Pam Brier has been fighting for nine months to keep her doors open at West Main Taproom & Grill amid varying levels of public health restrictions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, the Parker restaurateur feels she has found the solution to stay in business through the pandemic: tents specially made for ice-fishing.
Brier and other Parker restaurant owners have had to scramble to find new ways to stay in business amid public health limits on indoor-dining service. Douglas County is currently under level red restrictions, which ban indoor dining but allow for outdoor service as well as take-out and delivery. While the rules have changed since the pandemic started, restaurants were permitted to offer indoor dining at 50% capacity through most of the summer and early fall.
West Main Taproom & Grill, 18595 Mainstreet, has had its tribulations through the pandemic. Even before COVID-19, Brier said the restaurant had a difficult time getting its name out there since opening in 2019. Brier has had to tailor her menu to be more to-go friendly. Curbside pickup, delivery and take-out options could not mend the restaurant’s bleeding bottom line, Brier thought.
Brier, who also owns a restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska, knew serving customers on-site would be the only way she could turn a profit. The state issued restrictions to indoor dining service Nov. 20, forcing restaurants to serve customers outside and lean on to-go orders for business. The looming winter provided little encouragement to Brier.
She looked into igloos, which were too expensive, and large tents, which didn’t provide optimal space to maximize the number of people they could serve while maintaining social distancing requirements.
Brier ended up ordering black tents specially made for ice fishing to serve individual parties on the concrete plaza on the northwest side of the Laszlo Hotel building.
She bought 10 tents at $200 a pop, not including additional LED lights for the interior, 300 one-pound propane tanks to fuel space heaters and a $1,000 “disinfecting gun.”
On the first night the first 10 tents were open, Nov. 22, West Main served four parties at each tent. They were such a hit, Brier ordered 19 more and had 29 tents up by Dec. 8. She ordered 12 more tents. Brier has spent close to $17,000, all told, on her 31 tents and the necessary equipment, she said.
“It is what it is,” Brier said. “If I didn’t do it, I would only be doing take-out. Take-out would not be how I’d survive.”
The tents, ordered in rows and numbered, give Brier the ability maximize use of the outdoor plaza, isolating each party in their own, personal space. Each comes with its own space heater. A tank of propane lasts about three hours on the lowest temperature setting.
But the cost is more than worth it, Brier said.
“What’s saving West Main right now, and these employees, are these tents,” Brier said. “It’s a fairytale.”
The tents have done more than provide Brier with the capability to serve customers on-site. Hidden from view on Mainstreet, Brier said it was difficult before the pandemic to attract customers. People are now starting to take notice of the place.
“These tents have put us on the map,” Brier said.
Five days after Brier set up her first 10 tents, she was able to hire back all 60 of her original employees and 15 new ones to handle the high demand. Brier said her sales are up 51% since October — 86% of which are new customers, Brier said.
“The tents are working,” she said. “People are coming.”
Brier is fortunate to be able to use the plaza space on the north side of the building for her tents, thanks to the property owner’s faith in her as an entrepreneur, she said. The property is owned by Trevey Commercial Real Estate.
“At the end of the day, what matters the most is my employees have jobs,” Brier said.
Brier is confident the tents will keep attracting business through the pandemic. Regardless, Brier said she is determined to come out on the other end, whenever that is.
“If I have to fight for another nine months, then so be it,” Brier said.
Brier’s solution does not work for every business. West Main has plenty of outdoor space to use temporarily, while other businesses have hardly any outdoor space to work with at all.
Those who do have outdoor patio space balk at Brier’s heavy investment into the tents, worried the cost will sink once the pandemic is over.
The cold truth
Takoda Tavern owner Bob Nobles has optimal space for outdoor dining options and enough floor space inside that he can get by at 50% capacity.
The Takoda Tavern has two outdoor dining areas—one on each floor of the two-story restaurant. The upper patio has a stunning view of the Front Range and Pikes Peak, making it an ideal spot for outdoor dining — when the weather is nice.
“The challenge is, of course, it’s outside and it’s Colorado and it’s wintertime,” Nobles said Dec. 14. “When the temperature is in the 20s, it doesn’t matter how much heat you have.”
Nobles felt he could make ends meet operating at 50% capacity, prior to the Nov. 20 level red orders. The restaurant has plenty of floor space to seat enough customers to stay steady, Nobles said.
“We were able to kind of hang in there,” Nobles said. “We certainly weren’t making any money, but we could get by.”
Nobles’ real hope is to get back to real business, he said — no extra expenses on propane or restrictions on how many people he can serve. He had to lay off close to 30 of his more than 40 employees.
“These are their livelihoods,” Nobles said.
For the dining restrictions to come so close to the holidays “is especially, very hurtful” to his employees, he said.
Nobles is not advocating for businesses to open 100% again just yet. He agrees some capacity limits to indoor dining are necessary. A total shutdown, however, is too much, he said.
“I think there could be a ground in the middle that could consider the concerns on both sides,” Nobles said, “if we just thought it out a little further and understood that taking away people’s livelihoods is not that much different than exposing them to an illness.”
Nobles is grateful for the people in the community who show support, no matter how cold it gets.
“They’ve sat out on the patio when it’s 14 degrees, shivering, still getting something to eat and something to drink,” Nobles said. “I still can’t say enough. Our community is made up of a lot of wonderful people.”
Blu Note finds new forte
When Dale Trujillo opened the Blu Note Bar & Grill, at 19600 Solar Circle, in 2019, he envisioned a place for adults to gather, stay for a while and listen to live jazz while sipping cocktails.
“When we first opened, I was getting to be known as a restaurant, which was not exactly what I wanted to do when we first opened up because I don’t have a big enough kitchen,” Trujillo said.
The Blu Note has its own patio as well. Trujillo sealed the windows with plastic and met with health officials to ensure the space complied with public health specifications for outdoor seating areas.
Trujillo did not want to stray far from the joint’s original purpose. He brought back musicians to play live music — some playing solos or duets. He’s had to change the food to be more “bar-like” and to-go friendly, as well as outdoor friendly.
“Do you have a steak on the to-go menu? Probably not,” Trujillo said. “Who wants to get home and have a steak that’s cold?”
Instead, Trujillo is pushing warmable food and things like hamburgers, gyros and Cuban sandwiches.
“That was never our forte,” Trujillo said. Competing with businesses who do make those items their specialty is even more challenging. “We did it after the first closure. But when you’re not known for that, that’s a struggle.”
They’re getting better at it, though, Trujillo said. Trujillo also owns the Wild Goose Saloon, an under-construction bar and barbecue restaurant in the Hilltop neighborhood. He is using a meat smoker, reserved for the Wild Goose, to make brisket sandwiches at the Blu Note until the Wild Goose opens in the spring.
The Blu Note may return to delivery this winter, Trujillo said. He experimented with an in-house delivery system that did not work very well last spring, he said.
The effort, he said, is what matters.
“That’s what I’m trying to do: Build a business and let the people of Parker know we’re here for the long haul,” Trujillo said. “I want people to think of us today how they think of us a year from now.”
To do that, Trujillo said they just need to appreciate the people who come through the door more than ever.
“This place isn’t going anywhere,” Trujillo said. “It doesn’t matter what’s going to happen. It’s not going anywhere.”