DENVER — Since the pandemic shut down businesses nearly a year ago, restaurants have been forced to navigate myriad of changing rules, regulations and constantly changing limits on the number of customers allowed to dine in at their locations.
The impact has forced a significant number of restaurants out of business.
During the past two months, Denver7 Investigates has requested information from metro-area cities and counties to analyze the decisions and amounts of CARES Act dollars they distributed to local restaurants. The data shows a large disparity in how municipalities doled out funds, with some capping grants as low as $7,500 while others paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to individual restaurants.
“I think all counties need to get together and discuss how each one of them is handling it because then it just creates animosity between counties,” said Chris Bogert, general manager of Landsdowne Arms in Highlands Ranch and Darcy’s Bistro and Pub in Denver.
His two restaurants saw a significant difference in the amount of government support provided by the counties where they are located.
“In talking to other mangers and restaurant owners, they are all shocked at the disparity,” Bogert said.
Darcy’s Bistro and Pub in Denver County received $7,500 in help. Landsdowne Arms is in Douglas County, where county leaders provided $233,994 in support to keep the restaurant in business.
Records show last year the maximum grant given to a restaurant in Denver County was $7,500 dollars. Adams County’s maximum was $19,500. Arapahoe County capped restaurant grants to $40,000 and Aurora had a max of $45,000.
Meanwhile, Jefferson County helped one restaurant with $259,873 and Douglas County handed out a quarter-million dollars or more to more than a dozen restaurants, including $400,000 to two restaurants.
Lasinda Crane, who owns Cranelli’s Italian restaurant in Lone Tree, benefited from money allocated by Douglas County Commissioners. She thanked the commissioners for helping restaurants, but said she believes owners in other counties will be upset when they learn about the disparity.
Denver7’s data review found restaurants in Aurora and Denver along with Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties provided an average of less than $30,000 in CARES Act money to restaurants. Douglas County averaged a grant of $89,482 over 183 restaurants.
“I’m not looking for people to compare us to others,” Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas said. “Douglas County is unique.”
Fellow commissioner Abe Laydon echoed Thomas’ position, saying commissioners did the right thing by handing out the largest CARES Act grants in the Denver7 review.
“Our perspective here was to protect lives and livelihoods,” he said.
Douglas County’s grants reimbursed restaurants for employee salaries and gave grants based on lost income in a formula that compared the difference in revenue between 2019 and 2020.
“We did not use that money to back-fill county offices,” Thomas said. “We chose not to do that.”
Douglas County reports it handed out 57% of the CARES Act dollars it received to support restaurants and businesses in the county.
Renato Castillo, who owns the Peruvian restaurant Pisco Sour in Aurora, said he was able to keep his restaurant open with his own two hands. He had to work as a cook and in other roles to lower labor costs. He said he is lucky to get what he received but would certainly have taken $200,000 if it was offered.
Aurora Assistant City Manager Roberto Venegas said Aurora’s grant process was similar to other counties but noted there was not time to check with other municipalities and the priority to provide help to business operating.
“There is no playbook. Sometimes it isn’t necessarily as smooth as we would like it,” Venegas said. “We tried our best to create a system that was equitable.”
Laura McGinley, chief financial officer for a group that owns seven Wahoo’s Fish Tacos in five metro-area counties, also reviewed the data Denver7 uncovered.
“I didn’t realize that there were some that were getting close to a half-million dollars,” she said. “I’m jealous.”
She added she appreciated the help, but it was nowhere near the large dollars handed out by Douglas and Jefferson counties. She also noted the differences in process in each county.
“The red tape has been a nightmare,” McGinley said. “Every county is different. The process is different.”
Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said the industry has lost $3 billion during the pandemic. A survey recently conducted of the association’s members discovered that 50% of respondents will have to consider permanently closing in the next six months without dramatic changes to restrictions.
“Restaurants need help. We’re hopeful that legislators and regulators will be really taking a hard look this year at what they can do to help the restaurant industry,” she said. “I think it’s going to be important that Colorado looks the way we want it to at the end of this pandemic.”