Golden businesses welcome Level Clear

Hiring challenges latest obstacle for restaurants

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Jon Bortles had been looking forward to May 16 — and with good reason.

The last year has challenged his restaurant, the iconic Woody’s Wood-Fired Pizza in downtown Golden, unlike any other in its 27-year-history. But after a year involving pivots to take-out and a new focus on outdoor dining, May 16 was to be the date that he would finally able to do the once-routine act of opening his restaurant’s actual interior to a full house, for the first time since the pandemic started.

“It’ll make a huge difference for us,” said Bortles. “The combination of having our buffet back and removing the six-foot spacing requirement for indoors is going to bring us back to full capacity, which is hard to imagine after all of these months.”

But even as Bortles welcomes the ability to return to pre-pandemic operations, he said he still isn’t planning to do so just yet. Instead, he’s going to “leave a few tables out of our dining room” and still leave some partitions in certain areas. All current sanitation protocols will also be maintained.

“We’re going to kind of ease into it and make sure people feel safe and comfortable dining in,” he said.

The situation is much the same across downtown at Golden City Brewery, where craftroom manager Tamara Munroe said that the brewery is still planning to maintain many of the modifications to its operations it adopted during the pandemic. For example, the brewery previously operated on a “seat-yourself” model but adopted a host system that it is planning to maintain for the time being.

“We’re definitely not going to go back to the way it was previously,” Munroe said. “I think that probably would be a little too much for the community to handle and for the staff to handle because it would be like going from like 25% to 100% really fast.”

Munroe said the change to Level Clear on the state COVID-19 dial, allowing all businesses to operate without capacity restrictions that Jefferson County adopted as part of its reopening plan, will be particularly significant for her business because of its small interior space.

The limited interior area meant that six feet distancing requirements continued to limit the amount of people the space could hold regardless of which level on the dial Jeffco was in at a given point.

“It’s been pretty drastic first being shut down and only doing to-go and then having our capacity cut in half,” said Munroe. “Since we are mostly outside, most of the going from Level Yellow to Blue didn’t really change anything for us as far as capacity. Pretty much going to Level Clear is the only thing that is really changing anything for us.”

Meanwhile, Bortles said one of Woody’s biggest challenges was being unable to serve food using its standard buffet model.

Being able to reopen the buffet on April 19 has had “a huge, huge impact on us,” he said, perhaps even more than the return to full capacity.

“Our little kitchen was never meant to do a la carte to each table,” he said. “So even at 50% capacity it was a struggle.”

But even as Bortles said he is thrilled to return to be able to welcome more diners at a time when people are increasingly eager to venture out to eat, he finds himself confronting a new challenge that is making it difficult to do so.

“It’s been unprecedented how hard it is to find people that A) show up to interview and B) are qualified to work,” he said.

Bortles said that while he understands the political arguments being put forth both by those who blame generous unemployment benefits on the difficulty he and other restaurants are facing with hiring and those who say those difficulties are because restaurants don’t pay a living wage.

However, he feels Woody’s pays “a very healthy, competitive wage thanks in part to a kitchen surcharge that he said is levied on all checks and helps Woody’s increase its pay to its staff. At Woody’s, entry-level cooks start out at $17 an hour and can make up to $25 an hour.

Bortles said there have been several nights, most notably the recent graduation weekend, when the restaurant has desperately needed “a few more bodies to help us through.” That situation has left the restaurant nervous about when it might be able to reopen back at 100%.

“This whole 14 to 15 months, we have been waiting for 100% and honestly never thought it would be hard to get people back to work, especially with restaurants closing and people being laid off,” he said. “We never would have guessed we would struggle with staffing, but we are just going to have to try to hire and retain and pay well. We’re just going to have to figure it out.”

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