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Taking The Gamble: Opening A Business During A Pandemic

May 28, 2020

Mario Hernandez's love for cooking began in his home country of El Salvador. He began working in restaurants up and down the Roaring Fork Valley fifteen years ago, and now is opening his own restaurant named Ocean Seafood and Raw Bar in Willits in June.
Credit Courtesy Photo

Starting a business can be a gamble, and the stakes are even higher during a pandemic. Owners of two new businesses in the Roaring Fork Valley are taking the leap at a time when unemployment is soaring and social distancing measures are hurting industries all across Colorado.

After working as a chef in the Roaring Fork Valley for over 15 years, Mario Hernandez will open his own restaurant, Ocean Seafood and Raw Bar, in Willits next month. He and his wife, Vanessa Hernandez, began planning for the Mediterranean, coastal-inspired restaurant months before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Nobody [expected] that this was going to happen," Vanessa Hernandez said. "We are [too] far to just say 'quit your dream.' We're just like, 'Let's try it' because if we go backwards, we're going to lose everything."

Ocean Seafood and Raw Bar is set to open to dine-in customers in June. Its owners, Mario and Vanessa Hernandez, said they continued renovating the space as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. But now that restaurants can reopen statewide, they are confident customers will feel safe dining as strict social distancing measures are in place.
Credit Courtesy Photo / Mario and Vanessa Hernandez

Ocean Seafood and Raw Bar will open during a time when the restaurant industry is one of the hardest hit in Colorado. 

According to recent numbers released from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, nearly 150,000 jobs in the hospitality and leisure industry were lost in Colorado in April. The majority of the losses are from restaurants.

Kris Mattera, the executive director of Basalt's Chamber of Commerce, said the fallout comes from Gov. Jared Polis ordering restaurants to close their dining rooms to customers and only provide take-out and delivery services. 

"So you've kind of seen industries have a ripple effect based on the different public health orders that have come down from the state," Mattera said. 

Now that restaurants can reopen their dining rooms with limited capacity, Mattera said those unemployment numbers will likely decrease, but no one knows when businesses like Ocean Seafood and Raw Bar will operate at full capacity again.

Mario Hernandez said that worries him, but he is still looking forward to finally opening up the restaurant, even if that means wearing face masks and spreading tables far apart. 

"Of course I'm excited, but it's going to be a challenge for sure," Mario Hernandez said. "We'll have a big conversation with the [Eagle County] health department to keep our employees and communities safe."

Haley Love and Skye Hart also had to shift their expectations when they opened The Coven, their brand new metaphysical store in downtown Basalt. Love said they signed a lease back in January for a space on Midland Avenue, began construction and planned on opening May 1.

The Coven, a new metaphysical store in downtown Basalt, opened its doors on May 1 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its owners, Haley Love and Skye Hart, said they dreamed of having a grand opening party, but they had to shift their expectations as strict social distancing measures continue to be enforced.
Credit Courtesy Photo

"And then the pandemic happened. We're in the middle of tearing down these walls for this business that is supposed to be hugely events-based, and we're like, 'What are we going to do?'" Love said. "We're just going to roll with the punches and see what happens."

Since Eagle County allowed retail stores to open on April 27, The Coven was able to open on schedule. Love and Hart said they were looking forward to offering yoga and in-person life coaching, but with social distancing measures, only three customers are allowed in the store at a time. 

"We just had to adapt," Hart said. "We've been focused online, we're offering curb-side pick-up, we're offering private appointments to accomodate the Basalt community."

Vanessa Hernandez said it's not just new businesses struggling to open during COVID-19. Even existing businesses are navigating a changed landscape. She said she's hopeful that if owners follow the protocols required by local public health departments, customers will feel safe dining in restaurants and shopping in stores again.

"I think if we do things right, it's going to work," she said.