By Paul Albani-Burgio
When Gabrielle Henning and Michael Milton were laid off in March from their jobs running the coffee bar at RiNo multi-use space Improper City, the couple’s first move was to file for unemployment.
But a quick second was to go out and buy a bunch of ingredients for cakes.
That step was inspired by a conversation Henning had with a friend out in San Diego who told him he was just laid off from his chef gig and was launching a delivery pizza business called Pandemic Pizza. The friend suggested Michael look into doing something similar.
The couple soon discovered cakes “just weren’t their passion.” Donuts, however, were a different story. Henning and Milton just finished their first month of scrambling to keep up with orders of their colorful donuts, which they make out of their home kitchen and deliver to homes around the city Wednesdays through Sundays. (They’re allowed to operate under a state cottage law from 2012 that lets people sell food from their homes as long as it doesn’t need to be refrigerated.)
“It’s been going really, really well,” said Milton of Pandemic Donuts. “And it’s hard to say how grateful we are for it because we really needed to pay rent.”
Milton said interest has been so high that the business just sold out all of its donuts for the week on Wednesday, leaving him to spend the rest of the morning answering direct messages about how no more orders can be taken until next week. Pandemic Donuts is mostly relying on Instagram to take orders and advertise.
The pair is now looking into moving into a larger kitchen space and planning to hire staff with an eye toward outlasting the pandemic that gave the business its name. In doing so, they are also proving that while the current pandemic will certainly spell doom for many local businesses, it also brings opportunity for those who adapt to the current moment’s unique demands.
That’s just what Englewood resident Margaret Williams is aiming to do with The Grounded Gardener, a plant delivery business she launched last week just in time for gardening season.
“I have access to plants because I’ve been gardening for clients for a couple of years, and I heard myself telling friends and neighbors that since they can’t go out and shop, I could order plants for them and deliver them to their doorstep,” Williams said. “And plants are something everybody wants right now, especially with people being at home and spending more time in their environment.”
Williams said she initially targeted her own neighborhood but is now using social media to spread the word about the business. She’s already received several orders despite it still being too early to begin planting (she’s planning to begin making deliveries on Mother’s Day weekend).
“People are really excited that I am offering this, and it’s been great validation that I am filling a need,” Williams said.
When Michele Davies’ grandmother passed away last year, she found her lifelong love of baking cookies died, too. But when COVID-19 came along, she started baking cookies with her son once again and eventually decided that the pandemic meant others could also find joy in them.
So, she started baking batches of cookies and delivering them for free anywhere within 20 miles of her Thornton home. The business, which now has its own website, is called Nana’s Cookie Corner.
Davies said she was inspired to begin her cookie delivery business after seeing a post on her neighborhood’s NextDoor page asking residents to post about local businesses to support. She’s continued to rely on social media to spread the word ever since.
“For the first two orders, I got a message back saying how much they loved it and asking me if they could share my link and information on their own pages,” she said. “So I said of course, and they did that, and the next day I had three more or four more orders.”
But while Davies is excited by the early success of Nana’s Cookie Corner and the potential she sees for it, she admits that launching a food delivery business during a pandemic has involved plenty of challenges.
“We wear gloves and we’re very careful, but trying to do something like this during this time is a little bit scary because you don’t want to risk anything happening to you or your customers, so we’re being extra careful,” she said.
For Caitlin Howington, the arrival of COVID-19 in Colorado and her subsequent layoff from her catering job meant the time was right to give the ice cream business she’d long dreamed of a shot.
The result is Pint’s Peak, a service that delivers an ever-expanding roster of pints of artisan ice cream that come in flavors like hibiscus margarita sherbet and lemon meringue pie anywhere in the metro area. For now, Howington is handling the entire operation, from marketing to deliveries, herself.
“It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be,” she said. “I’ve done a little bit of marketing in my past. I think, really, if you get it in front of the right people it can take off really quickly, so I worked with some media my second week and it probably wouldn’t have taken off as quick if I hadn’t done that. But once that happened word started getting out.”
If early sales are any indication, she won’t be just a one-woman operation for long.
“I wasn’t really expecting it to take off in the way that it did but the response has been really wonderful,” she said. “And so now I’m basically trying to catch up and improve my operations and see how far I can take it.”
Sandwiches, pastries and salads
But while COVID-19 has proven to be a boon for entrepreneurs like Howington, it originally seemed like it would be anything but for Lucien Reichert.
After months of planning, preparation and a couple of standard delays, Reichert had identified March 18 as the day he would open his first restaurant, a breakfast and brunch spot on East Colfax called Fox Run Café.
That day would turn out to be the second of the current eight-week ban on dine-in eating. Despite the challenges the ban posed, Reichert decided to open with a three-man staff and a menu that was retooled to focus on more takeout friendly fare than could be found on the planned opening menu.
Just one week later, Reichert decided to close the restaurant’s doors to further retool the menu for takeout and to get a better handle on the pandemic.
“We were just so new and it’s not that we were being unclean or anything like that, but when you’re new, you’re flying around and everyone’s really busy, so we had to make sure we had a handle on things,” Reichert said. “It’s one thing to open up a restaurant and be worried about what people think of your food, but it’s another thing to know if you screw up, you can hurt somebody.”
On April 17, the restaurant opened for takeout yet again. While Reichert said his café is probably not seeing the revenue it would have without the pandemic, he thinks being open now has allowed it to better position itself for a post-pandemic future in which he now envisions the eatery as more of an “all-day café” that will retain many of the sandwiches and other items added to the menu to appeal to to-go customers.
“Nothing’s going to be the same,” Reichert said of life once restaurants reopen their dining rooms. “So we can’t really go back to what we were going to be, that’s kind of out the window. We’re just taking everything in stride and we’ll see what we look like when people start sitting down.”