Community helps pull local restaurants through - so far
September 9, 2020
Local restaurants are hanging on thanks to an outpouring of support from the community, Boulder County grants, loans from the federal government and creative offerings. But the first yellow leaves of fall are creating fear for eateries that now depend on outdoor dining.
"This is the really important piece; the community has kept us in business," said Michael Tomich, co-owner of Old Oak Coffeehouse in Old Town Niwot. "They have been incredibly supportive."
"We have had an outpouring of support," said Tara Kpogoh-Narh, co-owner of Niwot Tavern in Cottonwood Square. "People bought gift certificates and didn't use them. They just said you can have it."
Both restaurants got federal PPP loans in the spring and grants from Boulder County that helped them get by when things were at their worst. "That allowed us to stay in business," said Tomich.
Early on, Tomich said business was down 80%. Now it is off 30%. But that leaves little margin for error. "I was just cringing at renewing a 400 to 500 dollar liquor license," Tomich said. Liquor sales are still down significantly, but he wants to stay optimistic. "I think It's important to hold on to that because that's a hard thing to get."
Tomich has had to swallow other things as well, like buying paper plates and cups that cost more, but can't be avoided. The shop is exhibiting and selling coffee mugs made by local ceramic artists - a reminder of the way people used to drink coffee. It's a little thing that he hopes will draw people in.
Warm weather has customers hanging out on the patio and stretching into parking spaces along 2nd Avenue, especially for the popular Spaghetti Saturdays, which have become vital to his bottom line. Those Saturdays don't feature regular live music anymore, but there was a recent night when the notes echoed off downtown buildings. "Our music event last week was our best night ever. We sold out of spaghetti, 65 orders, 30 orders panini. It was a community effort to come out," Tomich said.
It wasn't only customers that made it successful. Other business owners helped with setup and take down and managing traffic, Tomich said. "It had a really good feel to it. It was neat to see so many people."
Niwot loves its music. Without Rock 'n Rails, there has been a void to be filled. The Niwot Tavern jumped in with nightly music on its patio this summer. The owners teamed up with Winot Coffee to spread tables and turquoise umbrellas across parking spaces in front of the businesses. They added colorful flowers and turned any-old-night-of-the-week into a festive event.
"Music has changed our lives, and for the musicians too. They have not been able to play anywhere since March," Kpogoh-Narh said. The Tavern isn't making enough money to pay them, but offered musicians a free meal and the chance to play for tips. The best night was $350, the worst $7, but she said that even the lower paid musician was still happy to get a good meal and an audience.
Music saved the Tavern. Kpogoh-Narh said, "July was really, really bad. If we had another day like we had in July, we weren't going to make it." But the nightly event is about more than money for the musicians and the restaurant. "The Google reviews warm my heart about how we're building the community," she said.
It's going well, but Kpogoh-Narh is unsure about the future. The Tavern laid off 22 part-time people when the pandemic began. Now it's just the two owners out front serving customers, along with one other employee that allows them to each have a day off. "I'm really scared to hire back staff. We don't want to hire them back and deal with that emotional rollercoaster if that happens," Kpogoh-Narh said.
Pizza place Lucky Pie closed down, offering a warning of what could happen, especially when the weather turns. "Scared to death," Kpogoh-Narh said. Tents and heaters are being talked about for local restaurants so they can continue offering critical outdoor dining space.
Tomich is also looking ahead. "I do worry if it gets cold and people don't sit out on the patio or don't walk downtown to get a cup of coffee. It's make or break this winter."
He's been talking with other local restaurant owners, daring to imagine a brighter future. "If we can make it through this winter, I think maybe we made it," he said. "If we can just hang in and make it through this, it might be kind of a neat experience on the other end."
Cheers to that.