South Fork restaurant owner makes heartfelt pledge to employees

SOUTH FORK- Several businesses throughout the San Luis Valley received a letter from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment last week that heralded impending business closures if the new regulations put in place by the state are not adhered to. In the letter it states that businesses that do not comply with COVID-19 restrictions could face losing their business licenses which could result in closure for some.
One local business owner, Tyler Schmidt of South Fork, agreed to an interview with Valley Publishing to give insight to some of the issues he is facing in the midst of the ever-changing COVID-19 regulations and what it has meant for him as a business owner. “I got the first email March 16, advising us of public health order 20-22 closing bars, restaurants, theatres and casinos statewide. Every word was like a gunshot wound to the gut. The order meant closing my doors the week before spring break, the biggest three-week moneymaker of the year. The order sent shock waves through the San Luis Valley, business owners and consumers alike. Everything immediately stopped. We tried to do takeout only for a while as CDPHE had suggested, but too many days of low three-digit sales took its toll on our bank accounts, and we had to make a decision; Stop the hemorrhage and try to retain our staff as long as we can or push until no money remained and close forever. Two Rivers BBQ chose the prior of the two. We sold off what perishable inventory we had and wrote a heart tearing note to our staff.”
Schmidt stated that as a business owner, it was his responsibility to care for his staff and though it pained him to do so, he was going to have to close his doors and hold his breath. “That was that. I had come to terms with the fact that I would likely lose the business I’d spent countless hours, and dollars for that matter, trying to build. My life savings was in that place. My retirement was in that place. That was supposed to BE my retirement. Just like that, with the stroke of a pen, my business was swept from under my feet. I had called my banker out of courtesy and told him that I was going to sustain my people as long as I can, then drive the business into the ground as hard as I could by paying my people, and then hand him the keys. My proposal was not met with much resistance.”
Luckily for Schmidt and other local businesses, local banks worked countless hours poring over ways to help business owners and help keep the Valley alive in the midst of this pandemic. Schmidt was able to obtain a loan to keep employees paid during the first trying months of COVID and just days away from closing his business for good. What followed was a harrowing effort from the community to bolster what the bank had already done. People were flocking to his door, not taking no for an answer and donating what they could to keep the small restaurant afloat.
“We were within days of losing everything, but due to his hard work and expert knowledge, I was tossed a lifeline to keep my employees in pay. Not only the bank came through, but citizens as well! I had a great many generous people come to the restaurant with checkbook in hand that wouldn’t take no for an answer. They gave willingly of themselves so that my employees could remain with us. It put me to tears with the generosity of our supporters, and it is a gesture that I will forever remember.”
Schmidt was finally at a point where he felt his restaurant might actually survive the pandemic only to be hit by countless regulations and specifications, he would need to follow in order to remain open for business.
“An executive order for this, one for that, order after order after order came. Masks were mandated. Capacities were restricted. Last call times were put into effect. No salt and pepper shakers. No ketchup on the table. Sanitizing menus wasn’t good enough, they have to be single use now. Things that made no sense to the layman came into effect, all in the name of “stopping the virus.” This was not what we were promised. We were told that if we all just went along with the program and toed the company line; they would open us up as soon as they could and get us running full speed ahead.”
Schmidt along with many other businesses, restaurants, churches and other public organizations scrambled to comply with new orders, trying to keep their heads above the ever-changing tides that just kept coming in forms of executive orders, restrictions and regulations. The struggle of small businesses throughout the past year has been one that was not foreseen and one not all could survive.
“The CDPHE letter was sent to all restaurant owners in the San Luis Valley on Nov. 24. There were the usual details of COVID related jargon to begin the letter, but the text had not even completed the first paragraph before the law of the land was lain. ‘As retail food and/or liquor licenses, your compliance with executive orders and public health orders are required as part of your license.’ There it was. A direct threat. Do as you’re told, and we will let you live. If that wasn’t clear enough, the sentiment was echoed in the words to come.”
In the letter received by Schmidt it states, “The State is prepared to enforce its orders through available regulatory and legal actions. Businesses that ignore or willfully violate the executive orders or public health orders put their business licenses at risk of administrative actions, which may include suspension, revocation, fines and/or cancellation in accordance with applicable statutes and regulations.”
Schmidt, like other businesses throughout the Valley, have come to terms with their predicament and have decided they will continue to weather the storm. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that there is a restaurant owner in the Valley that doesn’t believe that the COVID threat is a real thing. I don’t think any of us are trying to politicize it either. The owners and operators of small businesses across the San Luis Valley are stuck in a precarious scenario where a small static population and mounting restrictions makes for a tough environment to survive. I believe that the restaurant industry in particular has sustained the deepest wounds and bled the most. If we sanitize any more than we’re already doing, you won’t have a hospital shortage problem. Heck you could do surgery on our tables. Our staff has to answer a 10-question survey before they can even clock in to make sure they are healthy and feeling well. When they aren’t taking orders, they’re cleaning something, a lot. They’ve been doing twice the work for the same pay, trying to keep my place afloat.”
Schmidt continued, “Tara, Logan, Heather, Giovanni, Chris, Ashley, Kayla, Heston, Clifford, Andrea and Joe. Eleven employees that have worked tirelessly to keep us open despite the ever-changing regulations and capacity restrictions. Eleven people that have Christmas coming up to celebrate with their families. Eleven people that I wish I could pay twice what I do. Some of these folks came in and worked for free during the wee hours of reopening. They didn’t care about the money; they wanted our place to survive. They struggled through the layoff. I saw it with my own eyes. I have a full-time job that provides for my family’s needs separate from the restaurant. Many of my employees have nothing else.The restaurant is their only income. They came to work one day to see the seating volume halved. Then came in the next to see it halved again. The restaurant business is a volume business by the way, with razor thin margins topping 20% profit at best. Take half away, now do it again. You get the picture.”
Schmidt summed up by saying,  “So, no, I don’t think we’ll be closing again. I have people that depend on me. Life is all about calculated risk. We do it every day when we sit in our cars and drive down the interstate. You need to go to Pueblo or Springs or Denver to pick up that vanity you’ve been wanting for the bathroom. How important is that? Important enough that you would risk death to get it? Before you tell me how stupid that is, people die every day in car accidents. That’s why we have seat belts and air bags and all of these extra things to help keep us safe, but we get in and drive regardless. Calculated risk. It’s the same thing that’s going on here. You could get sick sure, but are we going to let that shut down the entire planet indefinitely? COVID isn’t going away, probably ever. But we can remain open, doing the best that we can, with what we can. I won’t willingly destroy the lives of 11 employees for some false hope that we’re going to stop COVID.”


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