Denver restaurants struggling with little relief in sight

A national lobbying group established during the pandemic released a promotional video this month that describes in about 60 seconds just how bad coronavirus has turned out to be for local restaurants, and how it’s only getting worse.

The ad is playing now on cable channels in major markets. Its message focuses on the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s statistics of looming restaurant closures (up to 85%) and job losses (as many as 16 million) before providing a call to action for Congress to pass the Restaurants Act.

TV personality and chef Andrew Zimmern was behind its production, and actor Morgan Freeman narrates: “Neighborhood restaurants are the lifeblood of our communities,” Freeman starts. “They are where we come together and make lifelong memories. And right now they are facing extinction.”

It’s not too far of a stretch. The restaurant industry is currently leading all other sectors in terms of closures nationwide, according to data released last month by the customer review platform Yelp. It’s ahead of retail stores, beauty salons, bars and fitness studios.

As of July, more than 26,000 restaurants across the country have closed and 15,770 of them have shuttered permanently, according to Yelp. Sixty-two percent of Colorado restaurants say they will consider closing permanently in the next six months under current or worsened conditions, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association.

RELATED: 16th Street’s iconic Rialto Café is closing after 23 years in Denver

“I think there’s still a little bit of a false reality right now about all these restaurants that are surviving (the pandemic),” said Josh Wolkon, who at the end of July closed his 23-year-old downtown Denver restaurant Vesta while continuing to operate two more Denver restaurants with another waiting in Arvada that hasn’t reopened since March.

“If there’s not a secondary stimulus package,” Wolkon said, “I think you’re going to see a major fallout when these (payroll protection) funds run out in October.”

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Kendra Anderson, the owner of Cabana X, right, prepares drinks for the customer at the bar in Denver on Friday, Aug. 7.

Dwindling payroll protection loans, added safety measures, re-closures, business-hour reductions, staff health concerns, consumer confidence, even Colorado’s unpredictable weather — there are so many factors affecting their businesses, according to restaurant owners, that planning for the future is simultaneously essential and impossible to do.

“Every day I watch the weather like a psycho. I look every day, all day,” said Kendra Anderson, who owns the River North restaurant and lounge Bar Helix, which has become the outdoor-only Cabana X for the summer. “It makes you feel like you’re going crazy.”

Another thing that makes restaurateurs like Anderson imagine they’re losing their minds is a constantly shifting set of rules for their businesses. When Colorado’s last call was moved to 10 p.m. at the end of July, for example, Anderson had to update all of her promotional materials, change staffing around and add on more daytime hours, including implementing a new brunch menu, to make up for lost nighttime sales.