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Finding a way: Boulder County restaurants embrace innovative strategies to survive COVID restrictions

Cafe Aion sous chef Isobel Carey sautés mushrooms while catching up on prep work in the kitchen on Dec. 4 in Boulder. As a second round of indoor dining bans progresses in Boulder County, many restaurants are turning to new alternatives to drive sales. For example, Cafe Aion has opened two ghost kitchen concepts that offer items not on the cafe’s menu. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)
Cafe Aion sous chef Isobel Carey sautés mushrooms while catching up on prep work in the kitchen on Dec. 4 in Boulder. As a second round of indoor dining bans progresses in Boulder County, many restaurants are turning to new alternatives to drive sales. For example, Cafe Aion has opened two ghost kitchen concepts that offer items not on the cafe’s menu. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to report The West End Tavern’s Cheesesteak Project is serving smoked prime rib sandwiches.

When indoor dining was prohibited for the second time during the COVID-19 pandemic, Boulder County restaurants didn’t stew on the possible financial hardships to come. Restaurateurs created new paths to bring in customers.

Boulder County restaurants are once again filled with vacant tables since Safer At Home restrictions tightened Nov. 20. It is among several Colorado counties to be in the “Red zone: Severe Risk” category on the state’s COVID-19 dial system. Those regulations forced restaurants to close their indoor dining services.

Do-it-yourself dinner kits, improving on to go services and housing multiple restaurant concepts under one roof are among the strategies adopted by local restaurants.

Dave and Dana Query, owners of Boulder-based Big Red F Restaurant Group, embraced ghost kitchens, to-go restaurants without a dining room, in their existing establishments. Big Red F is operating five ghost-kitchen concepts.

The company has been preparing for another restriction on in-person dining since its restaurants reopened over the summer.

Centro Mexican Kitchen chef Gabe Enlow builds a Mexican pizza in the kitchen on Dec. 3 in Boulder. The restaurant, part of Big Red F restaurant group, has started operating ghost kitchens, to-go restaurants without dining rooms, out of its restaurants. Centro now offers the Tender Project, a riff on sister restaurant The Post Brewing Co.’s chicken tenders; and Local Gringo, whose menu is described as Mexican comfort food. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

“Although it wasn’t a surprise, you’re just never quite ready for it,” Dana Query said. “The summer was spent still trying to catch up and to keep up and to do everything we can to keep our employees safe but also to keep our businesses alive and thriving. We were starting to really catch our breath, but there’s no rest for the weary. So, even though we saw it coming it was still quite another big shift for all of us.”

Big Red F owns and operates The West End Tavern and Centro Mexican Kitchen, both in Boulder; and The Post Brewing Co. and Jax Fish and Oyster House chains, each of which have Boulder County locations. It also owns the Lola Coastal Mexican restaurant in Denver. In response to recent restaurant regulations, Big Red F shuttered Zolo Grill in Boulder, the company’s first restaurant.

Dave Query said that the 26-year-old restaurant didn’t see as many diners as some of the other concepts since the pandemic began. Zolo employees are retained within the company and are finding work with other Big Red F projects and ghost kitchen concepts.

The ghost kitchens take favorite items from the different Big Red F restaurants and add those dishes to other restaurant menus. For a period in the spring, Jax kitchen staff worked out of the Post Brewing Co. restaurants. Dave said that staff made up the term “Clucking and Shucking,” to joke about cooking both Jax and The Post Brewing Co. cuisines in one kitchen.

The Tender Project is a non gluten-free version of The Post Brewing Co. fried chicken tenders served out of Centro and Lola in Boulder and the Glendale location for Jax. Dave said that the Post is known for its gluten-free fried chicken so a “normal” recipe performs better as a ghost kitchen.

The Cheesesteak Project cooks up smoked prime rib sandwiches out of the West End Tavern.

Server Alina Andersen hands a take out order to a curb-side pickup customer in the alley behind West End Tavern on Dec. 3 in Boulder. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

Early December, Big Red F launched The Lasagna Project, a weekly family-sized lasagna supper served every Friday out of Jax restaurants, and Local Gringo, described as Mexican comfort food out of Centro.

The Post Chicken & Beer ghost kitchens operate out of Jax Fish Houses in Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and Kansas City, Missouri.

Dave Query has wanted to share menu items among the different restaurant concepts for a while, but ghost kitchens didn’t make sense in a pre-COVID world, he said. Now it’s a necessity to keep staff employed.

“I think chefs and restaurant people by and large are some of the most creative people around,” he said. “So I think COVID has allowed for a lot of us to kind of do what we’ve always wanted to do but never thought we could because that’d be silly to do two restaurants out of one kitchen. Now it makes more sense than anything.”

Big Red F acquired a food truck from Denver restaurant Steuben’s with plans to operate the food truck later this year. The truck will rotate menus among the different restaurant brands and mostly serve Boulder and Denver, hitting the road this month or early next year. The traveling restaurant is another way for Big Red F to make sales and gain exposure for its restaurants.

Zolo staff and front-of-house employees who lost hours from the indoor dining ban are also getting work through the recently launched WeDeliver, Big Red F’s internal delivery service, which allows the group to keep all the profits from delivery, rather than having to pay a third-party service. All of the company’s restaurants now offer delivery.

“For a lot of our regulars, having a longtime server or a bartender or the chef, or myself show up on delivery, we have a chance to engage with the guests and just, you know, have some level of normalcy throughout this process,” Dave Query said.

Over the summer Dave Query discussed how ghost kitchens can increase sales by serving a larger customer base with Dakota Soifer, chef and owner of Spanish restaurant Cafe Aion in Boulder. It inspired Soifer to experiment with new menus and cuisines.

Cafe Aion sous chef Isobel Carey sautés mushrooms while catching up on prep work in the kitchen on Dec. 4 in Boulder. The restaurant is running two ghost kitchens in addition to its regular menu in an effort to attract more to-go customers. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

The kitchen of Cafe Aion at 1235 Pennsylvania Ave. in Boulder is now home to three restaurant concepts: the original restaurant, Lil Bub’s Family Meal and Brasserie Boulder. Instead of cooking only the cafe’s Spanish cuisine, Soifer often finds himself simmering a bolognese next to a paella.

Over the summer, Soifer opened up two ghost kitchens to make ends meet. He first opened Brasserie Boulder about two months ago, a French cuisine concept and nod to the longtime Brasserie Ten Ten that permanently shuttered during the pandemic. Lil Bub’s Family Meal, a restaurant that serves to go family portioned meals including lasagna and a fried chicken basket, followed shortly after. Now, Cafe Aion is a one-stop shop for French, Spanish and family meals.

Soifer said that Cafe Aion’s revenue was hurt by the first indoor dining ban in the spring and the capacity limits during earlier phases of Safer at Home. But with the addition of two ghost kitchens, the company is recouping 75% of its normal weekly sales, a much higher revenue than when only the Cafe Aion menu was available.

Full-service independent restaurants that did little take-out business during pre-pandemic times are especially vulnerable to the second dining ban, said Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. The association’s data suggests that 24% of restaurants will consider closing within a month in counties where indoor dining has closed, she added.

“Restaurants are coming out of an eight-month stretch when revenue has been down an average of 40%. Some are down more than 80%. And this time, there’s not a federal relief package on the immediate horizon,” Riggs said in a written statement. “Restaurants have said repeatedly that they need more cash and more capacity to survive even medium-term — with capacity further restricted, that makes cash more important, and we’re not seeing anything meaningful in the works. Unless that changes, we’re going to lose a lot more restaurants.”

Soifer said that he was better prepared for the dining ban this time around but handling three restaurant concepts under one roof with a staff of four is challenging. Cafe Aion, Lil Bub’s and Brasserie quickly joined third-party delivery services including Doordash, Grubhub and UberEats. It also joined local providers Hungry Buffs and Nosh Boulder, a partner with the city for the Restaurant S.O.S. (Safe Ordering Service). In an effort to encourage ordering from Boulder restaurants, the city will cover Nosh delivery fees for restaurants and customers throughout the end of the year.

Lately, Soifer feels like he works in tech support more than a restaurant as he manages orders from different delivery apps. He said that he has multiple iPads to manage online orders for the three restaurant concepts.

“The kitchen is a pretty funny looking place. Instead of our different paella pans, cazuela and little dishes we have sort of a command center battlestation of a dozen iPads that are going to ding and flash and things like that throughout the night,” Soifer said.

Cafe Aion owner and chef Dakota Soifer looks over the series of tablets used for different food ordering and delivery services in his kitchen on Dec. 4 in Boulder. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

County restaurants bring dining experience to customers

Hospitality is equally important to sit-down restaurants as the quality of the food. Boulder County restaurants are finding alternative ways to provide a special experience for their customers, even if they can’t welcome them into their dining rooms.

Frasca Hospitality Group, parent company of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Pizzeria Locale, Tavernetta and Sunday Vinyl, began offering meal kits with its “At Home With” series over the summer. Customers pick up boxes with all of the ingredients needed for a dinner from Frasca Food and Wine or Tavernetta and a hand selected bottle of wine. A recipe card is provided with a link to a video of a Frasca chef providing step-by-step instructions to prepare the dish and discussing more details about the dish’s history. The video also features a discussion about the wine pairing from restaurant staff. Frasca has offered more than 30 dinner kits so far.

“We really had to re-examine what an experience is,” said Peter Hoglund, chief operating officer of Frasca Hospitality Group. “They’re looking for connections, they’re looking for familiarity. They’re looking for a consistent great time. And I think that what we’ve realized is we can offer that virtually through pickups and dinner kits.”

Hoglund said that the weeks surrounding the holidays are often the most lucrative season for the restaurant industry. But Frasca’s year-to-date revenue is about half of what it would normally be. When Boulder County entered the Red Zone in late November, Frasca had to lay off more than 100 employees. Hoglund said that the company usually has more than 200 employees but is down to 40 this winter, since continuing outdoor seating throughout the winter only requires a skeleton crew.

The restaurants are taking advantage of the city’s patio extension program, which now will last through February, by installing a Yurt Village, three yurts that can seat up to four guests each, last week at Frasca. A handful of greenhouses were also set up at Pizzeria Locale and Tavernetta.

Frasca Food and Wine server Tre Gerbitz, right, and Jeremy Schwartz prepare yurts in the restaurant’s “yurt village” for their first reservations of the night on Wednesday in Boulder. In addition to installing the yurts to increase outdoor diners’ comfort, the restaurant is also selling take-home meal kits that include a hand-selected bottle of wine and a video of the chef narrating instructions for cooking the meal. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

Dan Polovin, owner of Mustard’s Last Stand, a Chicago-style hot dog joint in Boulder and Denver, has been putting together dinner kits. Boxes full of Vienna beef franks, condiments and hotdog buns were always available upon request, but Polovin started advertising kits on social media during the pandemic.

Polovin opened both establishments in 1978 and grew by word of mouth. Mustard’s Last Stand had a robust take-away customer base but had to quickly adjust to only to-go services.

Both Mustard’s Last Stand restaurants are small, so Polovin did not reopen the dining areas when they were permitted. To-go services can be impersonal, Polovin said, remembering when over-the-counter service led to conversations with customers.

“We’re taking a lot of punches, and I think what we really have to be ready for as an industry is when this is done and over with we have to be ready to come out swinging,” he said.

La Vita Bella, a Longmont restaurant, serves customers outside on Aug. 15. The restaurant also will offer premade Christmas dinners and holiday gift baskets in an effort to recoup sales lost amid indoor dining bans and other coronavirus restrictions. (Courtesy of La Vita Bella)

Longmont restaurant La Vita Bella was not a carry-out-focused restaurant before the pandemic. It was a place to gather, build community and listen to live music, owners Andrea Bullard and Todd Eichorn said. With dining room restrictions in place, Eichorn said that November sales were about 20% of last year’s revenue for the same month.

La Vita Bella put together Thanksgiving dinner pickups and plans to do the same for Christmas. Premade meals of tagliatelle pasta with meat or veggie sauce, salad and tiramisu or a traditional turkey dinner are on the menu for the Christmas family meals. The restaurant is also selling gift packages for the holidays featuring an array of coffees, chai tea and house-made goods.

Bullard wants La Vita Bella to continue serving as a community hub. Customers have the opportunity to sponsor a meal for pandemic frontline workers at Good Samaritan Medical Center intensive-care unit. Customers can purchase as little or as much as they choose, from a glass of orange juice up to a full meal.

Providing a stage for the local music scene is a key factor to La Vita Bella’s brand. Beginning this month, the restaurant will start a socially distanced music series. Only the musical act will be allowed inside but viewers can watch on La Vita Bella’s YouTube channel or watch live from outside of the restaurant on a flatscreen. Musicians are not charged a performance fee and viewers can watch for free. Though it won’t add to sales, Bullard and Eichorn said they want to support Longmont’s music scene.

“How do you change and still keep your concept of what we are as a community place of gathering? Because we’re going to gather again, so we don’t want people to lose that,” Eichorn said.

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