Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

Local restaurants trying to survive with new business models


March 25, 2020 | View PDF

Patricia Logan

The new Motherlode Cafe is doing takeout and delivery until the patio can open again.

It's not the way Leland Oxley expected to launch his Gunbarrel restaurant, Motherlode. In less than two weeks he opened the new restaurant, closed down the dining room, started a carryout and delivery business and began room service for all of five guests staying at the nearby Hampton Suites hotel.

"At some point you just say it is what it is and make the best of it," said Oxley.

Motherlode isn't the only restaurant suffering after the coronavirus forced Gov. Jared Polis to limit all restaurants in the state to takeout and delivery. Oxley and other restaurant owners are laying off much of their staff as they try to hang on with to-go options until the crisis passes.

This is not the first disaster for Oxley, who is relying on the wisdom and experience that is reflected in his chin-length graying hair. Oxley evacuated his home in Gold Hill when the Fourmile Fire hit Boulder in 2010. As things shut down, the community banded together to support one another in different ways. He used his skills as a chef and threw a free barbeque for the neighborhood. Many of the guests asked about the delicious sauce, so he bottled it for people to take home. Out of the ashes came his business, Motherlode Provisions. It sells sauces and a Bloody Mary mix to Whole Foods and other grocery stores.

"To some degree, this reminds me of the Fourmile Fire," he said. "Being someone who lived through an experience like that, you feel a little bit different about situations like this--a sense of community and pulling together as a community family. There is a sense of responsibility on our part. We're not just a business here to make money. We're going to operate as your place to get food, to come get it or we'll bring it to you. We're in this together."

Cafe Blue owner Kevin Middleton said his restaurant is doing one-third of the business they were doing before the pandemic. He's had to let go of six of his staff. He appreciates that some customers are supporting the restaurant by ordering takeout and is grateful that he has a relatively small restaurant in a good location in the Gunbarrel Shopping Center, surrounded by a fairly affluent neighborhood. But he worries about other restaurants, businesses and the overall health of the community.

"We're all in this boat together. The restaurant business isn't only business suffering," said Middleton. "There will be a trickle-down. We're praying for everybody and we want to thank everybody who can and does support us and hope that everybody stays out of harm's way and it passes quickly with everyone doing all the right things to prevent the spread."

Middleton may be in a better position than others to survive the downturn. Gunbarrel has had a rocky few years of restaurants coming and going. Cafe Blue has been in business for 16 years. Middleton believes his success is based on a connection with the restaurant's customers, along with consistent quality and service.

"We get a lot of return trips," said Middleton. "We know many of our customers on a personal level. It's an amazing experience. We enjoy what we're doing, our staff does, and it shows. I think customers feel that."

Getting that loyal customer base has been harder for other local restaurants who opened up a few years ago when 600 new apartments were built in the area near King Soopers. Of those, Protos and Apertivo said they are doing well. Sanchos is still open with good reviews online.

Dannik's, The Morning Table, Gurkhas and Element Bistro are no more. Raglin Market is temporarily closed, citing a kitchen fire in February. The management didn't return calls to say when, or if, they will reopen.

Seeing restaurants fail is disappointing to Apertivo owner Edward Vanegas, who said he likes having competition and local colleagues in the business.

"We want a collection of restaurants and shops to be part of the village," said Vanegas. "We want you to be creative, have good service, good pricing based on market research. We are a big fan of people who open a small business."

He proved that this week when he reached out to Motherlode to brainstorm how they could weather the storm together as they limp along with takeout and delivery. Vanegas thinks everyone benefits when restaurants communicate and share ideas. Having multiple establishments creates a vibrant atmosphere that literally feeds on itself. Customers may eat at one restaurant but notice others they may try in the future.

Creating a sense of community within and around restaurants may be what it takes to make it in Gunbarrel, with or without a health crisis. Venegas co-owns Apertivo with chef Miguel Vazquez, who is on-site seven days a week.

"There is an owner on the property every day and every shift. I believe that is one of the important components for us. You know if you frequent us, you'll have an owner that will meet you at the door. You'll know the menu is chef-driven," Vanegas said before coronavirus set in.

The restaurant is trying to carve out its own niche in the new takeout world, offering entire meals for families and one-person multi-course offerings. With thinned-out grocery shelves, they see a need for gourmet, fusion dishes that are well-priced.

In the future, Apertivo will refocus on broadening its customer base beyond Gunbarrel. Vanegas said the restaurant appreciates having hundreds of apartments at Apertivo's doorstep, but that isn't enough. He already uses Facebook and other marketing strategies to widen the circle.

This summer he plans to go even bigger with his outreach, organizing an arts festival. That is, if people can safely gather in public by then. The idea is to attract people to Gunbarrel as a whole, so they can become familiar with what area restaurants and businesses have to offer.

The festival would be held near Apertivo and Apex Apartments on Spine Road, north of Lookout Road. He's hoping the area will become a village center for Gunbarrel where regular events can be held.

Venegas has seen this strategy work before. He created a food truck festival with music in the Prospect neighborhood of Longmont in 2011. It brought out the neighbors and introduced new people to the local shops and restaurants. Venegas owns Urban Thai in Prospect and credits the festival with building up his clientele.

He thinks Gunbarrel can support a lively restaurant scene in the future. He isn't sure why several restaurants went out of business in the past few years, but he speculates that part of it may have been just too many at once, saturating the market before individual restaurants could get traction.

"It might be that there was a tipping point. Maybe the community can only support so many," he said. Along with widening the net of potential customers, Venegas said it comes down to working hard to provide a great experience for each individual who walks through the door.

"We run our business every single day trying to earn respect and patronage with every single meal, service and pricing. It's not taken for granted," he said.

Attracting and keeping loyal customers may be even more difficult in these unprecedented times. Motherlode's owner, Oxley, is counting on his successful experience with a previous iteration of the restaurant.

Motherlode was in Longmont for two years before closing because of issues with location and rent. Oxley had been keeping his eyes open for new opportunities. He knew some of the owners of Element Bistro and thought it had potential. The deal to purchase the restaurant included one of the previous owners.

Changing the signage from Element to Motherlode is a work in progress. Oxley has one temporary sign and is planning to put up more, as well as a tent where they'll have to-go breakfast items and pick up for other meals. The interior is updated and ready for customers when the time comes. He enhanced the wood and iron decor to create a mountain town feel that fits with the restaurant's name and concept.

The menu is based on what worked for him in Longmont. It features Motherlode's original barbeque sauces and Bloody Mary mix. The sauces will be at the tables and on the menu, which Oxley describes as "accessible" with a mix of comfort food and more upscale dishes. Dine-in breakfast will eventually feature fresh-baked bread and several unique offerings based on the most popular items from the previous restaurant.

"All of our food is scratch cooking from the best ingredients we can source," said Oxley. "They tend to be a little bit more expensive but that's what you find with restaurants that are dedicated to good quality and good service."

Oxley previously visited some of the restaurants that failed in Gunbarrel and said he learned from what he saw. Along with being a chef and owner, he's also a restaurant consultant. He did extensive research before opening at the new location.

"It always comes down to quality and service. I think most people, especially in Boulder County, have an expectation for how they like to be greeted, seated, served and closed out," said Oxley, who plans to circulate through the restaurant to get feedback from customers.

Motherlode is also emphasizing a sense of community, which he believes starts from within. Before the dining room was closed, he got all of his kitchen staff back from the previous restaurant, which he said is a testament to the way they were treated. Some are still with him, others are on standby as he tests the to-go business model while several have already filed for unemployment.

Once the doors are fully open, Oxley intends to host "tap takeovers" with local breweries on the patio and other events on the rooftop. "It feels more like a backyard party at that point," he said.

Creating a community feel is also the focus of Rusty Melon, which is still planning to open a second location in Gunbarrel later this spring. They've found success in Erie with a personal style.

"We're a neighborhood food experience, very community-based," said Justine Meyers who owns the business with her husband, Rusty Greenlee. "We love our neighbors. Our neighbors are our family. We want to give them a place to call home."

Rusty Melon plans to feature the same Erie menu of burgers and pub food along with hosting weekend karaoke. The owners are aware of the recent failures of Gunbarrel restaurants, but that doesn't scare them. They've already faced challenges in building up the Erie location.

"We came in and we took over a dive bar that had a terrible reputation. We worked very hard. It took about six months to turn it around. And every day we worked it got busier and busier," said Meyers.

New and established restaurants are hoping they can hang on long enough to see their labor, experience and patience pay off in the long run.


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