Like many of you, I have enjoyed the expanded outdoor dining areas downtown and all over Boulder this summer. Since it rarely rains here anymore, it is a pretty good bet that the warm evenings will be perfect for sitting out and enjoying cocktails and a great meal.
And all of that outdoor seating often seems very busy. Waiting for a table is not uncommon in the evenings. Several friends have commented that restaurants must be thrilled now that customers are back and business is booming again. Seems almost like a normal summer season in Boulder. Of course, it is anything but a normal summer. Yes the outdoor seating areas are often busy but the appearance of boom times is deceiving to say the least.
Last week I went downtown and had lunch with my friend, Peter Waters, who owns T/ACO on Walnut Street. We sat on his patio from about 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Now for those who are fans of T/ACO, you know that lunches are always busy there and Taco Tuesdays are jam packed from opening to close. For years, I have avoided Tuesdays because getting a seat is such a headache.
So I was shocked when halfway through lunch, Peter reminded me it was Taco Tuesday. There was no wait and, for much of our lunch, there was no one at the tables around us. It is most definitely not a normal summer in Boulder.
During our meal, Peter walked me through the evolution of his business during the pandemic and the math involved in restaurant survival during these bizarre and difficult times.
It was a Monday in the middle of March when word came down that restaurants had to shut down all onsite dining the next day. Takeout and delivery would be the new business model for everyone until further notice. This was unthinkable and probably not survivable. But then a few days later, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order that allowed restaurants to sell alcohol to go. That move turned out to be a lifesaver for many establishments, including T/ACO.
Peter’s crew soon learned that their signature street tacos do not travel well and were not going to work for a successful takeout business. So they ditched the tacos and started offering only burritos along with homemade chips and margaritas. The switch worked. For the next two months, the to-go business was strong, especially alcohol sales. But even on good days, the volume was never more than half of normal times.
Then in late May came the long-awaited return of onsite dining — with lots of restrictions of course. The T/ACO crew opted not to reopen their indoor space since it is so small and didn’t allow for the required spacing. Instead, Peter worked with the city and expanded his outdoor seating to include several parking spaces on Walnut.
While this has worked well and there is often a wait in the evenings, things are far from normal. Even with his new outside space, he has 55 total seats compared to 115 before COVID-19. So while business is better than April and May, sales are still about 65 percent of normal, even on good days.
Of course, Peter is one of the lucky ones. He reacted quickly and made big changes to his business model that have allowed him to survive, pay his bills and keep his core staff employed. Many have not been as fortunate. Mountain Sun will not reopen until next spring. Brasserie Ten Ten, The Med and Via Perla are gone forever. Others are barely hanging on and may not make it through the fall and winter.
Speaking of winter, I asked Peter how he feels about the coming change in seasons. “One word” he replied. “Horrible.” He does think about it constantly though and he is busy working on ways to expand the takeout business and offer more ways to enjoy T/ACO food at home.
But until there is a vaccine and people can once again feel comfortable in crowded indoor spaces, the restaurants in Boulder and everywhere else will suffer. Many will not survive even with more government assistance.
So get out this summer! Enjoy the warm weather, cold drinks and great food. And when the snow flies, don’t forget to return to takeout mode if you are not comfortable inside restaurants. The future of our small businesses and a big part of the local economy depend on our support.
Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.