Restaurant survival strategy: “time is running out here”

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“UNDERSTOOD. Corolla white. And with that, a masked Bobby Stuckey walks through the front door of his Frasca Food and Wine restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, carrying a white paper take-out bag and a bottle of wine to the waiting vehicle.

This scene takes place 16 minutes after the start of a new documentary, now airing on SOMM TV, called “Saving the Restaurant”. The film chronicles Mr. Stuckey’s role in a national effort to make it happen, as well as the various ways he and his staff have had to rethink their day-to-day operations to survive.

The film begins in the spring of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced restaurant owners across the country to close. Meanwhile, Mr Stuckey, 52, co-owner of four restaurants in Denver and Boulder as well as the Scarpetta Wine company and master sommelier, has joined other leading restaurateurs to form the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) and pressure Congress. for financial assistance, an effort that continues to this day.

At first, Mr. Stuckey and the other restaurateurs moved to appealing to individual members of Congress, with a bit of coaching from professional lobbyists. “I remember the first day I got a call they said if you keep them on the phone for 20 minutes it’s a home run,” recalls Mr Stuckey, who guarded the member of the Congress on the phone long after.

The IRC and the small lobbying firm they were able to hire helped persuade Congress to create the Restaurant Revitalization Fund as part of the American Rescue Plan Act in March 2021. The $28.6 billion fund – much smaller than the IRC had requested – quickly sold out. . Some 177,000 restaurants that have asked for help have been turned down. “The IRC today has a singular purpose: it’s really about replenishing the fund of the restaurant,” Mr. Stuckey told me in a phone call. IRC members hope the restaurant fund replenishment could be part of a budget appropriation package expected to be voted on by Congress this month.

Wine has played a key role in fostering a sense of hospitality and community during a difficult time.

Mr. Stuckey has a particular intensity that fuels both the film and the cause. “I’ve never seen a more driven and focused person,” said “Saving the Restaurant” producer Jason Wise. The film captures Mr. Stuckey in perpetual motion – carrying take-out orders to cars, crossing the restaurant, on his morning run, commuting on a 10-speed bicycle.

“Time is running out here and the Senate is on recess. Now listen, I don’t run the Senate, but I don’t agree with people taking vacations when there’s work to do,’ Mr Stuckey said at one point. one of my favorite moments from the movie.

According to the National Restaurant Association, some 90,000 restaurants have closed long-term or permanently since March 2020, explicitly due to pandemic-related issues, and despite steady growth over the past year, nearly a million Jobs in the restaurant industry have been lost due to the pandemic. were not recovered. Restaurant owners who have managed to stay in business have had to find creative ways to stay afloat and provide genuine hospitality to their customers.

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In Frasca, always an oenophile destination, wine has played a key role in fostering a sense of hospitality and community during a difficult time. Each week, the Frasca team put together 50 to 150 “At Home With” packages priced at $90 to $320, according to Frasca Hospitality Group wine director Carlin Karr. “I’ve become a labeling expert,” she added with a laugh. Packages included meal kits and wines as well as links to videos of Chef Eduardo Valle Lobo or another member of the team explaining the preparation of the dishes, followed by Mr. Stuckey or Ms. Karr interviewing famous winemakers . Those interviewed included Pax Mahle of Pax Wines in Sonoma County, California, Raúl Pérez of Bodegas y Viñedos Raúl Pérez in northwest Spain and Antonio Benanti of the Benanti winery in Sicily.

In April 2021, a San Francisco-themed package ($155 for food, wine, and conversation) included a Zoom conversation between Ms. Karr, Mr. Stuckey, and the late Jim Clendenen, of Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, in California. wine was the 2018 Chardonnay “Nuits-Blanches au Bouge” Au Bon Climat. Zoom; the event offered Frasca customers the privilege of hearing him speak one last time about his life in wine.

Many other independent restaurants were selling bottles from their wine lists at retail prices while their restaurants were closed to diners; others have established retail wine clubs organized by their sommeliers; or made the more dramatic decision to sell all the wines from their cellars at auction. A remarkable collection of Italian wines from the Del Posto restaurant in New York (which has since closed permanently) sold through Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. in July 2020. The sale realized $5.7 million, well above the presale estimate.

Selling the contents of the Frasca cellar, which contains almost a million dollars worth of wine, was not an option. “Bobby always says he can ‘see around a corner’ and ‘when we reopen we’ll need the wine,'” Ms Karr said. “Of course when we reopened people went crazy buying good wine.” For Mr. Stuckey, the conservation of the cellar was also crucial for the identity of his restaurant: “My idea was that we were going to survive, and that we are a wine-cultural restaurant. We need wine. For him, it made no sense to sell their greatest asset as well as a path to some sort of normality.

When customers returned to the restaurant, Mr Stuckey noted that many had spent time at home learning about wine. “They came back to eat and drink, and they were also more educated,” he said. Yet while he celebrates that his restaurants and those of many IRC members are now fully open, Mr Stuckey mourns the loss of so many others.

The difficulties Mr. Stuckey and his peers have faced – and found ways to overcome them – have only strengthened his confidence in his business. He and many other catering professionals find great satisfaction in providing hospitality that goes far beyond the four walls of any given establishment and food and wine service. For Mr Stuckey, it hit home when he was finally able to welcome diners to his restaurant: “It really let us know how great it is to hug a guest.”

Write to Lettie Teague at wine@wsj.com

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