As dining rooms open back up, Craig eateries vary in response

David Pressgrove / Craig Press
(From left, clockwise) Lou Wyman, Al Shepherd, Oscar King and Doug Wellman returned to their “Old Professional” room at the Cool Water Grille this week. The group, which has six to eight regulars, did not get to meet while the restaurant was closed due to COVID-19.
David Pressgrove / Craig Press

In the back room of Craig’s Cool Water Grille there is a sign that reads “Old Professionals meet at CW Grille 9 a.m. M-F.” On Thursday the “Old Professionals” were back at it after missing their daily meeting for nearly two months.

“We picked up right where we left off,” said Lou Wyman. “We kept tabs with each other during the quarantine, but there was not anywhere open for us to meet.”

The Cool Water Grille opened to the public on Saturday, May 23, with 30 percent of inside seating available, which is what was allowed after Moffat County was granted permission through a variance sent to Colorado Governor Jared Polis’ office by the Board of Commissioners.

“Some of those guys are 90 years old and they’ve been friends their entire life,” said Erin Durham, who owns and operates the restaurant with her dad, Dennis Otis. “I’m the most happy that we could open so those guys could be back together.”

Earlier in the week Polis announced that restaurants could move to 50 percent occupancy and by Wednesday most restaurants in Craig were allowing for customers to dine in for the first time since mid-March.

In initial conversations with city and county officials, a majority of restaurant owners said they did not want to re-open until they could be at full capacity. It appeared as if most owners had changed their stance by Wednesday, but it was not without frustration.

“The frustrating thing is that we get a variance special from the county for 30 percent and then 48 hours later the state opens it up to 50 percent,” said J.W. Snack’s Gulf Coast Bar and Grill owner, Danny Griffith. “I think Polis thinks he was helping us out with the change, but we could have used a little more heads up. It’s not like we can just get everything restocked and ready to go within a day.”

Griffith said he was operating with 40 seats inside and 40 outside and the primary reason for opening was to give his employees opportunities to make a living.

“I’ve been inventing tasks for people to do,” he said. “We haven’t been packed, but the week after Memorial Day weekend is not always our busiest.”

Moffat County Commissioner Don Cook was glad that the restaurants could be open again but understood the frustrations.

“It’s been a moving target and I understand the frustration,” he said. “There are a lot of restrictions that come with the openings and we want to help educate the public and restaurant owners on the best movement toward health and well-being in our county.”

According to Griffith, one unforeseen challenge is the supply chain and costs for products. He said that he has had to call both of his suppliers each week just to see what is available. Brisket, one of his most popular items, has gone from $4 a pound to almost $11 a pound.

“I can’t carry my pulled brisket right now because of the price,” he said. “I don’t think the governor has any idea the challenges that this is bringing for us.”

In addition to supply issues, the restaurants have not gone without criticism for opening. Last week several calls were made to the Colorado Board of Public Health and Environment about potential violations from Craig locations; at least one call was about Cool Water.

“We are selling ribs and chicken from Brothers (Custom Processing) out front of the store on Friday and Saturdays,” said Durham. “Somebody called and complained that our customers were gathering too closely.”

During Tuesday’s commissioner meeting the violation calls were addressed. The commissioners discussed setting up a local option for call-ins, but not as a means for the county to be a watchdog.

“We don’t want to set up a tattletale line,” Cook said. “What we want to do is that if there is a legitimate issue, it’s something we can cover with a letter or even just sit down with an owner and help them understand what needs to be done.”

While Wyman and the Old Professionals are glad to be back together, other managers and owners said the first couple of days open were not ideal.

“I hope it does not stay like this,” said Brett Etzler, owner of Carelli’s. “We were doing better with just take out and delivery.”

Village Inn General Manager Melissa Hawkins could see that things were different for customers after Village Inn re-opened from a 59-day closure: “I think people are definitely being cautious. Business was slow, but steady, the first day, but I can tell there are some reservations.”

The Craig Village Inn is owned by Family Restaurants, a corporation that owns and operates eateries throughout Colorado. Family Restaurants chose to completely close the Craig Village Inn until dine-in was available.

“We just aren’t set up very well for takeout,” she said. “Our bosses decided it was best to close all the way down.”

Not all restaurants opened up their dining rooms after Polis’ announcement. McDonald’s General Manager Aaron Bosshardt said that they are waiting for the corporate offices to allow for dine-in. According to the McDonald’s website the corporation has implemented 50 process changes in order to accommodate COVID-19 risks.

A quick drive around Craig revealed that not all restaurants owned by larger corporations had opened up their lobbies. Wendy’s and Subway had patrons seated inside while McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell were still limited to drive-thru or take-out.

One locally owned restaurant that has also stayed with delivery or takeout is the Sizzling Pickle. Owner RaChell Dschaak said that she is still evaluating their plan and wanting to make sure they have their sanitation plan in place for both the restaurant and the Thunder Rolls Bowling Center, which houses the restaurant.

“We want to open up the (bowling) alley at the same time,” she said. “There is such a fine line between having too many staff or not enough staff and I want to get it right.”

Dschaak said she has been encouraged for the future of the Sizzling Pickle because awareness has increased since they went to delivery and take out.

“People have realized that we are a genuine restaurant option,” she said. “But we need to have bowling available because the restaurant can’t carry the entire facility forever.”

Although the response to being able to open varied among owners, the sentiment of gratefulness to the community during the stay-at-home and safer-at-home times was shared.

“The people of Craig and the big man upstairs kept us going,” Durham said.

“I’ll forever remember this time as one where the community showed its true colors to me,” said Griffith. “I had people coming in and spending $200 on a meal and asking me to make sure that my employees got paid.”

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