THE EMPIRE – A Crossroad for Main Street
-by Chris Wheeler, Louisville photojournalist and producer of the 9News Special: “Coronavirus Winter: A Small Town Portrait in Black and White"
Saturday night at The Empire Lounge and Restaurant in downtown Louisville was lively, festive and busy. Just like old times, it seemed. All seven tables on Main Street were filled with diners savoring The Empire Deviled Eggs, Guinness Braised Reuben, Grilled Zucchini, and other delectable menu options at this iconic restaurant in downtown Louisville. But a look inside The Empire on this busy Saturday evening provided a sobering glimpse into the trials of running a restaurant during the pandemic of the century. Nearly every table inside The Empire was vacant. Most of the seats in “the lounge” portion of the restaurant were empty. And the only person at the copper bar, the real heart and soul of The Empire, was bartender Eric Van Derveen. “We have many tables available inside, but instead, people are willing to wait an hour for outdoor seating,” laments General Manager Steve Gjevre.
The disparity of diners inside and outside The Empire speaks volumes about comfort levels during the age of COVID-19. In June, the City of Louisville closed three blocks of Main Street in order to give restaurants more outdoor real estate. The results have been successful beyond anyone’s imagination. Main Street is scheduled to re-open on October 5th. But the Louisville Downtown Business Association is asking City Council to consider extending the closures through Halloween. Council will vote on Tuesday to decide whether to keep the Main Street party going for another month.
One of the most popular and beloved restaurants in downtown Louisville, The Empire is as close to “Cheers” as any place in our town. There is a rich heritage of dining that comes from this location at 816 Main Street. Long time residents may remember it as Colacci’s or even Pasquini’s. In 2019, owners Jim Cohen and his daughter, Lexi Scott, sold The Empire to Wolf Concepts, a Denver restaurant group that owns Sushi-Rama and several other restaurants in the Metro area.
Even with its limitations, Saturday happy hour at The Empire is a shining light compared to the dark days of last March. As COVID-19 was sweeping through our state, Governor Jared Polis issued an order prohibiting restaurants dine-in service on March 16. Assistant GM Olivia Forward came to work that day with the goal of keeping The Empire open for carryout. Late that day, a call from ownership came with news that would have been unthinkable only days earlier. “We got the call the night of the 16th to close down,” Olivia said. “It was really sad.” Olivia has been serving guests at The Empire for 7 years. That night she closed the door not knowing when it would open again. “There was a sense of helplessness,” said Olivia. “This is my family.”
While other restaurants in downtown Louisville began to transition to carry out service, The Empire remained dark. The only sign of life was an American flag in the Main Street window with a note saying: “See You Soon.” Management had decided that caution was the best way forward. Protecting employees and patrons was the priority. “The risk outweighed the benefits of any potential profits,” said GM Steve.
After being shut down for three months, The Empire reopened on June 18th. The closing of three blocks of Main Street has been a lifesaver. Seven outdoor tables seat an additional 28 guests. “Without the Main Street patio, there would have been a more negative impact on our bottom line,” says Olivia.
The increased seating helps at a time when the downtown restaurants need it most. These are unprecedented uncertain times. “We have had to get creative,” says Steve. Because of an unreliable supply line, menus have been streamlined. “Suppliers are offering less variety and less delivery days,” says Steve. Hungry for that New York Strip? Not gonna happen at The Empire – at least not this year. Steve says that supply chain problems mean they would have to charge three times the regular price. Getting fresh produce has also been a challenge, particularly heirloom tomatoes. Fortunately, Steve and staff have been able to utilize the Louisville Farmers Market for tomatoes and other fresh produce.
The supply chain issues are small potatoes compared to what lies ahead. Last spring, no one expected the coronavirus winter to last into autumn. Olivia says that extending the Main Street closure will help soften the blow of lost revenue from the three month shutdown earlier this year. “Even if we only have a few days of warmer weather in October it would still help to have outdoor seating as an option,” she says. “Plus Coloradans are pretty tough when it comes to the weather! Extending the closure would in all likelihood increase business for us.”
During a normal fall and winter, most businesses in downtown slow down significantly. The Empire, with its 5000 square feet and cozy atmosphere, make it a popular choice during the cold, snowy days of winter. For the unforeseeable future, stringent State Health Department occupancy orders remain in place. For The Empire, that means the maximum guests allowed inside is capped at 50. Under normal circumstances, the restaurant and lounge could hold 148 patrons. The math simply does not add up. “I think the business will drop this winter,” says Steve. How much is anyone’s guess.
That’s the worry not just at The Empire but at all restaurants in downtown Louisville. “There is a cloud of uncertainty,” sighs Olivia. The uncertainty stems from a singular question that every restaurant owner is asking: Will diners be comfortable eating inside once winter weather sets in? The Empire is preparing for winter by offering a more robust carryout menu. But no one wants to see a repeat of March, April, and May, when carryout was the only option. For restaurants in downtown Louisville, that business model is simply not sustainable.
While the loss of business is something that worries everyone, Olivia fears the loss of something more precious. “I am concerned we will lose the ‘community’ aspect of this restaurant,” she says. The Empire is as close as we have to “Cheers.” The warm, friendly, fun atmosphere is the secret sauce that has kept The Empire in business for more than a decade.
Olivia’s fear strikes at the very heart of this god-awful virus. One of the worst parts of COVID-19 are the social, intellectual, and emotional walls it puts between us. The Empire is all about those kinds of connections. It’s iconic bar and comfortable lounge are wonderful places for friends in our community to gather and enjoy one another’s company. “Will we get that back?” asks Olivia.
The short answer is “YES.” This community will respond as it always does – by doing the right thing. Louisville will rise to the occasion and help The Empire and other downtown restaurants persevere through another coronavirus winter.
GM Steve Gjevre is correct when he says “The new normal will never be the old normal.” Management and staff of The Empire are determined that the new normal will be better. The spirit of this community is stronger than anything COVID-19 can throw at us. Louisville will emerge from this coronavirus winter stronger, richer, and better. And the day will return when you can enter The Empire on a cold January day, cozy up to the bar for a good drink, good food, and good company. Cheers.
Please help downtown restaurants by writing City Council and ask them to vote in favor of extending the Main Street closures until October 31. Email Council at: Council@LouisvilleCO.gov
Reintroduction Update September 23
Last night, during our Board of Education meeting we had several important updates to share.
Our Working Advisory Group has finished their efforts and we heard their recommendations for safely returning Boulder Valley School District students to in-person learning this fall, in Phase 2+.
Additionally, we also heard from Boulder County Public Health regarding the developing situation at the University of Colorado Boulder, the COVID-19 indicators that they are monitoring, and their recommendation that we cautiously move forward given the current data and efforts being taken by the university.
As a result, Boulder Valley School District is continuing to move forward, cautiously, with its staggered and differentiated plan to return students to the classroom – beginning next Tuesday, September 29, with the groups listed in the chart below – but working towards including all BVSD students in coming weeks.
Boulder Valley School District is continuing to move forward, cautiously, with its staggered and differentiated plan to return students to the classroom – beginning next Tuesday, September 29, with the groups listed in the chart below – but working towards including all BVSD students in coming w…
Need help fining a great book for your child? We have over 20 different book lis…
Need help fining a great book for your child? We have over 20 different book lists based on themes like Animal Books, Funny Reads, and Travel Around the World. Grab a book list on your next visit to the library, download a Printable PDF or view the lists in our Online Catalog. >> http://ow.ly/
We want to say thank you to all of the community members that made donations to …
We want to say thank you to all of the community members that made donations to the Louisville Public Library Foundation to allow us to purchase 180 books for our Community Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Project.
Pictured: Louisville Resident Kevin Gebert, Congressman Joe Neguse, Sharon Nemechek, and Dawn Jennings.
View these titles in our catalog: http://ow.ly/rJTz50AWKyi
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