Checking in on restaurant owners and workers three weeks after shutdown

As the stay-at-home order continues and dine-in options remain off-limits, feelings are mixed and money is tight

Brett Wenger (left) and Terry Walsh (right) pose for a photo at Rolling Smoke Barbecue in Centennial on April 10, 2020. (Photo by Forest Wilson)
Brett Wenger (left) and Terry Walsh (right) pose for a photo at Rolling Smoke Barbecue in Centennial on April 10, 2020. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

It’s been three weeks since Terry Walsh called the employees of his Centennial barbecue restaurant into his office and, one by one, laid them off.

Gov. Jared Polis had ordered restaurants and bars closed to in-house dining to slow the spread of the new coronavirus and the hit to Walsh’s bottom line was immediate and devastating. Sales plunge 40-60% and he laid off more than a dozen employees.

“It was one of the top five worst days of my life,” Walsh said at the time. “Really other than days people have died.”

The Indy checked in with Walsh and a few others we visited back in mid-March for an update on how they are holding up. The picture is mixed, they say.

Walsh, who owns Rolling Smoke Barbecue in Centennial and at the Stanley Marketplace in Aurora, says he still really hasn’t had time to process the situation.

“Every day something new comes up and we deal with it,” Walsh said. 

Sales have dropped week to week during the shutdown, Walsh said, but the Centennial location has “had some pretty good days.” One loyal customer came into the restaurant and paid double the standard price for four drinks, he said. 

The restaurant set up a food truck for curbside pickup at Stanley Marketplace, which is “getting hurt pretty bad” compared to previous sales at the location inside the marketplace.

Walsh laid off all but four of his employees on March 14, he said, but because he was approved for a low-interest loan through the Paycheck Protection Program — a provision of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill — he can start bringing his employees back on payroll once the loan comes in.

Under PPP, businesses can ask for a loan equal to 2.5 times their average monthly payroll, if they have 500 or less employees. The loans will be forgiven if businesses maintain pre-coronavirus staffing levels and 75% or more of previous salaries, while using the money to pay for approved purposes like rent, utilities and payroll. 

The program is accepting applications through June 30. 

Walsh said once the loan money comes in, which he said he expects to be this week, he’s going to figure out how he’ll bring workers back on payroll and split up hours. 

“If we kept up the level of sales we have now, we would survive,” Walsh said. “This (loan) is just more or less for the employees.” 

Brett Wenger, one of Walsh’s employees, is still working one 10-hour shift a week and picks up another when he can. 

He was approved for unemployment and is figuring out how to deduct the hours he worked from his unemployment claim so he can collect his check, he said. 

Wenger said he’s been lucky, he had checks come in from when he was working full-time for Rolling Smoke and his parents helped him with money for rent. But, he said, “I’ve started to see this dwindle my savings.” 

Still, compared to others in the restaurant industry — some he knows in his own apartment complex — Wenger said he’s doing fine. 

Niccolle Trejo, server and bartender at 4Gs on Broadway Mexican Restaurant, said the restaurant has been getting by. Her hours have been cut, she said, but she’s been working dinner service. 

She’s been able to barely cover her bills, she said, but nothing extra.

Trejo has an estate sales business that she put on hold because people are not meeting in person for sales. That, she said, has been a blow to her income. 

But at 4Gs, both regular customers and new customers who want to help local businesses have frequented the restaurant, she said.

“We’re grateful for the continued support during this time,” Trejo said.

Trejo said the owners of 4Gs also applied for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, and hopes to bring their employees back on payroll within the month. 

The Colorado Independent has yet to reach Myrna Diaz, one of 4Gs owners, who was interviewed for the previous article on Colorado’s restaurants. 

Back in mid-March, Diaz said she was forced to lay off most of her staff of 13 after the staff gathered to watch the closure announcement from Gov. Polis. 

“I told them… everybody was devastated, everybody was worried [about] what they are going to do,” Diaz said. 

One of the challenges in recent weeks, Trejo said, is finding new masks and disposable gloves. They still have a few boxes of gloves, and are reusing masks, but new ones are hard to come by, she said.