It's a novel time to open a restaurant — after all, the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 effectively shuttered the industry through much of the spring.
While many of the eateries throughout the Roaring Fork Valley are preparing to welcome back guests into their long-emptied dining rooms, albeit in limited capacities congruent with local public health orders, restaurateur Ryan Chadwick is looking to open doors to a whole new establishment.
“Restaurants are challenging anyway, and when you add all of this to the mix, I don’t know,” Chadwick, who in addition to Mr. Grey and Escobar also owns several restaurants in New York City and Montauk, said of the coming weeks.
“I don’t know what that looks like, but there’s only one way to find out, and that’s just try. It may not make any money, but at least the staff’s working and we’re providing jobs and keeping the lights on and keeping this corner activated,” he said.
The space at 307 S. Mill St., which formerly was home to the Kirby Ice House, sat vacant last winter, Chadwick continued. Prior to COVID-19 halting the global economy, he envisioned taking over the lease while continuing operations at Mr. Grey, sharing staff and inventory.
Now, he’s unsure if he’ll reopen Mr. Grey this summer.
“Mr. Grey, it’s up in the air right now. I just don’t know if I want to get into seafood,” Chadwick said, noting that high-end cuisine also comes with high operating margins. “I’ve been doing seafood for so many years, and I think this is going to be the wrong season for that. I’m really interested in getting into a different model. I can’t have lobster go bad and be stuck with the bill.”
Enter Pie Shop Aspen. In just 11 days, Chadwick and his team oversaw a complete renovation of the space. He reached out to his networks in both New York and Aspen to kickstart the product: high-altitude, deep-dish square pizza.
“I have a friend in New York City who runs a pizza place called Scarr’s in the Lower East Side; it’s my favorite slice,” he said. “And I called him and asked if he would share his square slice recipe. He shared some of it — not all of it — but he helped consult with this, which is great. It got me really far ahead.”
Additionally, Chadwick tapped a former business neighbor to oversee his newly revamped kitchen, complete with pizza oven. Annette and Fino Docimo, of Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop fame, had to close their doors in September after almost a decade in the 420 E. Hyman Ave. location next to Escobar.
“I know Annette makes a really good pizza anyway, and I thought if I could hone in Scarr’s recipe but have Annette actually do the cooking and execute it, I think we could have a home run,” Chadwick said.
And after three days of taste testing, he thinks he’s ready to take his new game to the proverbial big league that is the Aspen dining scene — he’s set to open Friday for lunch.
“Barclay from Bosque the other day said he’s excited for us. New York Pizza gave us their blessing, which was really nice,” he smiled. “Domino’s closed, so as far as pizza games go, there’s only a few pizza shops in town. I’m a big fan of Brunelleschi’s pizza — I eat there a lot — but I wanted to bring square, deep-dish here. Something different.”
While he’s cautiously optimistic, coronavirus has already brought unexpected obstacles beyond ordering masks and sanitizer and figuring out how to maintain physical distancing among dining parties.
“The vendors have already said that: expect delays; expect problems on shipping. Apparently, there’s a shortage of cheese, who would’ve thought? Good mozzarella cheese, there’s a shortage of that,” he said. “I didn’t realize that that was going to be a problem.”
Fortunately, he’s found a source for the good stuff that’s befitting a deep-dish pizzeria.
“We have a great supplier out of Chicago,” Chadwick said.
As for the rest of the logistics of opening amid public health restrictions, he’s facing similar challenges as his cohorts in the restaurant industry.
“This is the first time where I’ve actually questioned whether I’m in the wrong industry or not diversified in other industries,” he said. “It’s like, ‘I need to start selling stuff online or something’ or find my niche in the home market — like I’ve been trying to design these really cool pizza kits you can make at home and stuff like that. Just messing around with different ideas.”
That diversification has served Wendy Mitchell well. At Meat & Cheese, the grocery component has helped bolster the restaurant’s finances during the months of takeout and delivery.
“It’s been good, so great. Like, way busier than it normally is in off season. For us, we’re so lucky to have that grocery component because it really did help to pay salaries,” she said.
On Tuesday, she and her staff were busy working out the final details on Wednesday’s reopening while managing takeout orders. Masks will be required for all patrons — “when you get up to go to the bathroom,” Mitchell explained — and staff, and 30-minute alarms have been installed to ensure thorough sanitation of all highly frequented areas twice an hour.
Like Chadwick, Mitchell said she’ll be happy if she breaks even through the summer months.
“We’re all just saying if we can break even, we’re good,” she said. “Then, the next obstacle will be winter, when we don’t have outdoor seating.”
Even now, with idyllic temperatures, she’s concerned about outdoors seating, as a matter of fact.
“You know how much it rains here. What are we going to do when it’s raining and everyone wants to come inside and we have to say, ‘I’m sorry; you can’t come inside,’” she said. “When you’re in the service industry, it’s just so different because you can’t do what you would normally do.”
Patience from patrons and county officials as operational kinks get worked out will be key for successful openings, everyone agreed.
“We’re ordering masks and sanitation gel. We have a thermometer in case we need it. We’ll be going over in preshift meetings what we can and can’t do. We’re learning as we go, just like everyone else,” Chadwick said. “Everyone will make mistakes, and we’ll just have to figure it out as we go along. I’m just happy to be able to open. It’s been a long couple of months, not knowing.”
To help minimize the number of mistakes made, Pitkin County on Tuesday updated its website, complete with sector-specific guidelines for reopening.
“You are encouraged to be creative in how to apply these best practices in your establishment,” according to the website. “Every restaurant in Pitkin County must complete the Phase 2 Business Safety Plan Checklist, review it with your employees, and post it in a prominent location in your facility.”
Still, a few questions percolated in the community, specifically regarding permissible closing times and public liquor laws.
“We did not have a curfew in our requirements that I’m aware of,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said Tuesday evening, though he noted that only dine-in restaurants — not bars — will be opening Wednesday. “We have a new webpage out with a ton of information.”
Though there have been ideas floated by local officials regarding street closures and revisiting right-of-way and land-use regulations to better support restaurants, especially regarding alcohol, there are no concrete plans to turn Aspen into New Orleans just yet.
“The same alcohol laws apply as before,” Peacock said.