We'll Be Here

It’s Been a Rough Year for the Valley’s Restaurant Community. Chef/Owner Derek Bray of Slope & Hatch Shares What Those Early Days of Quarantine Were Like—And Why Not Even a Global Pandemic Can Dampen His Love of the Business

With two children under three years old, and no family for nearly a thousand miles in any direction to help care for them, the odds of seeing my wife or me in our restaurant much later than happy hour are usually slim to none. Nonetheless, around 9:30 p.m. on Monday, March 16, I found myself shuffling down 7th Street in Glenwood, headed to Slope & Hatch. The overall energy of the cantina/eatery had been understandably “off” as of late. 

The previous week was stressful; everyone knew Spring Break was underperforming. All Colorado ski resorts had just recently been ordered to close, and while I knew I didn’t have much to offer as far as advice or knowledge about how we would proceed, the least I could do to help temper my restaurant family’s apprehension was to show up, pour a few margaritas, and let what remained of my staff after closing on an unusually quiet Monday evening vent their concerns to a fresh pair of ears. After all, they had earned it, and everyone was nervous. States and cities on both coasts and in between had imposed varying degrees of social restrictions, the news was pretty scary out of Asia and Europe, sanitizer and toilet paper were flying off the shelves. Trying to balance the fear of a new, enigmatic virus, along with what is traditionally peak Spring Break season, had left everyone’s heads spinning. 

It wasn’t until I glanced over my shoulder and spotted the sign on a neighboring restaurant’s door that I realized Spring Break had definitely flatlined. While my wife, Alex, and I had spent the last few hours preparing and serving dinner, cleaning and wrestling our two small boys into their beds for the night, Governor Polis had finally issued an order that all restaurants stop “dine-in” service for the next 30 days. The optimist in me thought 30 days wouldn’t be so bad (albeit less than ideal timing), while the realist knew, deep down, it was going to be longer—and that we could be in big, big trouble. 

With the absence of the traditional Spring Break cash influx, it would be problematic to weather the next couple of months.  One of the multitudes of economic and societal flaws this pandemic has put on public display, is how glaringly tight profit margins are in the restaurant world. So for us, even coming off a wonderful summer, an above-average fall, and a perfectly nice holiday season in 2019, losing Spring Break 2020 meant that money was tight. 

Despite all the uncertainty, we did at least understand where our priorities should lay. After all, since our restaurant’s inception, with our crew at our side, we have weathered economic downturns, crippling construction projects, natural disasters, and an array of massive equipment and infrastructure failures. All of which seemed devastating at their respective times. But none of which were even a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to what was coming with Covid-19. 

Our crew had always shown us great empathy and patience. The least we could do was reciprocate, and do our best to keep them safe, informed, and reassured that together we would get through this. Somehow.

If we wanted to ensure we could safely open the doors again by Memorial Day—the giant travel weekend which generally marks the kick-off to the summer season when town overflows with tourists—we would have to crunch numbers based off the limited information we had, in combination with our “best guess” forecasts of how much business we could generate in a town that was virtually empty. It didn’t take long to decide.

To safeguard the nominal amount of cash we had in our reserves while also attempting to keep our employees as safe as possible, we decided there was only one approach that would work. We had to get everyone paid, discuss plans with our vendors and loan officers, and promptly close down and apply for whatever loans/grants were available. 

In all, we were closed for around a month. But all was not lost. With enough funds in the bank (loaned/granted through the Federal Paycheck Protection Program) to make a sluggish month or two less terrifying, our staff showed up—generous unemployment checks be damned. And my wife’s heart, as well as my own, melted. 

Everything has been a struggle since March. But even in the shadow of a growing pandemic, it has become apparent that our little business has done a few things right. Namely, our employees. Without them, our restaurant couldn’t have survived the seemingly never-ending obstacles the universe has thrown our way this year. I have always believed that the key to any successful business begins and ends with not only a great concept, but with kind, conscientious, and patient employees.

As we approach our seventh anniversary at Slope & Hatch this autumn, my wife and I can take solace that together, along with our quirky little restaurant family, we will at least not be alone. We will be here. Our crew will be here. Not because anyone is getting rich, or because anything about this industry is easy. The pandemic has taught us that we’ll be here because we love what we do, we love our guests, our food, our town, and maybe, when we get a few seconds to catch our breath, we can even learn to love whatever lies ahead.

Derek Bray is a native of Alpena, MI who graduated with a B.A. in English with specializations in Film and Political Science from Michigan State University in 2004. He hated every office job thereafter and decided cooking was the only thing that kept him sane.

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