Denver restaurants facing worker shortage, higher prices, closures as pandemic continues

Frank McLoughlin didn’t see a way through the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic when he closed his 18-year-old restaurant the Irish Snug after one last service on January 23.

The first and last of McLoughlin’s four pubs in Denver, the Snug opened on East Colfax shortly before St. Patrick’s Day in 2004. By 2020, it had become a fixture in the neighborhood, hosting weekly music sessions and comedy nights.

“A restaurant is a wonderful place when it’s buzzing and there’s people in it and there’s banter,” McLoughlin said on Friday as he walked around the emptying space. “But when it’s quiet, you can hear it — It’s hollow.”

Closed for good last week, the once-buzzing Irish Snug had become a shell of its former self by 2022. A majority of the restaurant’s tables sat empty most days on the lower level. Seasonal stopgaps of outdoor heaters and to-go meals just weren’t enough to save it.

“In the good times, we’re a pub,” McLoughlin explained. “People come in for a beer, stay for a few hours, hang around, watch the game and meet a few people. Now there’s still people… taking the risk to go out and dine, but they’re not going out to have beers and meet people.”

A January survey of more than 4,000 restaurant owners tells a similar story for dining and drinking establishments around the state. According to the Colorado Restaurant Association, 75% of operators say their customer traffic still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels.

Nearly 80% of operators say business conditions have worsened over the last three months, and 85% say they’ve seen a decline in sit-down customers in the last few weeks.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end,” McLoughlin said.

The “lucky” ones

While most restaurants aren’t closing for good, many are closing temporarily to weather new variants and outbreaks among staff.

After getting through the first Omicron wave in December, Christopher Lin and his small team at Q House had to shutter the business for a full week of service in mid-January.

“We’re running as a skeleton crew, with just enough cooks to open the restaurant in whatever capacity we can,” Lin said. “And then we did get hit with two positive COVID (tests) on our staff, specifically the kitchen staff, so it was impossible to (operate).”

With about 80% of his pre-pandemic workforce on the clock these days, Lin had already decided to cut back from six to five nights a week of dinner service.

“We can basically run the same crew all five days,” he said, “but that also means, at least on the kitchen side, that if anyone is out, we’re running with a very bare crew, or if two people are out, we can’t work at all.”

Lin says he’s thankful just to have made it through two years of the pandemic with the help of two rounds of Paycheck Protection and customer support for dine-in and takeout. Comparatively, a five-night closure isn’t that bad.

“We feel pretty lucky about it,” Lin said, “because people still want to come and eat our food.”

$15 wings, $20 burgers

Lin has seen continued customer support even after he raised menu prices to reflect increases in Denver’s minimum wage, most recently on Jan. 1, as well as the rising costs of food.

But McLoughlin didn’t want to risk pushing customers away by increasing his prices.

“People come to a pub to have a beer, hang out and have an inexpensive bite to eat,” McLoughlin said. “I think if we were to charge $20 for a burger… it just wouldn’t work for us.”

Both restaurateurs saw their cost of ingredients — from proteins to produce — go up by at least 50% over the last year and a half without any correction. Everything from mixed greens to pork and chicken has increased in price, they say. The cost of chicken wings went from $2.75 per pound at the start of the pandemic to $4.25 per pound now, according to McLoughlin.

“Nobody wants to spend $15 or whatever to buy wings,” he said, “so places have stopped selling them.”

At Genna Rae’s Wings & More, Gerad Dickerson is getting ready to increase menu prices by another 75 cents to $1 for the second time since the start of the pandemic. When the shop first opened in 2016 in Whittier, Gerad and his father, Genn, sold a half-dozen wings for $7. Now they’re charging $9.

“We haven’t really gotten any complaints, per se,” Gerad explained, “but (customers) make that face — golly, $10 just for six wings? We’ve been open for five years, and three out of the five, we were kind of selling ourselves short.”

He hopes higher menu prices will help the business grow long-term. For now, though, the Dickersons are sticking to the basics — replacing broken equipment and hiring employees so Gerad can spend more time at home with his 3-year-old son.

“This could be the bungee cord that catapults us to get to Cherry Creek,” Gerad said of dreams for a second location. “They say if a restaurant can last five years, it’s nothing but up from here.”

Moving up or moving on

Business owners should remain hopeful about the future of their restaurants, but what about their employees?

“Half of our staff didn’t come back,” McLoughlin of the Irish Snug said over the last year and a half in business. “I think people are nervous.”

In November, 4.5 million U.S. workers quit their jobs, with 1 million of them leaving work in the hospitality sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate of attrition among restaurant and hotel workers at the end of 2021 was more than double the average rate across industries (6.9% compared to 3%).

That difference could be attributed to lower wages within the restaurant industry. It can also be explained by burnout.

After 12 years working in restaurants, primarily as a bartender, Chottip Nimla-or left the industry in January for a fresh start teaching yoga. The 30-year-old had relocated from New York to Colorado with her partner, who is a chef. And while they both found restaurant jobs upon moving, Nimlaor started planning for a larger transition.

“I’m not old by any means, but I was getting older, and I realized how valuable my time was,” she said of her outlook on work soon after the pandemic began. “I was working close to 60- or 70-hour weeks as non-management, and that was just normal. The gap between my health and my career started to become bigger and bigger.”

While taking forced time off during the 2020 shutdown, “I had this time to relax, actually relax, get a full night of sleep, eat three meals, go to the bathroom when I needed to go… it sounds crazy now,” Nimla-or recalls.

Now she sees how a culture built entirely around work and money “can be really harmful.”

“I’ve definitely modeled a lot of my life up until now on salary,” Nimla-or said. “But the scales are balanced for me now… My mental health is in a much better place, by hundreds of percentages. And I feel like my wealth has changed. I feel affluent and successful despite not having boatloads of money.”

It’s a balance some will find within the restaurant industry, while others will look elsewhere.

As he closed up the Snug last week, McLoughlin wondered when the cost of going out to eat would adjust, or whether dining out for Americans would become a special treat rather than a near-daily habit.

In the meantime, he gave away the kitchen’s remaining food to friends still in business and tidied up 18 years of accumulated stuff to leave the restaurant “spick and span” for his landlord.

“That’s the great thing about America,” McLoughlin said. “Somebody will see this space and say it’s a great space. And I just need to leave it clean for them.”

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