It was well into the lunch hour last Friday when Sylvester Osei-Fordwuo got his first order of the day.
African Grill and Bar, which he runs with his wife, Theodora, was doing so well that the couple decided to expand beyond their Green Valley Ranch outpost last year. They opened a huge space in Lakewood, large enough to hold 200 people, and invested nearly half a million dollars to ensure their dream would flourish. Today, there’s a real possibility he could lose it all.
“From this time on was supposed to be our busy season. If you don’t get anything,” he said, “then you are losing everything.”
Social distancing in this moment of pandemic means many people are staying home, avoiding public places like Osei-Fordwuo’s eatery. And as of 5 p.m. tonight, Mayor Hancock’s stay at home orders kicks in, meaning people will only be allowed to leave their homes for essentials.
Restaurants will still be allowed to prepare to-go orders, running skeleton crews and working to keep the lights on and the rent paid. Most are moving at a more subdued pace than normal, a result of the slow trickle of customers. Still, the stakes for many are higher than ever.
It’s busy season for GB Fish and Chips, on East Colfax Avenue. Fridays during Lent usually yield a ton of diners and orders, general manager Brian Kramer said. So last Friday, as Osei-Fordwuo waited patiently for orders, Kramer was still preparing a lot of takeouts.
Business wasn’t as good as it should have been, but it still gave him hope that he’d weather this storm.
“It’s not too bad at all,” he said. “Not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be.”
Customers even filtered in on Saturday, ordering fried cod, meat pies and beer to take home for the afternoon. A regular even bought a $50 gift certificate to show his support of the establishment.
Further south, the Bonnie Brae Tavern was fielding a similar customer base. Even though it has faced closure for months, waiting for its landlord to make a final decision on redeveloping the lot, owner Mike Dire said it was important to keep the kitchen running to support his employees and serve the neighborhood. He was forced to lay off six employees when news broke that restaurants in the city had to close to in-house diners.
For now, Dire is offering his entire menu, though he’s considering paring things back as he figures out how to prolong the tavern’s lifespan. Like many restaurateurs, he’s got to experiment – fast – to make it work. He’s been in business here for decades, but this is an unprecedented challenge.
“This is all a crap shoot,” he said. “I cannot ever remember anything like this happening. I hope to God it doesn’t happen again.”
In Westwood, the owner of Kahlo’s Mexican Restaurant was trying something new. Noe Bermudez has closed his vegan-oriented kitchen on Morrison Road, though he’s still taking orders in the space. When he gets one, he sends the order to the kitchen at his other restaurant, Tarasco’s New Latino Cuisine, on Federal Boulevard. He sped into Kahlo’s parking lot as a longtime customer waited for lunch, hopping out of his truck to run the still-hot meal to his hungry patron.
Every night as he goes to bed, Bermudez’s mind churns over ideas on how to keep the business running. He’s thinking about offering discounts and free delivery for seniors. He wants to keep his prices low for everyone, and he’s confident the customer base he’s built over the years will remain loyal.
“I have a lot of faith in them,” he said. “I have a lot of faith in my food, too.”
Though many of the restaurants we visited were open and ready to cook, many of the upscale establishments around Union Station were closed. Tavernetta and Venice appeared not to be doing takeout.
But Mercantile Dining and Provision reopened Saturday with a new configuration, leaning hard on the market side of its offerings. Now baskets with fresh vegetables and small grocery items circle a cash register at the front, both blocking patrons from their large seating area and beckoning customers to purchase something nice to bring home.
Matt Vawter, executive chef and co-owner, said he also had to let some employees go. Thoughts of making rent and keeping his space inside Union Station are lurking in his mind, but he’s pressing forward.
“That’s on everybody’s mind, but for now we’re trying to make the best of it,” he said. “Restaurant people are resilient and we’re tough and people are gonna adapt quickly.”
Still, he said, the restaurant industry can be hard even in the best of times, and it’s never easy to change a time-tested business model on a dime. He guesses that may be why the fancy eateries nearby are shuttered for now.
At Sunny’s, in Sunnyside, owner Ryan Turano is waiting to see if his new business model will work. He opened last week, and he’s trying out a modified menu. It’s mostly just breakfast burritos, which he thinks are more “sustainable” and may travel better than eggs sunny side up. He’s also beginning to work with delivery apps like Uber Eats, something he never before considered. It’s a boom time for gig deliverers, and he wants to make sure he doesn’t miss out on potential customers.
“I’m still trying to figure out if it’s feasible or profitable,” he said.
Osei-Fordwuo said a loan scares him. That debt will be a huge weight if customers don’t show up. And the $7,500 he may get from the city is small potatoes. It represents just one month of rent, and there’s still no telling how long his business may suffer, regardless how long official restrictions last.
“We’re hoping they come up with a better something,” he said. “If you don’t get sales, there’s no way we are going to stay.”