Reinvention, generous tips and ‘a drop in the bucket’ from the city: checking in with the small restaurant we’ve been following

Dio Mio’s owners are happy to be in businesses, and so are their employees.

Fresh-made pasta at Dio Mio, Five Points, March 20, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Fresh-made pasta at Dio Mio, Five Points, March 20, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photos

A lot’s changed in a week.

Since we first checked in with Dio Mio last Monday, Mayor Michael Hancock has announced a relief package for small businesses like the Five Points pasta spot. He also made restaurants that do takeout one of many “essential” businesses that should stay open after 5 p.m. today, when Denver’s stay at home orders kick in.

Dio Mio, like every other restaurant in the city, has transformed itself in response to the emergency declarations wrought by the viral public health crisis facing Denver and the rest of the world. To-go containers have all but replaced dishes. Bread cools in the unused dining room. And the checkout counter is now the restaurant’s main feature.

Chefs and owners Alex Figura and Spencer White said they try to limit the waiting area to one customer at a time.

“We’re trying to do the best job we possibly can to make it sanitary and safe for our employees and our customers,” White said. “Every day it’s just like, developing new systems and trying to figure out what the best way to deal with this new reality is.”

Takeout and delivery through the Postmates app were once afterthoughts in the Larimer Street restaurant’s business model. Now those things will make or break Dio Mio. Business is pretty good, considering there’s a pandemic. The owners say it’s better than expected.

But there’s no ideal outcome — just less bad ones.

“I mean, you can never really compensate for the dine-in experience at a sit-down restaurant, that whole interaction,” Figura said.

Tips are a part of that calculation. While customers are digging deeper than usual to tip Dio Mio’s workers — “it’s been amazing,” White said — the volume isn’t there like it once was.

Spencer White, co-owner of Dio Mio, makes fresh pasta for takeout orders. Five Points, March 20, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Spencer White, co-owner of Dio Mio, makes fresh pasta for takeout orders. Five Points, March 20, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Fresh-made pasta at Dio Mio, Five Points, March 20, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Fresh-made pasta at Dio Mio, Five Points, March 20, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Figura and White laid off a fourth of its staff when Hancock closed bars and restaurant dining rooms for eight weeks. They’re still standing pat, with no more layoffs expected.

“We’re the only ones that can figure out how to run the business,” White said. “They’re all looking to us to come up with this new system and save the biz, which is a hard thing to do,” he said of his staff.

Hancock’s $4 million relief package will help about 250 small businesses of all types, finance officials said last week. The competitive grants top out at $7,500 per business. That’s about a day-and-a-half’s worth of revenue for Dio Mio.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” White said.

We’ll be following Dio Mio throughout the pandemic. For a broader look at how restaurants are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, take a photogenic journey with Kevin, who’s been visiting with restaurateurs around the city.

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