Vail restaurants, bars planning for winter operations after surprisingly busy summer
Despite COVID-19 restrictions and added protocols, Vail’s summer dining scene was busy. Thanks to abundant patios and expanded outdoor seating, many restaurants are reporting a successful summer. But with winter and ski season quickly approaching, restaurants and bars in both Vail and Beaver Creek are trying to plan how exactly to present their winter offerings with public health at the forefront.
And with the level of uncertainty that has characterized 2020, Vail restaurants are gearing up for a busy winter.
“We had a very good summer, a very good fall, I think it’s going to be a fantastic winter,” said Dimitri Souvorin, chef and restaurateur at El Segundo and Montauk Seafood Grill. “The business model we’ve seen develop in both restaurants is absolutely sustainable through the winter. I think reservations are going to be an absolute must in this town for the wintertime.”
This winter, each restaurant is tasked with creating a plan that works with the idiosyncrasies of their individual establishments.
Over the summer, many restaurants were successfully able to adapt their indoor and outdoor seating options to match local and state guidelines. Since they were able to seat fewer guests, and some restaurants decided to remain closed, demand for tables actually increased.
“Not to mention, Vail has been really busy since July. Even right now, we are abnormally busy for this time of year” Souvorin said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic.”
The same was true at Root & Flower in Vail, which opened its new location during the Burton U.S. Open right before the first COVID-19 case was logged in Vail on March 6. Even without a reservation model, the wine and cocktail bar had a good summer.
“We definitely did not lose money this summer. I feel like a lot of people think that’s what’s happening, but that’s not what’s happening,” said bar co-owner Sam Bisantz.
One factor that contributed to restaurants’ summer success was expanded outdoor seating. The town of Vail allowed certain restaurants to move tables into the streets, where space could still accommodate emergency vehicles and the like.
The town of Vail is continuing to help provide options to Vail Village restaurants. Minutes from a Sept. 15 meeting show the town has already committed $2.7 million worth of reserves to coronavirus economic relief efforts, including rent relief, community relief and music activations.
For winter dining, the Town of Vail plans to implement a cost-sharing tent program in Vail and Lionshead villages. The town will pay for the cost of renting various size tents — it is currently reviewing a proposal from a potential vendor — as well as setup and takedown fees, snow removal and operational costs. The restaurants will pay for costs associated with heating the tent as well as security.
The town estimates that this program could bring in at least $300,000 in additional sales tax, which would help offset costs associated with the tenting program.
While more than 30 restaurants have expressed interest, it’s not a one-size-fits-all program. For some businesses, tents just won’t work. Root & Flower was able to add two outdoor tables per Vail’s increased outdoor seating initiative this summer, but tenting doesn’t make sense for the wintertime.
“It definitely seems like it’s going to be beneficial for some restaurants but not for all,” Bisantz said. “Whereas us, I’m not going to do that, waste all that energy, for two tables.”
Additionally, a tent with vinyl walls enclosing diners with heat blocks Root & Flower’s small curb space and sign, so those who don’t already know where the bar is could easily miss it while walking down Bridge Street.
“I’d rather just staff smarter, make sure our menu’s dialed,” Bisantz said.
Most restaurant owners will heat the tents with propane: things like space heaters, flame torches, etc. But there is a local alternative option.
Owned and operated by longtime local Alex Bolla, Avon company InfraHeat Co. embeds a thin, conductive germanium film in rubber floor mats, which they can place outside under a tent. When the film is electrified, it sends therapeutic, far infrared waves up through the floor, heating the space in the same way sunlight evaporates water from a puddle.
“(Propane) is just so inefficient,” said Clay LaGrone, who works with InfraHeat Co. “And we’re burning fossil fuels doing it, as opposed to lighting up an element that’s on the Periodic Chart that produces the same wavelength as the sun. That’s as green as you get.”
Physical therapists use this far infrared technology in therapeutic applications. InfraHeat Co. mainly focused on other industries, like thawing the ground for Colorado aquamarine gemstone miners. But when the coronavirus hit, Bolla saw an immediate connection between his product and the local bar and restaurant scene.
Currently, a demo tent is set up at Bob’s Place in Avon, and InfraHeat Co. is working with restaurants from Vail to Edwards, as well as the towns of Vail and Avon governments. InfraHeat Co. will work with restaurants to offer significant discounts to help preserve Vail’s local businesses.
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But infrared technology won’t work for everyone, either. Both Montauk and El Segundo’s buildings were finished before 1978, and their electrical grids don’t have the capability to power the infrared heating pad. A lot of other buildings are in the same situation, which is why the Town of Vail is moving forward with propane solutions.
But a solution to the winter dining puzzle isn’t just dependent on heating outdoor spaces. El Segundo and Montauk will be relying on indoor seating, though outdoor seating will be available to diners who request it and if possible, but it’s not going to be a focus.
Maximizing space and providing a top-notch guest experience is Souvorin’s main focus. In normal years, many guests waiting for tables to open up will gather around the bar. Souvorin said that last winter, the bar at El Segundo was four people deep seven hours a day. Without that option, he’s hoping guests will wait for their tables in warming tents that the Town of Vail is planning on installing throughout the village.
“It does need to rely on an understanding from people that they simply can’t come in. People are coming from all over the place, and a lot of them have different COVID situations than here,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the real challenge: managing the flow of customers at the door.”
Another solution that both restaurants will be implementing is longer hours with the same menu — no separation between lunch and dinner. Montauk will be open from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and El Segundo is open from noon to the state last call guideline daily, which is currently 11 p.m. in Eagle County. And with the same menus all day, the restaurant is able to accommodate guests for a big lunch, an early dinner or other alternatives to a traditional dinner-at-7 outing.
“We’re really trying to give the customer a lot of room to customize their own style of dining,” Souvorin said.
While focusing on indoor seating, all tables will be appropriately distanced. In El Segundo, which has a large, open plan dining room, there will be more dividers and sectioning to help keep guests more safe.
At the end of the day, though, like so much else about COVID-19, the narrative here in Eagle County is about moving forward, despite obstacles.
“We’re really, really positive. We’re excited about the winter. Yes, there are absolutely challenges. There are absolutely things that we’re going to be doing differently than we’ve ever done. I’ve been in this valley for 23 years running restaurants, and this is new territory for sure,” Souvorin said. “It’s not a negative thing.”
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