This week, the Denver Post will examine the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the workplace, culture, schools, restaurants, and even sports in Colorado.
Today we’re looking at how the pandemic changed food in Denver.
For dozens of restaurants, bars, breweries, and distilleries along Larimer Street in Denver’s River North Art District, the last nine months of suffering from the coronavirus pandemic have been a notable ray of hope.
“When you own a small business in the service industry, you all have similar problems,” said Kraig Weaver, co-owner of The Block Distilling Co. His family business is on 30th Street and Larimer Street along a stretch of the way The route has been closed to car traffic since the summer months to encourage the use of pedestrians in the open air.
“Our block is pretty unique in that we have a few companies that all benefit (from the road closure),” added Weaver. “Which definitely made it an attraction of sorts. It’s a complete lifeline for us. “
The block and many of its neighboring shops along Larimer have restaurants on the street that will run until at least October 2021. Along with closing pedestrians, these stores have made other changes that may persist for the near future and give a longer signal. Term shift. New formats for the service of food and drinks; an increase in takeout, takeaway, and even drive-through options; and of course all takeaway liquors are here to stay they hope.
“A lot of people are referring to Europe and how similar it could be,” said Weaver. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed, but at the same time we’re concentrating on individual days.”
Rachel Ellis, the Denver Post
DENVER, CO – DECEMBER 18: Matt Castro smiles as he pays his waiter after having a drink with friend Kevin Smith at The Block Distilling Co. on Larimer Street in the RiNo district on Friday, December 18, 2020 . The distillery has a heating shipping container available for customers to safely enjoy a drink outdoors. (Photo by Rachel Ellis / The Denver Post)
Outside the distillery and tasting room, two custom shipping containers have been joined together to create an alfresco dining area that is lined with garage-style doors and windows but also sheltered from the elements.
Just one block away, Ratio Beerworks has added a lawn in front of the house and space for rotating, walk-in food trucks to its street presence. These neighbors rely on the same amount of foot traffic to survive, but they also share more than that.
“There’s so much barter and equipment rental,” said Weaver. Whether it’s borrowing a forklift, delivering kegs to the Odell Brewing location across the street, or selling nearby restaurants (like Barcelona and Work & Class) along with their own beverages, Weaver says the businesses are in the Larimer Street do what they can to support each other.
On a Friday evening outside of the relationship, Foodhalla sold its spudnation-laden potatoes and Cuban bodega sandwiches from a food truck or a “mobile food court”, as the owners Jesus Olaya, Nicole Zajac and Alan Berger have coined.
This trio of veterinarians from the hotel industry did not want to categorize themselves into any kind of kitchen, as in the past, but instead wanted to put different menus together under one mobile roof, “so that you can access several kitchens in one transaction,” said Olaya.
At the moment there are two different menus. But in the new year the team will start with the Korean barbecue in Seoul Brothas. And by the summer they hope to open a small restaurant with eight to nine different kitchens from one kitchen and one car window, which will offer expedited service.
The idea sounds like a mashup consisting of a ghost kitchen, a drive-through and a dining hall – all in a relatively small space. You couldn’t even bother including seating, said Olaya.
“Passing through is a big deal right now,” he explained. “I think, even after COVID, people still want this safety zone, this barrier.”
Rachel Ellis, the Denver Post
DENVER, CO – DECEMBER 18: A mobile Foodhalla food court stands outside Ratio on Larimer Street in the RiNo district on Friday, December 18, 2020. The truck rotates to different locations to safely serve customers and sellers outdoors. (Photo by Rachel Ellis / The Denver Post)
A few blocks from Ratio and The Block Distilling is Sushi-Rama, Denver’s home-grown Japanese conveyor belt restaurant, closed to indoor dining but still has small patio seating and delivery and take-away. Its owner, Jeff Osaka, is planning major moves starting next month.
Conveyor belt sushi, like a buffet, is difficult to use before in a public health crisis. But Osaka says it plans to resume the unique service once the indoor shutdown ends. The change he’s going to make is to combine this concept with his other brand, Osaka Ramen, while opening and reopening other offshoots of the two in Lone Tree, DTC, Aurora and finally Broomfield.
“When we expanded into the suburbs (see below), we thought our focus shouldn’t be so narrow-minded,” said Osaka. “I hate to use the phrase ‘something for everyone’ but we just wanted to have more variety on our menu than just sushi.”
When deciding whether to combine two restaurants in 2021, a few more things play a role. On the one hand, the cost of real estate: “Only the prices that are there are ridiculous,” said Osaka. And then there is a strategy: restaurateurs can either expand or specialize and “offer like six things on the menu,” said Osaka, in order to survive and differentiate themselves now.
“So you have two different ends of the spectrum,” he explained. “Now is the time to get creative and just do what you do best. We’ve proven concepts, so it only made sense to marry the two of them together. “
However, the two proven concepts and their numerous locations are not the only companies Osaka started with in 2020. Rather, they are what is left. In late May and after the initial shutdown, Osaka closed its flagship 12 @ Madison restaurant, which was hailed as one of the best dinner and brunch venues in Denver.
With nearly 200 employees between the three companies, it turned out that quick sushi and ramen filling were easier than fine dining to make the transition to a successful post-pandemic restaurant.
However, Osaka is still thinking of his “passion project”, which reflects around 30 years of cooking experience from classic French to Asian fusion. Should it ever reopen, 12 @ Madison would be in its third Denver iteration, but the future of this type of business is getting harder to imagine, he admits. Also harder to imagine: What “relevance” will mean for restaurants in 2020 after the tough realities.
“I don’t want to say that good food is dead,” said Osaka, “but I think it’s difficult to be on this end now.”
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