Denver’s Restaurateurs Prep For a Post Pandemic Boom

SAFTA Alon Shaya Denver Restaurant
A sampling of the cuisine from James Beard award-winner Alon Shaya, executive chef for Safta in Denver, Colorado.
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Article by Hank Bedingfield

As over a year of take-out and delivery dominance looks to subside and patrons flood back to their beloved restaurants in Denver, the recent history of COVID devastation is almost drowned out by post-pandemic optimism. Total Food Service wanted to find out how the Colorado capital’s restaurant community is faring in the nation’s fastest growing city.

“Pre-pandemic, more than 300 restaurants were opening each year in Denver. The city emerged as a leader in sustainable food sourcing and had an array of rich international cuisine,” Colorado Restaurant Association Communication and Membership Coordinator, Erin Dewey said. “As restaurants recover we hope to see all that growth and character and more.”

For an industry that employs around ten percent of the state’s workforce, where over 75 percent of restaurants are independently owned and operated, Governor Polis showed multifaceted support.

“We are grateful for Governor Polis’s willingness to have some open conversations with us about the needs of Colorado’s local restaurants during this crisis,” Dewey proudly said. “We worked closely with the Governor and his team to implement programs and laws assisting restaurant recovery such as the Winter Outdoor Dining Grant Program, which funded outdoor dining initiatives around the state with approximately $2.5M, industry-specific vaccination clinics, sales tax retention laws, waived licensing fees, the Colorado Jumpstart Incentive, and the extension of alcohol for takeout and delivery.”

While statewide support has been robust, national relief has not supported Colorado or Denver restaurants as promised.

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“The support tailored to restaurants and their specific needs was a major win for our industry,” Dewey acknowledged. “However, these funds only reached a fraction of the businesses that need them. The Small Business Administration (SBA) estimates that they need at least an additional $50 billion just to fund the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) applications submitted before the application portal was closed.”

To meet this need and address such a glaring gap in support. The CRA calls for a Restaurant Revitalization Fund Replenishment Act. “A replenishment would direct $60 billion in funding to the Small Business Association, allowing the RFF to complete the mission and help Colorado restaurants recover from the $3 billion lost in 2020,” Dewey said.

While the Denver city center has lagged slightly, due to a lack of lunchtime revenue and vacant office space, the nearby River North Art District (RiNo), Lower Highlands Park (LoHi), Lower Downtown (LoDo), and Berkeley areas have thrived in recent months.

“Those surrounding areas had more robust restaurant scenes to begin with,” Ruth Tobias of Eater Denver said. “So reopening has been more robust.”  The state of Colorado has been equally varied and dynamic. “COVID-19 brought an uptick to rural and resort tourism in certain cases, and we are now seeing incredible growth in some resort communities.”

Back in the state’s capital city, the established greats in Denver— James Beard award-winner Alon Shaya and award nominee Dana Rodriguez along with Linda Hampsten and Cindhura Reddy— have helped define the food scene as one not to be underestimated while the restaurant groups Bonanno Concepts, Culinary Creative, and Crafted Concepts also hope to drive Denver gastronomy to new heights.

All the while from lessor-known restaurants, promising chefs Bo Porkkyo of Misfit Snackbar, Jose Avila of El Borrego Negro and La Diabla, and Theo Osei-Fordwuo of African Grill and Bar, according to Tobias, look to shake the post-pandemic culinary landscape with their own ambitious projects.

Established and up-and-coming chefs alike faced a unique insecurity as doors closed this past year. Paying rent in one of the hottest commercial real estate markets in the country became more challenging than ever.

“The majority of local landlords worked with tenants in forgiving some rent and deferring rent,” Shawn Sanborn, president of Sanborn and Company— a leading Denver commercial real estate and brokerage firm— said, hopefully. “The larger retail and real estate holding companies across the country were much more difficult to work with. They favored rent deferment, rather than rent forgiveness.”

Thanks to the flexibility of some landlords and a series of other factors, according to Sanborn, “people had forecasted that as much as 40% of Denver restaurants would close for good, then everyone thought 20%. But that number, today, is significantly lower.”

Despite the city’s explosive growth and the ingenuity of restaurateurs, Denver, like cities nationwide, is struggling to recruit and retain workers. Confronting such a unique issue, Denver employers, like those nationwide, have gotten more creative than ever, incentivizing workers wage increases and added benefits to recruit and retain workers .

“Across Colorado 41% of restaurants have enhanced their benefits packages. More operators are offering health care and paid time off, mental health resources, and other benefits to attract and retain talent,” Dickey continued. “In addition to long-term investments, employers are offering signing bonuses and other creative incentives to attract top talent.”

Alon Shaya, owner and operator of Israeli-inspired Safta, a budding Denver landmark, has taken the issue head-on. “For far too long there has been a pay gap between our culinary team and our service team,” Shaya said. “We introduced a 4% fee to every bill to show appreciation directly to our non-tipped team members.”

However, waging raises alone are unlikely to create long-term change and stability for restaurant industry labor markets, and Shaya has more longstanding ambition.

“The short- and long-term answer to labor is to take care of your team and give them a reason to work for you versus someone else,” Shaya added. “People want a place where they feel they can grow personally and professionally.”

“Everyone, whether you are a large or small business, has struggled uniquely through COVID, but I believe many of us will be stronger for it in the long run.” Shaya said, in spite of one of the most painful years in the history of restaurants.

Denver’s restaurant community, at large, remains optimistic.


The TFS Read on Denver

Hottest Restaurant neighborhoods: Lower Highlands (LoHi), the River North Arts District (RiNo), Cherry Creek, Lower Downtown (LoDo), and Berkeley

Chefs that are “Cooking”: Alon Shaya, Dana Rodriguez, Linda Hampsten, Cindura Reddy, Bo Porkkyo, Jose Avila, and Theo Osei-Fordwuo

Key Restaurant Groups: Frasca Hospitality Group, Crafted Concepts, Culinary Creative, and Bonanno Concepts

  • RAK Porcelain
  • BelGioioso Burrata
  • Atosa USA
  • Cuisine Solutions
  • RATIONAL USA
  • T&S Brass Eversteel Pre-Rinse Units
  • Day & Nite
  • AHF National Conference 2024
  • DAVO by Avalara
  • Easy Ice
  • Imperial Dade
  • McKee Foodservice
  • AyrKing Mixstir
  • Simplot Frozen Avocado