“Let’s get back to cliff divingggggggggg!”
Rick Griffith yelled the battle cry, surrounded by two guys in monkey suits. It was a small rally for Casa Bonita, the famed Lakewood restaurant that’s really more of an experience. There weren’t a lot of people beside him on West Colfax Avenue, but it was clear the message resonated. Endless honks poured from the street as drivers passed by.
After 47 years in business, Casa Bonita’s owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month. It doesn’t mean the immersive eatery will necessarily disappear – it’s an opportunity for it to restructure its finances – but the move prompted a lot of nostalgia and concern from metro residents. If you grew up in the area, you probably have a very soft spot in your heart for Casa Bonita’s weirdness, a memory of childhood wonder rooted in its tropical mists, pirate’s cave and, yes, cliff diving.
A lot of locally owned businesses have struggled in this pandemic, and that’s raised the specter of permanent and irreversible change. For a year, people who run the restaurants and retail spots that give neighborhoods character have been fretting about the possibility their small enterprises may fall and be replaced by corporate powerhouses with the resources to stick out the rough economy.
“This whole downturn really could change the face of Denver,” said Andrew Novick, who started the campaign to save Casa Bonita and one of the guys in a monkey suit. “Corporations can survive downturns. The chains will be fine but the independents will be the ones that have a really hard struggle.”
This idea was on Griffith’s mind as he shouted at cars on Saturday morning. He said legendary Lion’s Lair, which sits on a stretch of East Colfax, is another local heritage site that’s having a tough time.
“We’ve got to figure out how to save them, too,” he said. “Here’s the thing: If all of old Denver goes away, what’s new Denver gonna enjoy? Why are we so attractive? It’s because of who we are and were, not who we will be.”
Griffith is more than an observer in this struggle. In addition to political work in town, he’s also an owner of Matter, the Black-owned bookstore by Coors Field. Like other small business owners in town, Griffith said it was already tough to survive in Denver before COVID-19 arrived.
The city’s rapid growth has resulted in increasingly higher rents and property taxes, which squeeze already tight margins. Griffith said Denver’s boom-time has been generally good to him. In his case, the biggest pressures come from competition with Amazon. He’s hoping his neighbors will share his sense of urgency that businesses like his and Casa Bonita deserve support.
“What we need to do is allow for the kind of growth that honors the kind of people who have been here, who live here, who thrive here, who make community,” he said. “It’s really not a big ask. Even if Amazon can get you your package in two days for free, divorce yourself from that idea for a moment and maybe shop locally.”
Diana Morales Ayala, who held a sign reading “HONK FOR CB,” said she was delighted to learn that kind of solidarity does exist. She runs Mermaids Bakery, on Champa Street just off the 16th Street Mall, and said people have been generous in keeping her business going over the last year. When she puts a call out on social media for a little love, people respond in droves.
“When I need them, they show up,” she said. “We didn’t do fantastic (over the last year), but we’re still alive. We’re still here. And it’s only been because of the community that’s behind us.”
She has proof people are standing up for Casa Bonita, too. Ayala, Griffith and Novick are all pushing a GoFundMe for the restaurant, which has raised just shy of $50,000 donated by more than 850 people. Ayala said some of that money will fund their organizing efforts, but she knows it’s nowhere close to the sum they’d need to actually save the business.
Instead, Ayala said the campaign is about signaling that people care. They plan to return whatever money they don’t end up using.
“It’s to show whoever we need to show: Look they’re with us,” she said. “Nobody has to do this, but we really want to be able to save this. It’s just a small thing in this horrible, horrible pandemic and the year that we’ve all had. This is something we can try and save.”