One of the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic has unquestionably been restaurants. Their livelihood has long depended on their relationship with their customers, with atmosphere being just as important as the quality of the appetizer. As restaurant owners look at reopening, Jeff Noffsinger, owner of Origins in Loveland and Locality in Fort Collins, shares with us the heartaches and triumphs since COVID-19, and what he feels the future of dining out might look like.
Q: Tell us about yourself and your restaurants.
A. I am a Hoosier native. I often joke that I was raised on meat, potatoes and corn, and now I own two restaurants with menus that look nothing like the food I grew up with.I am a former city planner and townmanager in Northern Indiana and Jackson Hole. After an unceremonious ending to a job in Northern Colorado in 2012, I purchased a one-way ticket to Italy. I spent the next six weeks cycling, eating and drinking my way through. Upon my return, I attended the International Wine Guild in Denver to earn my certificate as an Executive Wine Sommelier. I wanted to do something with my new-found love, and I settled on the arts community of Loveland to open my “little” wine bar. Origins Wine Bar and Wood Fired Pizza opened in May 2015. It is disappointing that we are unable to celebrate our 5th anniversary; however, we plan to have a patio party when we are able to reopen. Origins has 27 employees. Locality Kitchen and Bar opened in October 2016. I purchased the restaurant from Jim Edwards in February 2019. Locality has 37 employees.
Q: When your restaurants were shut down in March, what was your immediate reaction?
A: On March 16, I received notice from the Colorado Restaurant Association that Governor Polis would be announcing closure of all restaurants indefinitely. Sitting by myself at my bar made from barnwood from Grandpa’s farm and hard maple from the lumber company in my hometown, I opened a bottle of wine and cried. It was crushing to see this amazing dream come to a screeching halt.
Q: You have kept Origins open on a limited basis but chose to close Locality. What factored into those decisions? How has business been since shutdown?
A: Dining at Origins and Locality is as much about the experience as it is about the food. The remarkable ambiance cannot be mimicked with takeout food. I immediately closed both restaurants to give us time to evaluate what the future would be like dining in our establishments. Our authentic wood fired pizza oven with no on-off switch had never been below 400 degrees. Take out/curbside delivery is not a long-term solution for any full-service restaurant. The amount of effort involved to pull it off is only enough to offset a few bills. Origins was better prepared for doing takeout, with pizza as our main menu offering and having a captive audience in downtown Loveland. The suburban location of Locality and its varied menu made the decision to not do takeout easier. It was the right decision at the time because I have seen our takeout sales dwindle at Origins. We initially offered takeout on Tuesday and Friday, but only Friday sales were significant enough to continue.On the other hand, taking our mobile pizza oven to neighborhoods in Fort Collins, Windsor, Timnath, Johnstown and Loveland has been a huge success. It has been a great way to stay engaged with our guests and gain exposure to new audiences. We typically sell 150 pizzas in each neighborhood.
Q: Tell us about your program to feed front line workers and how that evolved.
A: Two weeks [after we closed] we received an anonymous $500 donation to make pizzas for front line workers. We fired up our idle pizza oven again to 900 degrees! This huge morale boost was the impetus for creating our Pay-it-Forward program. Since then, we have raised about $10,000 and delivered almost 1,000 pizzas to healthcare employees, grocery store and convenience workers, police and fire, and postal workers.
Q: Reopening still remains questionable and will likely be at limited capacity. What are your biggest concerns with reopening?
A: Having no direction from our state and local government officials on reopening is frustrating. It is quite challenging making any plans with rules changing almost daily. Reopening with limited capacity is not feasible. It will take at least 75% capacity for me to consider reopening fully. At best, our restaurants will still only be half occupied as it is yet to be seen if diners will be comfortable coming out to eat even with extra safety measures in place. While I consider diners returning the number one issue restaurants will be facing, there are two other big factors: immediate supply chain shortages and whether employees will return to work. We have already experienced issues with cheese and tomatoes. With restaurants all opening at the same time, meat and produce are going to be in short supply. Labor is another unknown issue. Being closed for two months now, some employees have found other work.With that being said, there are many fixed costs that still need to be paid: rent, insurance, utilities and other reoccurring costs for running a business. The government is going to have to offer assistance beyond the PPP program for many restaurants to survive much longer.
Q: How will this change dining going forward? What are some immediate impacts and what will be long-term changes in the way people dine out?
A: Going out to eat is going to change forever. You are going to see less creative menus with fewer options to choose. Chefs will be cross-utilizing more ingredients to reduce inventory of food. Takeout business is likely to continue to be strong in the short term, which does not bode well for full service sit-down establishments. The cost of dining out is going to go up as restaurants anticipate increased food costs and the loss of revenue from limited capacity seating. Sadly, there are going to be some casualties as a result of this extended closure. The Colorado Restaurant Association predicts 20 percent of all restaurants will not reopen. As for Origins and Locality, we are ready to cautiously open when we receive the green light. I have no idea what the future holds, but we are prepared to make the necessary adjustments to continue serving diners of Northern Colorado.