Lone Tree restaurateurs are again searching for solutions after the state's decision to move Douglas County to level red on its COVID-19 dial banned indoor dining in late November.
A pair of Lone Tree small business owners have partnered to weather the pandemic together.
Derrick Cooper and Fabian Valdez merged their Lone Tree enterprises this summer. Cooper, founder of OpenFridge Gourmet, a meal delivery service, and Valdez, founder of Outpost Eatery, have more than 40 years of culinary experience between them. The two are now co-owners of each other's businesses and are returning to their roots.
“Right now, you've got to resort back to when you first started a business. One of the keys to making your business work is `just don't stop,'” Cooper said. “Find any way to keep going, any reason to keep going. We've both seen a lot of ways it can work and a lot of ways it cannot work. We just try to stay positive and put our collective heads together.”
Cooper, of Lone Tree, started OpenFridge Gourmet in January 2019. The service delivers a certain number of gourmet meals and snacks each week for a set price. Cooper, or “Coop da Ville” as he's sometimes known, said the pandemic offers an important lesson in maximizing their space.
Valdez opened his restaurant, Outpost Eatery, also in January 2019 at 7431 Park Meadows Drive. An energetic chef and mixologist eager to mingle with his customers, Valdez said he misses having customers in his restaurant.
“Eventually, as soon as this is all back to normal because that's who I am — a front-of-the-house person,” Valdez said. “I love the interaction with guests, I love the mixology and seeing their eyes light up when they're trying the food and the drinks. That's what I grew up knowing and doing, but now we have to adjust.”
Valdez is an award-winning bartender and former Army medic with a track record of successful restaurant endeavors. Valdez opened Range Restaurant in downtown Denver in 2013. He leased a space in the old Southern Comfort building in Lone Tree for his 50-seat gastropub, emphasizing “craft” food and drinks.
Valdez hired Cooper as a consulting chef before the pandemic to teach Valdez's other staff how to run the back of the house. When the pandemic struck, Valdez's chef moved away, and Cooper and Valdez joined forces.
“After the first shutdown, I was kind of scared about even owning a restaurant to begin with anyway, so I was like `we need to do things that are more pandemic-friendly,' ” Valdez said.
Cooper and Valdez purchased an Outpost Eatery food trailer this summer. And they're not stopping just at breweries and parks. The duo organized times to visit local apartment complexes and neighborhoods by partnering with homeowners associations. Their menus allow customers to scan, order and pay for their food on their phone. A notification will tell them when their food is ready, and they can come and get it.
“You can shut down a restaurant, but you can't shut down a trailer,” Valdez said. “We're trying to be as COVID-proof as possible.”
Valdez said since he has started his Outpost Eatery trailer, he's noticed other restaurants following suit.
“We want to be ahead of the curve,” Cooper said. “We want to be the ones setting the trends of what the restaurant industry is going to turn into.”
Cooper believes the pandemic will cause many permanent changes to the industry, ones that OpenFridge is well-suited for. Cooper says he is cautious not to let quality go by the wayside.
Cooper believes sacrificing quality for quantity would hinder his business in the long run. His goal is to continue innovating to deliver a “perfect product every time.”
But they're still trying to figure things out, mostly through trial and error, Valdez said. They're still working on perfecting their delivery system, exactly how much to charge for delivery and where and when to run the food trailer.
“There's no blueprint for this,” Valdez said. “We're creating it right now.”
To Cooper and Valdez, there is no other option.
“I don't think either one of us are the type who really want to work for anybody else ever again,” Cooper said. “That being the case, we've got to do everything we can to make us work. We don't have a choice but to keep going.”
Level-red orders prohibit indoor dining at restaurants, limiting businesses to outdoor, take-out, delivery and drive-thru services.
In an effort to improve outdoor dining capacity, the City of Lone Tree distributed 40 portable dining “igloos” to every restaurant that requested one, according to Economic Development Director Jeff Holwell. The city also launched a new campaign to promote patronage of small businesses.
“What we all have to do is just keep fighting and just keep moving forward,” Valdez said. “Because if you can do that — I hate to say it— but there will be less competition.”
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