Last year, when state health officials imposed restrictions on indoor dining to control the spread of Covid-19, Peter Waters, the owner of T/aco, did just about everything he could to keep his taqueria open. 

He changed his menu to offer take-out margaritas and burritos. He built huts and picnic tables to expand outdoor dining. And he took advantage of a federal loan and tax credit to keep his staff employed. 

Since the start of the pandemic, he said business has improved. But his lunch sales are half of what they used to be. Over the next few months, he’ll be happy to break even.

“The biggest challenge that we’ve seen, hands down, is that people aren’t working from their offices anymore,” Waters told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “All the creativity in the world and you’re not going to be able to bring these people back if they’re not allowed to be in their offices.” 

In 2020, total annual sales from Boulder’s restaurants and bars dropped 36 percent compared to 2019, according to an analysis of Colorado Department of Revenue sales data by the Boulder Reporting Lab. That compares to an average dip of 18 percent among 13 Front Range cities, including Boulder. Denver’s bars and restaurants experienced the largest hit to sales, dropping 38 percent.

“The depths of the restaurant recession were not as severe in other places as they were here in Boulder,” Robert McNown, a professor of economics at CU Boulder, told the Boulder City Council in September. 

At least a dozen Boulder restaurants have closed since the start of the pandemic, according to news reports. That’s about 10 percent of the city’s approximate 200 bars and restaurants.

For the Boulder restaurants that didn’t shut down, McNown said it could be another three years before the industry’s sales rebound to pre-pandemic levels. 

Pearl Street in downtown Boulder on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Credit: Timothy Hurst

The reasons vary for why restaurants and bars in Boulder were hit particularly hard during the pandemic, according to restaurant owners and researchers. 

In Boulder, more than half of all workers live outside of the city, at least in part due to the relatively high cost of living. With more people working from home, fewer people are dining out, restaurant owners said. 

Another reason was CU Boulder’s decision to switch to remote learning during the 2020 spring semester. This likely reduced demand for business and the supply of workers, McNown said. 

And when students returned to campus, health officials reported a rise in cases among college-age people, creating further concern in the Boulder community. 

“That was a real blow to us,” Dakota Soifer, a chef and owner of Cafe Aion, a Spanish tapas restaurant on University Hill. “People at that point were not eating out. Even when they were, they clearly weren’t taking the risk of going to what, according to the press, was the epicenter of Boulder County as far as Covid cases.” 

Several restaurant owners mentioned Boulder County’s mask mandate as another issue, partly because it’s difficult to enforce.  

“I’m sick of turning people away,” said Lindsay Shaw, the owner of Lindsay’s Boulder Deli at Häagen-Dazs on Pearl Street. 

She added: “To make a 19-year-old kid look at this older gentleman or woman and ask them to put on a mask and that person says ‘no, how dare you,’ I just don’t think that’s fair.” 

Shaw said a federal grant from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund saved her business. Others said the Paycheck Protection Program helped, too. State lawmakers also loosened liquor laws to allow people to sell take-out drinks, which typically have higher profit margins. And the city of Boulder waived fees on liquor license applications, gave away parking spaces for outdoor dining and subsidized the food delivery service Nosh. Private donors chipped in to help cover the cost of a program to feed frontline hospital workers. And the nonprofit First Bite organized Boulder County Restaurant Week in early October. 

All of this helped, restaurant owners said. But it remains unclear what the new normal will look like, including how much it will cost restaurants to lease space that now includes more outdoor seating, and what might be lost — individual businesses and more — after another winter season. 

“Pearl Street is just unique,” said Marcy Miller, the owner of Organic Sandwich Company. “If we’ve got all these empty spaces and the only people who can afford them are big chains, it loses its originality.” 

Waters, of T/aco, said some of his cooks have stayed with him since 2012, when he first opened, including three Hispanic women. He said this is what gives his restaurant authenticity. To pay these people and break even, he said, would be a victory. 

“We have 40-45 employees that all made the same amount of money they are accustomed to making pre-pandemic,” he said. “That to me is a win.”

Peter Waters, the owner of T/aco, with his staff on Oct. 27, 2021. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

John Herrick

I report on housing, climate, health and local government for the Boulder Reporting Lab. I previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. I’m interested in stories about people, power and fairness.