For perhaps — likely, even — the first time in the New Year, something truly good came out of an otherwise cesspool of social media comments. Local restaurants are getting a much-needed economic and emotional lifeline during the second time they’ve had to endure shutting their doors to indoor dining during the pandemic.
On Jan. 11, at the culmination of a special Pitkin County Board of Health meeting that captured the attention of more than 1,000 community members and lasted more than four hours, the board made the difficult decision to move all sectors, including restaurants, into the state’s red-level COVID-19 restrictions. In the previous “orange-plus-plus” level, restaurants had been allowed to maintain indoor dining operations, albeit at a 25% capacity cap.
The new restrictions took effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, and even by Monday evening, things were looking dire for Hickory House.
“Business, it’s ugly. It’s just bad,” Hickory House proprietor Paul Dioguardi said.
But the context for that conversation was a good one: Dioguardi had just learned that help was on the way, spearheaded by a fellow Aspen business and backed by a tsunami of broader local support. Meridian Jewelers’ Kenny and Robin Smith — also on behalf of their team, the Smiths made clear — on Friday sent an email to the store’s contact list inviting recipients to partake in an idea Kenny had to immediately bolster the beloved culinary community.
“We sent out an email to our email list because it was an efficient way to reach everybody rather than call everybody one by one,” he said. “My phone and email almost just immediately blew up. I sent this out Friday night, and ... it’s been an emotional response. It’s been unbelievable the way people have responded to it selflessly.”
The idea was a simple but generous one: Buy a gift certificate from a favorite local restaurant, and Meridian Jewelers would match the purchase up to $200. So, for instance, if someone bought a $500 gift certificate, they’d actually receive one worth $700, the email explained.
And it was an idea that germinated after reading comments in a social media thread on an article from The Aspen Times reporting on the health board’s decision. It was a disheartening “negative vibe,” as Smith described it — the comments, not the article — and a clear reflection of the compounded, collective stress and emotion felt by a community wrestling with continued hardship as the COVID-19 incidence rate soared to rank Pitkin County as No. 1 in the state.
“We thought this would be a good way to give back to our many friends in the restaurant business. We hope you do too,” Smith wrote in Friday’s email.
They did. By Monday, he was making phone calls to restaurateurs with actual dollar-amount commitments on behalf of the hundreds of people that took him up on his offer. All the while, the whole Meridian team was working in the background, fielding yet more phone calls and updating spreadsheets to ensure an efficient execution of promises made.
“That's what makes us emotional about it, when people call. It’s not a blank check to restaurants — it’s not a donation. It’s, ‘One day, I’m going to eat at your restaurant later, I’m going to support you now when you need it,’” he said.
And that’s exactly that way that Elizabeth Plotke, owner of Campo di Fiori, prefers it. She pointed to the signature work ethic of her industry as a point of pride and said that the Smiths’ campaign was perfectly in line with the nature of the hospitality ethos.
“We don’t want it,” she said of the well-intentioned offers for donations she’s fielded since the health board’s decision. “We’re hard-working; all we want is to be open, working our butts off. Gift certificates — where people can come in and eat with us later — is unbelievable.”
When the Smiths told Plotke she’d be receiving enough funding in the short term to immediately and more feasibly continue her current payroll, she burst into tears.
“It is moving to the core what they tried to do for us,” she said. “Robin called me and just told me … and then I started crying. We all know we live in the best community living here, and this outpouring just reinforces what we all know every single day of our lives, that we live in this unbelievable community.”
Plotke wasn’t the only one in tears.
“It’s exciting — someone was crying on the phone a little while ago,” Kenny Smith said, adding the Meridian staff has cried, too, in gratitude. “People came into the store [to show support]. It’s a joy. Everyone that works here is proud to be a part of the community and wants to take the opportunity to give back when they can, and the team here is really proud to be a part of it.”
For Plotke and others in her industry who are reaping the fruits of their community’s labors, the money means keeping more people employed during a second wave of the novel coronavirus in an industry that rarely offers health care benefits.
“A huge majority of our employees are service workers. By closing that service, you’re laying off such a huge percentage of the population,” she said, noting the roughly 3,400 people who signed a petition imploring the health board to maintain the 25% occupancy cap. “So it’s been very heavy. What this does is it’s going to help with the payroll, to keep a dishwasher working, to keep a prep person working, to keep a line cook working. It’s far reaching.”
Dioguardi, too, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s a godsend for me — and all of us, all the restaurateurs,” he said, adding that his Aspen restaurant had not seen the same level of county government support that his Douglas County location has throughout the pandemic.
“[Douglas County] helped cover my lost income, my lost sales” throughout shuttered indoor dining in both the spring and December, Dioguardi said. “It’s a lot of money that I’ve gotten that has helped that restaurant stay alive, so that’s been great. We live in a pretty wealthy community, city, county, and I was just shocked that there hasn’t been more help. I never thought it would come from another local business, to come up with it [and] to execute it and be so generous.”
While staff is a centerpiece of any successful restaurant endeavor and experience, it’s also one of the more negotiable, moving parts when hosting guests becomes an impossibility. That’s not the case for other expenses, he said with chagrin.
“My heat’s gotta be on whether you're 0% or 25%,” he said. “The heat, the garbage, your rent — you try to cut back on everything you can, but you still have to pay those fixed costs. Unfortunately, what you cut is the staff. [But with this financial boost], there’s always something to clean, something to fix — I can keep more people busy because I’ve got this money. It’s a lifeline to a ton of staff.”
Kenny Smith on Monday was still reeling from the — no pun intended — viral nature of the endeavor. The original email had made its rounds to circles far beyond the initial recipients; his and Robin’s sincere hope was that the momentum would continue to carry into actual gift card purchases.
“Although Meridian has quickly met its capacity to match, Kenny, Robin and the Meridian team hope so much that people will take the initiative directly to reach out to the restaurants they want to support,” he said on behalf of the team.
The compassion didn’t stop at restaurant employers and employees, however. Kenny Smith emphasized several times his intention as one of service for the industry that for decades has always been the first to support nonprofit causes through donations of food and time or both, but also offered a sympathetic tone for the public health officials burdened with having to make seemingly impossible choices to best steward the community through the next chapter of the pandemic.
“I am not an expert on epidemiology or contact tracing — I’m not going to weigh in and say about this study or that study. We’re not experts; we just know that everyone is in a tough position,” he said. “The BOH is in a tough position; the community is in a tough position; and I think the restaurants are feeling the worst of this, and I just found a way to offer some help, and that is it.”