An invitation to innovate

As the coronavirus knocked on doors, alumni in the hospitality industry answered with ingenuity

Jon Schlegel (BSBA ’97), co-founder of Denver restaurant Snooze, opened a new winery called Attimo in late 2019 and planned to spend most of 2020 building the brand and relationships. Instead, Attimo accelerated its plan and brought its wines directly to customers through virtual tastings and deliveries.

John Schlegel inside Attimo

“Virtual tastings are actually a blast,” Schlegel says. “[It’s] amazing to have 50 people on a call at one time, with only five folks in the actual event space. It’s been wonderful to go through the wines, show the maps and have folks tasting at the same time.”

Christi Coors Ficeli (MBA ’02), owner of Napa winery Goosecross Cellars, also has found joyful sparks in innovation through the pandemic. 

“Trying to make the business survive was actually the fun part,” she says. “We got to get creative and think of new ways to sell wine. We sell 100% of our wine from right here on the property, and not having visitors really hurt. But we conquered that through phone calls to our wine club members to check in with them and sell them wine. We pivoted to virtual tastings where we sent the wine to each person attending and hosted them virtually; [and] we conducted Facebook live tastings where we did food and wine pairings.”

The beauty of these business-survival ideas is that they aren’t born from competition, but from collaboration. As Coors Ficeli says, “With a high tide, all boats rise.”

In fact, hospitality businesses in every pocket of the country—Denver included—have pulled together, notes Adam Schlegel (BSBA ’99), co-founder of Snooze and founder of local chicken joint Chook.

“Our community has always been really strong, open, communicative. You hear from restaurateurs across the U.S. how surprising and warm Denver is in welcoming and collaborating,” he says. “It was no more evident than in the past seven months. Small indies, large chains, private and public came together, especially in the initial stages.”

The same is true for Tampa, says DU alumnus Richard Gonzmart, the fourth-generation president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, which has survived pandemics, world wars and the Great Depression in its 115 years. He notes that hospitality leaders in his community stepped up not only to help each other, but also in the greater fight against COVID. 

“In this area, a group of Tampa’s oldest and most respected independent restaurants banded together as ambassadors and advocates to seek support, tout health and hygiene measures, and present a united face to the community,” he says. 

DU trustee and Denver real estate developer Mark Falcone, founder of Continuum Partners, thinks the need for community will drive demand for everything from neighborhood restaurants to wineries and resorts. After all, people have an innate need to gather together, and not even COVID can challenge that. 

“Humans have evolved to need close contact with a consistent community of others to prosper,” Falcone says. “I don’t think one 12-month period of forced separation will fundamentally change tens of thousands of years of evolutionary biology.” 

So, when it’s finally safe to travel again, to toast a big event and to connect with friends over a delicately prepared meal, chances are high that the hospitality industry will have the welcome mat freshly laundered and at the door. 

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