For nearly 15 years, Virgilio Urbano has served up some of the most acclaimed and popular pizzas in Jefferson County, first from a small storefront in Lakewood and later a much larger restaurant in South Jeffco.
But over the last six months, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the long-thriving operation to one that is barely hanging on.
“We’re still off about 25 to 30 percent (in sales) which basically keeps the doors open barely and means I am able to make payroll and pay,” said Urbano. “But me personally, I make nothing.”
It’s a situation that has left Urbano, who said he was planning to retire in the next five to seven years, unsure about the present — let alone the future.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “It’s very stressful, obviously I don’t sleep well but we are trying to do the best we can to continue to navigate this.”
Although Urbano is facing challenges ranging from reservation no-shows to customers who continue to cuss and yell at his employees for trying to enforce the state’s mask rules, he said one of the biggest issues keeping him up at night is about how the restaurant will make up for the business that will be lost when customers are no longer willing to eat on the restaurant’s expanded patio.
That patio, which is has 7 tables and makes up about 1/3 of the tables customers are currently allowed to sit at, has been one of the saving graces for Virgilio’s during the summer months. But now, Urbano is starting to worry about how long customers will be willing to continue to dine outside and wonder what he can do to make outdoor dining a possibility during the winter months.
“We have an outdoor fire pit that I just got repaired but that doesn’t do much,” Urbano said. “But you can’t have everybody around the fire because you have to maintain social distancing.”
That concern is one that has been on the minds of restaurant owners across the county and is increasingly leading them toward solutions that are as intriguing as they are unorthodox.
For Scott Spears, the owner of multiple restaurants and retail stores in Arvada, those planned solutions include converting a 40-foot long school bus into a three or four table dining space that will be parked outside of School House Kitchen and Libations — provided the streets of Olde Towne Arvada are permitted by the city to stay open as they have for the past several months.
“We’re all asking ourselves where we need to invest money which is hard because we don’t really have money coming in right now,” Spears said. “We’re always trying to do new things, even during the dining room shutdown we tried new things to try to get through this.”
Meanwhile at Gaby’s German Eatery in Lakewood, owner Gaby Berben’s husband is working to enclose the small restaurant’s handful of outdoor tables in a heated space that will allow customers to comfortably dine there through the winter.
Berben said that while she is confident that plan will at least allows the business to continue to operate in the diminished state it has been in since the start of the pandemic, the public’s preference for outdoor space has created several challenges.
“I wish we had more reservations,” said Berben, who notes that more reservations from customers would allow the restaurant to better prepare to serve them in this time of so many added challenges.
Those challenges will only compound as the pandemic continues and restaurants must figure out how to make it for even longer periods of time at a limited capacity. In Urbano’s mind, it all adds up to a threat to not only his restaurant but the entire industry — particularly if the government does not take more action to help restaurants like Virgilio’s.
“Who is going to be left?” he said. “It’s going to be the Olive Gardens and all the places that can have the corporate money and they can issue bonds and sell stock and have access to liquidity to stay open and absorb this whereas the mom and pop’s get nothing. If you need a $10 million loan you can get that but if you need a $22,000 loan you can’t because the chances are you going to fail and they are never going to get that money.”
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