How Vail-area restaurants have made it through the holidays
Reducing hours, forgoing takeout service and adjusting seating capacity are just some of the ways restaurants have dealt with staff shortages
The recent spike in COVID-19 cases could not have come at a worse time for local restaurants. Establishments across the valley are straining to serve a dramatically increased client base over the holiday season while keeping staff and customers safe and healthy.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Eagle County began increasing rapidly in mid-December, with hundreds of people a day testing positive in the week leading up to Christmas.
At Vendetta’s in Vail Village, general manager Jen Riddle said that symptoms were detected in 15 of 20 staff members over the past few weeks. Though most were not positive for the virus, they had to remain out of work until they were able to receive a conclusive test result, placing a severe burden on restaurant operations.
“We were practically having to rearrange our schedule on the daily, due not to just people getting COVID, but getting a little sniffle or something,” Riddle said. “We couldn’t let them come into work, and we had to have them get tested and go through that whole process, which because of the surge would take a couple of days to even get a test result back. It wasn’t all at the same time, but there was a lot of overlap there.”
To adjust to the constantly changing number of healthy staff members, Riddle said that management has been cutting restaurant hours when necessary and rearranging the capacity of the restaurant to make sure staff can keep up with the customers.
“We were taking tables out and bringing them back in to ebb and flow with our staffing shortages,” Riddle said.
As a favorite pizza joint in town, Vendetta’s is also a common takeout stop for tourists during the high season, but the restaurant hasn’t been able to provide this service.
“We’ve also had to cut off to-go orders pretty much every night during this holiday season, which has been really hard for tourists,” Riddle said. “I’ve heard that a lot of the hotels cut off their in-house dining, because they were understaffed as well; so a lot of families were struggling to find food options if they didn’t plan ahead and have reservations months ago.”
Usually a late night haunt, Vendetta’s is now closing at 11 p.m. instead of 2 a.m. until the situation improves, and Riddle said the restaurant will not be accepting groups of more than 10 people to limit stress on the staff.
Restaurateurs across the valley are turning to devices that before the pandemic would be considered unthinkable — especially during the busiest season of the year.
Larry Leith is the owner of Yeti’s Grind, a coffee shop with locations in Vail Village and Eagle, as well as a large number of Tokyo Joe’s franchises on the Front Range. While Leith said he has been lucky so far — with only a manageable few staff members out at a time — he is prepared to take serious steps if the surge increases.
“I hate to say it, but we’re all practiced at this, which is rough,” Leith said. “All the owners, right now we have tools in our toolbox that we never, ever thought we would have. One of which is closing, one of which is being open six days a week instead of seven, or reducing hours. That used to be such a brutal thing for people to even put out there, because I think people feel they have a responsibility, not just to employ their employees and keep the whole machine running, but to your guests and your customers.”
Leith said the a good thing about enduing the pandemic this long is that customers don’t fault businesses as harshly for having to take severe measures.
“I think the consumer is much more understanding,” Leith said. “They are tipping a little better. They don’t get mad at you. They don’t send you a harsh email that they pulled up and it was closed at 8 instead of 9 — they read the note on the door and they get it. Yeah, we’re all tired of it, but we’re all used to pivoting right now.”
For establishments that have employees who are out sick, the effort to remain open requires healthy employees to go above and beyond, picking up extra shifts and performing multiple roles to fill the shoes of those who are recovering.
Drew Riley is a co-owner of Los Amigos and Russell’s Restaurant, both in Vail Village, where the establishments have been experiencing the highest number of employees out at the same time since the pandemic began.
“This is the only time that we’ve had any more than one case at a time,” Riley said. “We’ve had maybe two or three cases since COVID started at both restaurants, and now we’ve got four or five at the same time. Everybody’s already working five shifts, and it puts that extra strain on all of our other staff members. A lot of people are working doubles, and a lot of people are getting burned out faster.”
Riley said that the staff at both restaurants wear masks and try to social distance, and they also adjust the flow of customers to reduce the risk of more infections. So far, the heightened efforts of healthy staff members has allowed both restaurants to operate with regular hours and capacity. If the cases continue to go up, Riley plans to call former employees to see if they can fill a shift and will step in himself if needed.
“I sit behind a desk, but if I need to go in there and pick up a couple of shifts, I will do that to support my staff members,” Riley said. “I’m very proud of everyone on our staff for coming together and helping each other out. It’s awesome when people do that, and that’s how we’re all going to get through.”
Sheika Gramshammer, the longtime owner of Pepi’s Bar & Restaurant in Vail Village, expressed a similar sentiment about the exertion that she has seen from her own staff members. She said that some employees have left Pepi’s since the start of the pandemic, but it has left her with a strong and resilient team that has been weathering the demands of the last few weeks.
“The ones who are still here are fantastic — unbelievable — but now they are overworked,” Gramshammer said. “I cannot push them too hard anymore because they are on the edge, like I am. Like we all are. They hang in there, and I can see how exhausted they are, because they go from here to someplace else, and then from someplace else they come here to work. But they are creative. They’re great, strong people.”
Similar to Vendetta’s, the biggest staff shortage at Pepi’s occurred last week, when people were out with symptoms, awaiting test results. Two bartenders are out. Gramshammer said the restaurant has removed tables to lower its capacity and reduced dinner hours to end an hour early at 9 p.m., and she has additional plans ready in case more staff members fall ill.
“If we don’t have the staff now, I have to do what I’ve never done in 59 years: In the winter, I’ll close at 8 (p.m.) too, if I have to,” Gramshammer said. “Another major issue I have is in the bar. If I don’t have bartenders, I may just have to serve the people that come to dinner but close completely down the Pepi’s bar. That’s the worst of the worst. If I have to do that, then I feel sorry for Vail.”
As of now, the restaurants are managing to keep their doors open and making the necessary adjustments as staff availability changes daily. But when it comes down to it, protecting employees and keeping them from burning out is the No. 1 priority, and the owners will take whatever steps necessary to ensure their people make it through this surge and this high season safely.
“I have to protect my children — or, my employees,” Gramshammer said, smiling. “So if I have to do something, I’m willing to do it. If it saves my employees from getting sick, and it saves my employees from leaving me, I have to make some serious steps about it.”