Teamwork, Toughness, and Tears: Keeping Restaurants Alive During a Pandemic

By Sean Gafner

It was March 12th, 2020, when twelve of us Longmont business owners first met to discuss the potential of closing our doors due to Covid-19.  We sat around a table on the patio at The Roost restaurant and talked about how we’ve adapted to 50% occupancy and how we may have to go as low as 25% occupancy.  Ideas were shared about how to pivot and keep sales up through curbside takeout and delivery options; also shared were concerns about all of the new costs and risks involved with changing our business model at breakneck speeds.  We all agreed that if we can continue to support each other as friends rather than see each other as competitors, that we stand a chance to get through this...together.

This is an image from the business owners meeting just over a year ago; an image of business owners trying to hold each other up without a footing from which to hold themselves.

Within one week of this initial meeting all dining rooms and retail stores in Boulder County were forced to close.  The Roost and others tried to make it work with takeout and delivery, adding items like family-style meals and canned cocktails.  For many of us, however, forcing this “pivoted” business model caused us to lose more money and expose more staff and customers to the virus than it was worth.  The decision had to be made to close completely and hope not to lose too much capital to eventually reopen someday “on the other side of this thing”.

Of my last twenty-two years in this industry, the next couple of weeks were by far the most difficult.  We had 135 employees between our 3 restaurants and after our first week of trying to do business in this new world, we ended up having to layoff 110 of them.  We had 110 difficult conversations that we didn’t know how to end because there was no end in sight.  We spent weeks helping staff file for unemployment and negotiate rent with landlords and apply for utilities help with the city.  We had our employees help us clean and store dishes and furniture for a couple of hours in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in perishable food and beverage inventory.  We bought cases of fruit and made boxed meals for our staff, as well as any local children under the age of 16, that we gave out for free every day until things began to reopen three months later.  

March 17th, 2020, the St. Patrick’s Day for which we had already purchased a thousand dollars of Irish Beer and Whiskey, we locked our doors and drank “Irish Car Bombs” with our management team.  We thanked them for how flexible they had been the last few weeks as it seemed sometimes that the rules were changing by the hour.  We thanked them for the last five years of passionate work to help us build the business family that we were so proud of.  We tried to let them know that although we have no idea what the future holds, they will always be family and we are in this with them.  We cried together…hard.

Last Summer and Fall we were able to reopen all three of our restaurants for four glorious months.  We applied for extra outdoor seating capacity and an extended liquor license premises and though we were at a limited capacity we were able to be a profitable business once again.  Staff and customers alike were happy and healthy and for a short time the atmosphere was light, and the energy was positive!  Then in November we were forced to close our dining rooms again and take another run at takeout only.  A few weeks into this round of takeout-only service we had a small Covid-19 outbreak amongst our staff and decided to completely shut down operations once again. 

There were a few things that seemed easier about closing a second time but a lot more that were actually more difficult.  Staff that had made lemonade out of the lemons they had received in the Spring, were less sure they could do the same coming into Winter.  We again offered what we had to offer.  We took the little bit of money that we made during the four months that we were open and gave it away as bonuses.  Rebecca and I made holiday gifts that we delivered to every employee’s home [that we could find] going from house to house to say, “we miss you and we’re thinking about you”.  We cried…hard.

We know that there are many restaurants and bars, many lives given to the dream of owning one’s own place, that will never reopen; we know of the crushed dreams and lost livelihoods.  We know that there are so many restaurant workers who have spent their entire adult lives in this difficult line of work; twenty, thirty, forty plus years honing skills of cooking and serving will be set on the back burner as many search for work in other industries.

Today is March 16th, 2021, exactly 365 days after our first closure.  We are changed people running a changed business.  We are in our third week of our third opening at The Roost, our second of three restaurants that we’ve been able to reopen so far.  We’ve once again rallied enough hope to run together with a great staff back into the foggy unknown.  Our loyal customers have burst into our doors bringing gifts and flowers and hugs and ordering too much food and tipping too much cash. Spirits are high, food and drink quality is high, the building is squeaky clean, and we are incredibly grateful to be here.   Before we reopened, we gathered our staff of 72 incredible humans to spend a day together for training and for connection.  We shared stories of hardship and fear and loss.  We shared stories of hope and healing and triumph.  All shared something they were thankful for and most were thankful for each other.  We cried…hard.

- Sean Gafner is Owner of The Roost, Jefe's, and Smokin' Bowls