After nearly a decade in business, Christine Ruch shut down her restaurant Fresh Thymes Eatery in December 2022, citing labor shortages and the high cost of goods caused by the pandemic.
She said she would keep her coffee shop next door, Bodega, and nearby kitchen and catering spot Fresh Thymes Marketplace open, providing some consolation to disappointed locals.
But in late January, Bodega and Marketplace permanently closed their doors too. A consequence of Fresh Thymes Eatery’s closure, Ruch said, was declining revenue at these businesses. She also blamed a year-long process to secure Bodega’s building permit from the city. Ruch said she’s now in debt after paying for a lease on an empty building while paying for college for her two children. She estimates she spent more than $100,000 on Bodega’s rent during that time.
“It’s clear there will be a lot of financial ramifications for me and my husband as a result of this,” she said.
Ruch’s decision to close all three places highlights the collision of factors affecting local restaurants and other small businesses in Boulder in a post-pandemic market, as labor costs and expenses soar. Permitting hiccups and delays have added to ballooning costs for some.
Though Fresh Thymes Bodega opened in May 2022, Ruch submitted the building’s permit a year before, when she signed Bodega’s lease. She needed it to install floor drains, improve plumbing and electrical, and restructure the back of house to enlarge the front of house for customers. “I couldn’t afford the website and signage after spending so much money waiting for a permit,” Ruch said.
The city’s Department of Planning and Development Services has publicly acknowledged the frustration and the role the city has played in delays generally. “We’re not making our performance goals and we’ve been taking steps — including hiring contractor help a couple of months ago — to help us get to that point,” Brad Mueller, the department’s director, said during a Jan. 5 city council meeting.
Ruch said she considered selling all three Fresh Thyme businesses last year. One of the reasons she opened the Bodega, she said, was to add value to the fresh, local concepts she had already created.
“I just ran out of time and money before I got that far,” Ruch said.
‘I couldn’t find a way out. I just couldn’t keep raising my menu prices.’
Ruch opened Fresh Thymes Eatery, which was gluten-free, in 2013 for two main reasons. One, she sought to fill the gap in “in-between dining” in Boulder. Options at the time were expensive fine dining on Pearl Street or cheaper chains that marketed to college kids, she said.
“The other thing was, I was completely frustrated by the lack of healthy food options,” Ruch said.
Ruch followed with Fresh Thymes Marketplace in 2016. Because the Eatery’s kitchen was small, the restaurant’s staff prepared baked goods, broth and fermented items for the restaurant at the Marketplace. During the pandemic, the space next door to the Eatery opened up. It became the Bodega, and the Marketplace prepared the Bodega’s goods.
But less than six months into Bodega’s operation, Ruch’s labor shortage intensified. She had trouble staffing the restaurant’s line cooks since the start of the pandemic. In October 2022, Ruch let her kitchen manager go. She struggled to find a replacement. So she became the full-time kitchen manager on top of overseeing the Eatery, Marketplace and Bodega.
“There were constant challenges with the kitchen and staffing, hiring and retaining [staff],” she said. “The cost of that was a big burden.”
The turnover also weighed on her employees’ morale, Ruch said. “I was able to see how challenged everybody was, and that I had a lot of people who were super unhappy.”
Ruch “couldn’t find a way out,” she said. “I just couldn’t keep raising my menu prices. Built into the cost of your food is everything: your labor and the cost of the ingredients and your rent.”
After Fresh Thymes Eatery closed, she found it nearly impossible to keep the Bodega and Marketplace open without revenue from the restaurant.
Ruch said she was paying about 50 employees at three locations $17 an hour plus tips. But when Fresh Thymes Eatery closed, tips decreased dramatically so everyone took a pay cut of around $5 an hour.
Perplexed by the permitting process, amid Planning Department challenges
When Ruch opened Fresh Thymes Eatery in 2013, she said she visited Boulder’s Planning and Development Services Department on Arapahoe Ave., where she talked with city planners who informed her of her spot in the city’s permitting queue. Staff said they could expedite a permit and walk her through any questions she had, according to Ruch.
But since the pandemic, the Planning Department’s office building has been closed. On the city’s website is a contact button that routes visitors to Inquire Boulder, the city’s online portal for reporting issues.
“I still have never spoken to anyone at the Planning Department,” Ruch said. After months of waiting for a response, Ruch hired a consultant who tracked down her permit.
The Planning Department has said it launched a project to streamline the permitting process for businesses. It typically does not comment on individual permitting cases. “Land use applications and building permit review needs vary wildly, so it would be inappropriate (and inaccurate) of me to generalize any timeframe associated with them,” Brad Mueller, the city’s director of Planning and Development Services, said in an email response to questions about Bodega.
During the city council meeting on Jan. 5, after a different small business owner complained during public comment about extended permitting delays, Mueller echoed this sentiment: “To speak to any individual permit or generalize about a timeframe is difficult because some permits can take years if there are things that are not are being addressed, or if it simply goes dormant,” he said. “So I’m always reluctant to try to say that a particular timeframe is accurate or not accurate.”
He acknowledged the frustration of the business owner and the city councilmembers demanding answers on her behalf. “Certainly there’s been anecdotal evidence, and we also have our performance metrics, that show those turnaround times are not what our performance indicators and goals are,” he said.
In addition to hiring challenges, the Planning Department has faced high turnover in key leadership roles. It also has a vast directive from the city council on planning-related work this year, including reforming regulations on accessory dwelling units, rewriting site review criteria for developments, and drafting new zoning rules to encourage more affordable housing.
The previous department director left after serving about a year on the job and overseeing pandemic-related budget cuts, which cost the department about one-fifth of its employees. The cuts came about a year after a consultant hired by the city in 2019 found that high staff turnover within the department was contributing to inefficiencies and feelings of being disrespected by the community. The city hired Mueller in May 2022, at a time when he has said applications for “development review and building permits have been as high as they’ve ever have.”
The city is currently hiring a senior planner to review building permits.
In addition to continuing to pay the Eatery’s $10,000 a month rent — plus rent for Bodega and Marketplace — Ruch is paying for an attorney to advocate for her tenant rights as she tries to get sublets approved and get out of her leases.
“I hope I don’t have to declare bankruptcy,” Ruch said. “I have no idea yet how this will impact me and my husband’s future, our children’s education, our retirement or the equity we’ve built in our home. It’s a complicated, messy and very expensive uphill climb from here.”
John Herrick contributed reporting for this story.
As a contractor in Boulder I reflect the same sentiments. I lost a multi-million-dollar house build because the city lost a three-month appointment for a site review process before permitting could begin. Client bailed. I’m out $450,000 in revenue.
“Ruch said she was paying about 50 employees at three locations $17 an hour plus tips.” She was paying tips, not the customers? “But when Fresh Thymes Eatery closed, tips decreased dramatically so everyone took a pay cut of around $5 an hour.” For simplicity, let’s assume a tipping rate of 20%. If servers take a cut of $5/hour, this means they only serve food and drinks worth $25/hour. This doesn’t seem even remotely plausible to me. Sounds to me as if tips are downplayed for whatever reasons. I have never met any server who made only $5/hour in tips.
It’s a tipping pool split between all of the employees (likely front and back of house). Fresh Thymes and Bodega were both walk up to the counter restaurant models; not full service. Tips are not 20% consistently at these kind of restaurants. If they were cut 5.00 an hour, they were probably making 8-12/hour in tips before due to the decline in customers.
In particular back of the house staff should be paid appropriately and never rely on nor receive tips. They produce the items that are sold. Why should they be paid tips? The same holds for front of the house staff if they don’t serve but merely take orders and payments. They are not providing any service to the customer. The restaurant industry and their tipping entitlement and attitude is perverted.
Boulder citizens should take note of two similar but different stories: One, the City and Boulder Valley School plans to build a factory adjacent to open space, wetlands and residences is fast-tracked by the city — sidestepping their own zoning, traffic and noise requirements. Two, the city forces three companies out of business because within a year’s time they can’t manage to act on a simple restaurant expansion.
Fresh Thymes. Very sorry to see Fresh Thymes and its associated businesses close their door. Let us hope that City of Boulder is able to streamline their permitting process so that we do not have to see other small businesses suffer the same fate. Small independent businesses is one of the key ingredients that make Boulder such a great place to live.
1. Any time someone from the City of Boulder’s planning and/or building department tells you that they are doing ANYTHING to make the applicant’s permit submittal and processing go easier, DON’T BELIEVE IT. Any steps they take are solely to make their own jobs smoother, and to make the applicant’s experience more confusing and frustrating.
2. Ask literally any general contractor, homeowner or architect about their experiences attempting to work with the City of Boulder’s planning and/or building departments, and you will hear the same response: What a mess! We won’t even work in Boulder any longer.
3. Boulder has, almost single-handedly, created the need for Permit Expediters, very expensive professionals who assist in a permitting process so difficult to navigate that builders, architects and attorneys refuse to.
Government needs to get out of the way of entrepreneurs instead of increasing costs of doing business and providing employment opportunities. You get what you vote for.
10,000/month rent seem like the main problem here. Planning Dept is clearly overwhelmed and struggling to keep up and not doing a good job. But the rent is outrageous for the one business. The wages were also very high. The food needed to be fantastic in order to ensure a steady stream of customers.
The City of Boulder has made it so difficult to be a resident or a business in this town. The permitting process is a nightmare, and the people working for the city should be trying to work WITH the community members they serve… Ask anyone who has encountered a building inspector or planning department employee, and the experience is never pleasant.
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