The Steamboat and Breckenridge restaurants have fared unusually well through the pandemic and are poised for a winter of more success
By Shauna Farnell
When COVID-19 hit Colorado in mid-March and businesses throughout the state locked down, panic set in and stomachs dropped, especially among restaurateurs. While the ensuing months have met with great struggle and even permanent shuttering of many beloved dining haunts, a handful of restaurants have somehow managed to thrive. Aurum’s path through the pandemic began with creative planning – and pivoting – from day No. 1. Theirs is a true success story whose most interesting chapter still awaits.
“The day we found out we had to shut down, which everyone saw coming, it was very much like a war room mentality. It was like, get the best minds in your group in a room, lock it and nail down a game plan. That was our mentality for the first couple of days,” says Aurum founder Phillips Armstrong of Destination Hospitality, which operates Aurum’s two locations in Steamboat Springs and Breckenridge as well as Table 79 and The Periodic Table in Steamboat. “You have like five different strategies, including worst-case scenario and best-case scenario. We were laser focused on maintaining the core staff. We shut down all the restaurants besides Aurum. We knew it wasn’t going to be forever. We kept every single manager in our company fully employed. If we didn’t maintain our core staff, there was no way we could restart the engine.”
The engine restarted almost immediately. Armstrong and his team spent 48 hours reconfiguring Aurum’s websites to accommodate online ordering. The restaurants began offering a large portion of their seasonally fresh, gourmet menu (including homemade pastas, slow-cooked meats, creative vegetable dishes and batch cocktails) for takeout, all at a 20-percent discount.
“We knew the to-go model was not profitable for us. We did it because we knew people were sitting at home waiting for a good meal. They were sick of cooking. It’s not like Aurum is a brand you think of for takeout, but we thought there would be someone out there who would really appreciate coming to pick up a nice meal. We started to see people come back for to-go food. Did it pencil [for profit]? No, it didn’t. But we kept the lights on. And it was an excuse to leave the house.”
Armstrong, who lives in Steamboat, was out there himself those first few weeks in mask and gloves, hand delivering curbside to-go meals. When restaurants were allowed to re-open with limited seating capacity and physical distancing measures, he and his team maximized its outdoor spaces. In Steamboat especially, where Aurum occupies prime patio space right above the Yampa River, it meant more business than ever.
“We actually gained seating at Aurum Steamboat because of how much outdoor seating we had already. At Aurum Breckenridge, we expanded into the lawn. It was all about getting creative,” Armstrong says. “At first, it was limited staff, limited menu. Then, people started pouring into the mountain communities. At first, we were worried and wondered if anyone would come. Then everyone came.”
Crowds continued through “off” season
Both Breckenridge and Steamboat locations were booked solid throughout the summer and well into the fall, when off-season normally delivers a lighter crowd. Aurum – and the towns of Breckenridge and Steamboat in general – found that this year, there was no off-season.
“Our restaurants have never been as profitable as they’ve been since June 1,” Armstrong says. “We are super lucky we’re in a mountain town. It’s sheer luck in these circumstances. This fall has been crazy. There’s been zero letup. At Aurum Steamboat on a Saturday in October, we did like 300 covers. I think it’s the migration of people to more rural areas, especially resort towns.”
As most restaurants in Colorado – and throughout the world – are wondering what they will do to stay afloat this pandemic-riddled winter after moving their dining operations from outside back indoors, Aurum already has well-rounded measures in place. You could actually call them dome-shaped measures. This winter, both restaurants are home to newly erected yurts – two at Aurum Breckenridge and four at Aurum Steamboat – offering guests a safe, private, fun and cozy dining experience.
What to expect for dinner inside a yurt
Each weatherproof yurt accommodates six to eight guests – all members of the same party – and is equipped with infrared light, heater, carpet, blankets and most likely a warming welcome beverage. Guests use a lantern outside the yurt to signal servers and are encouraged to dress warmly. Although heated and equipped with blankets, the structures are expected to become a bit chillier as winter temperatures drop.
While the yurts appear to be a clever way to circumvent potential losses suffered from pandemic-related limitations this winter, Armstrong had been stewing on the idea long before COVID hit, after he’d witnessed yurts as a winter popup feature at New York City fine dining linchpin, Eleven Madison Park.
“The yurt concept was something we’d planned on doing regardless of COVID. We had toyed with it for two years,” he says. “At Eleven Madison Park, I remember seeing these yurts and I thought, that’d be something unbelievable to offer our guests. The benefit now is that it will replace the indoor seating that will be subject to capacity limits. It’s more about creating a unique dining experience than something safe in COVID. Your group gets a choice of tasting menus and large-format dishes and unique presentations in things like Dutch ovens so they’ll be kept warm.”
Each yurt is available for just one reservation per evening and is subject to a food and beverage minimum (around $500 on weekdays and $800 weekends). Just weeks before opening the yurts, both restaurants were already fielding calls for bookings.
“Make no mistake, we’ve had several requests. All the concierges at the high-end properties have called to try to reserve early,” Armstrong says. “It will be touch and feel as we go, but we’ll try to build as many unique things as we can into the experience – different décor and theme in each yurt, a thermos of mulled wine for the family when you walk in. We are super excited.”