Each year, many Steamboat restaurants face the tough question of how they want to lose money: Stay open and lose money, or shut down for a month and lose money?
With more than 70 restaurants in Steamboat, running the gamut from fast food and coffee shops to steakhouses and gourmet, when the 10,000 or so tourists stop coming to town, there are not enough diners to go around.
"There are just too many restaurants for the number of people in town," Antares owner Doug Enochs said. "We can stay open and lose a certain amount or get a break and come back refreshed."
Antares is among the high-end restaurants that shut down for mud season. It closes every year from the day the ski season ends until Memorial Day. Enochs said he is using the time this year to do house cleaning and put in new carpet.
Restaurants vary in how long they close or if they close at all. Some restaurants stay open all mud season and offer deals focused on luring locals. Others close down just for the week after the mountain closes or the week of the Steamboat School District's spring break.
For Morton Hoj, the owner of the Yacht Club, a combination of factors helped him decide to close his restaurant for just one week. With its location on the bank of the Yampa River, Hoj said the restaurants' deck attracts customers during the spring season. Plus, the need to pay the rent does not go away even though the tourists do.
"I always absolutely lose money, whether I am closed or open. It is a tremendous expense," he said.
Last year, the Yacht Club was closed for three weeks in April, but Hoj said it stayed open longer this year in the hopes of losing less money.
The decision to close depends in part on whether restaurant owners own the building housing their establishment or if they still have to come up with the rent money or mortgage payment, Hoj said. It also depends on whether they have a lease under which the landlord gets a percentage of the sales.
Hoj noted that, like many businesses in Steamboat, it was a tough year for restaurants. The industry had to deal with tourists buying more groceries instead of going out to eat, and diners who once gravitated toward high-end restaurants cutting costs by going to more inexpensive places.
New restaurants also came onto the market, dividing the "dining pie" into even smaller pieces and drawing diners away from long time staples.
Based on city sales tax revenue, restaurants' sales were down in December compared with the year before, slightly up in January and down again in February. And after Sept. 11, 2001, and a drop in tourism, 2002's numbers were not as high as the year before.
"I only hope that things pick up," said Michael Fragola, who owns the Cottonwood Grill. "It is not just in Steamboat Springs. It is across the country. Tourism is a hurting industry right now."
Fragola said the winter season could have been much worse. From the restaurant owners he talked to, most were slightly off from the year before, he said.
After two and a half years of owning the Cottonwood Grill, Fragola said he is still searching for what works best in closing down the restaurant during mud season. This year, the restaurant closed when the ski season ended and will reopen on May 11 for Mother's Day.
For the rest of the shoulder season, Fragola said he would reduce hours, keeping the restaurant open five days a week instead of seven. Being closed two days a week allows him to staff the restaurant more easily.
"Restaurants are a high labor business. It takes a lot of labor to produce the goods, to serve nice food in a nice atmosphere," Fragola said.
Owners said restaurants close for shorter breaks in the fall than the spring as they take the fall months to prepare for the winter season.
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