are and what to expect in the next week,” she said.
McDonough is taking it day by day, but she’s concerned about how her business will fare during a lengthy spell of this “new normal” and even more worried about a possible total shutdown she feels could come at any time.
“We never fully recovered from the floods and the fires,” she said. “I just don’t know how restaurants, which have such small margins of profit, can survive these ups and downs.”
For the moment, McDonough and other restaurant owners are working hard to create new business models, banding together to fight for their survival and looking to their customers and their communities for support.
At the same time, they’re making changes that may forever alter the way restaurants do business.
McDonough took immediate steps to reduce her costs when the first round of state-ordered business closures hit.
“Within days, we had reduced the number of pickups of our trash, and we’ve contacted everybody that we have bill pays with,” she said. “I’m not paying any bills.”
Adam’s started taking curbside pick-up and carry-out orders March 16, but McDonough had to lay off all but seven of her 32 employees — and the seven who were retained have had their hours cut in half.
“I told the ones we laid off completely to file for unemployment right away,” she said.
Employees have told her they’re having trouble doing that because the online system is overloaded with applicants and keeps crashing.
McDonough is doing everything she can to help.
“All the money that we generated over the last week is going to pay the employees the hours that they worked before the shutdown,” she said Monday. “I’m only paying employees with the money that we are bringing in from to-go orders.”
McDonough considered delivery service, but when she contacted the city of Manitou Springs for a delivery license, she decided she could not afford the $500 fee. That changed again when a city employee showed up at the café Monday afternoon with two delivery permits, free of charge.
McDonough said takeout is better for the restaurant, “but if someone wants a delivery, we will absolutely do it.”
Like her fellow restaurateurs, she is grateful for assistance from the city and the continued patronage of her customers.
“We’ve been definitely feeling a lot of support from our customers and the community,” she said. “I can tell that they’re making an effort, and they’ve been tipping very, very well. The front-of-house staff have been sharing those with the kitchen staff. That does make a difference; it’s making up for a lot for them.”
Still, the restaurant’s receipts are down by nearly 92 percent.
“At some point, we’re not going to be able to order food anymore, so we’re going to start running out,” McDonough said.
“You have a minimum amount of money that you have to spend in order to get a truck to deliver to your place,” McDonough explained. “So to spend $500 on an order for food, when we could get shut down tomorrow and not be able to sell it, is not smart. We’re not going to do that, and I assume that most restaurants are not going to do that.”
McDonough said she is aware of several resources that cash-strapped employees and small businesses can tap.
The Manitou Springs Community Foundation announced Monday that it has set up an emergency fund to help residents and employees who have been laid off from local businesses or otherwise significantly impacted by COVID-19.
The foundation will give one-time payments of $500 to qualifying individuals who earn $12.10 an hour or less.
That $500 “doesn’t sound like much, but it could be a phone bill or a utility bill,” McDonough said.
Partners in the project include the city of Manitou Springs, the city’s Urban Renewal Authority, Manitou Springs Education Foundation, Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and Pikes Peak Community Foundation.
The city, chamber and Urban Renewal Authority are also looking at restarting a revolving loan fund established in 2018 to help small businesses impacted by construction and utility work, said McDonough, who is a member of the URA’s board.
The fund provided low-interest loans up to $10,000 to Manitou Springs businesses.
Partners in the program included Vectra Bank, Accion Microfinance Bank, the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center and the Business Journal’s sister publication, the Pikes Peak Bulletin.
“I don’t know where they are in the final steps of approving that change, but it’s definitely going to be another resource for people,” McDonough said.
“It was the locals and community members that worked really hard to keep us afloat after the floods, and I think that’s probably the only thing that we can really depend on now,” she said.
Restaurants in downtown Colorado Springs are working out their own takes on takeout.
Jenny Sherman and her partners, owners of Odyssey Gastropub and The Bench, have consolidated operations and are running both businesses out of Odyssey. They were able to make the switch to all takeout quickly.
“We shut down for one day,” Sherman said. “You adapt and do what you have to do to survive.”
They combined the two restaurants’ menus and are working on implementing a new online ordering system.
Besides pickup service, the restaurants are offering delivery by bicycle and foot in the 80903 area and using GrubHub for delivery of outlying orders.
Like McDonough, Sherman is grateful to have loyal customers who are purchasing food, wine, beer and cocktails to go as frequently as they can and buying gift certificates for future use.
Although the business needs only three or four of its 45 or so employees to come to work each day, “we haven’t technically laid people off,” Sherman said. “We’re trying to get as many hours for as many people as we can, and just dividing it between them. … Any tips are being divided between all of the staff, whether they’re there or not, to try and keep them going.
“We did just tell everybody that, if they can find employment elsewhere, they should go do it. But we are going to do our best to get them as many hours as we can to help them support their families.”
In addition, the business has opened up its walk-in coolers to staff and is allowing them to take as much food as they need.
Sherman said the walk-ins and pantries are well stocked for now.
“Between the two restaurants, we have quite a bit of storage,” she said. “We haven’t ordered anything yet.”
Sherman said she has talked with her food purveyor about what will be available when it’s time to order again.
“He expressed that … they might not have our products that we get, but they will have something very similar,” she said. “So it’ll just be adapting.”
Poor Richard’s Downtown has developed several ways for customers to patronize the restaurant, bookstore and toy store that are part of its complex.
“We are busy redesigning how we do business completely,” said Laszlo Palos, director of marketing and public relations. “We are trying to move as fast as this virus.”
Poor Richard’s is offering curbside pickup service in front of the business, carry-out inside — with appropriate social distancing between people waiting in line, and a second pickup area behind the restaurant.
“We are attempting to keep as many people employed as possible, but we have seen a significant downturn in sales,” he said. “We have been able to retain most of our employees who chose to stay with us through Job Attached Unemployment, in most cases with reduced hours augmented through their workshare program.”
According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, job attached unemployment is a special category that applies when an employer expects to bring an employee back to work within 16 weeks after the last day of work. Job attached unemployment recipients are not required to look for work or register with a workforce center.
Poor Richard’s has fully laid off a small number of staff, “starting with the ones who came forward to volunteer because they have other streams of income or family support,” Palos said.
The restaurant will start delivery service through DoorDash and GrubHub within the next few days.
“Our goal is to be able to bring more of those staff members back to work in a way that is safe for them, their families and our community,” Palos said. “We are working on other safe ways to expand our business model, such as online sales from our retail stores with shipping and free, no-contact pickup or delivery options (which we expect to have up and running this week), that will increase sales to allow for more staff to remain with us or to return to work.”
NEW WAYS TO DO BUSINESS
Sherman said she and her partners have talked a lot about how the changes they’re having to make will forever alter the way they do business.
“I think it’s going to affect everyone in some way permanently,” she said. “I think that we were very comfortable and happy and didn’t think something like this was really happening. I think that we’ll be prepared in a different way than we ever have been before … maybe focusing more on to-go orders or structuring your staff differently, or the amount of food that you order and how frequently you order to keep your supply at a lower par.”
McDonough is concerned about Adam’s Mountain Café’s survival, but she’s still thinking about the future.
Post-pandemic, she might scale down her capacity by renting out part of the dining area to another business.
“We will resurface in some way,” she said. “But it might be a different business model.”
The key to the survival of local restaurants may well be the unique connections they are forging through digital communication — and those could change everything, said marketing strategist Lauren Hug, owner of HugSpeak.
Culinary Distancing, a takeout, cook-in quarantine survival guide, debuted as a public group on Facebook on March 16 and already has more than 2,500 members. It’s the brainchild of Matthew Schniper, a former restaurant industry professional and former editor of the Business Journal’s sister publication, the Colorado Springs Indy. Schniper still covers the food and drink beat for the newspaper.
The group is a central platform where restaurants can directly connect with customers, but it has also become a place where restaurants can share ideas and resources and support one another.
“We have decided to send all of our brunch business to our neighbors who only serve breakfast,” founding member Eric Brenner, owner/chef at Red Gravy, posted on March 21. “No reason to compete right now for that business. Let’s all collaborate and survive.”
It has been fascinating to watch the group’s rapid evolution, said Hug, who helped Schniper brainstorm the idea for Culinary Distancing.
“It’s matchmaking in a digital age,” Hug said. “What you can see are community members asking for help from restaurants in ways I would have never thought of, and restaurants helping each other in ways I would have never thought of. [They] are solving problems collectively just by talking to each other.”
One of her favorite posts was from a rural community asking their neighbors if they’d commit to enough orders to get a food truck to come out to their region.
“There’s so many cool examples — like people saying that they’re looking for sugar and people saying, ‘I’ll drop it by tomorrow if you need me to,’ or ‘Here’s a place to get it from,’” she said. “Somebody asked where they could get a cheesecake for their son’s 19th birthday, and there’s just a wide variety of different answers. And I think one of the food trucks even said, ‘I’ll bake you one.’”
SupporttheSprings.com is another digital platform, created by Lauren McKenzie, founder and CEO of REN Creativ, that connects residents, businesses and volunteers to resources they need and needs they can fill.
These platforms represent a model of communication and engagement that could become a faster, more responsive way of solving problems — and not just for the food industry.
“In the future, I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more community-driven communication that has facilitators or moderators or curators with expertise so that you have informed opinion, but you also have community-driven solutions and conversation and dialogue,” Hug said. “And I think we’re changing to that because of our institutions not being fast enough to respond in a lot of ways.”