DENVER, Colo. — Looking through photos of his culinary creations brings Chef Chris Nicki right back into his kitchen.
“It's late-night brisket picking,” said Nicki looking at a photo of his smoker. “That's nothing pretty right there, but the paper is pretty. You know that it's going to be good.”
Owning his own restaurant was a long-time dream realized.
“I was working in Chicago as a paramedic at the time. Kind of getting burnt out on that with some pretty not-so-great calls. Some of my friends happened to be opening up a seafood restaurant, and eventually, I just kind of made the transition into the kitchen and left the ambulance and never re-certified my paramedic and never looked back,” said Nicki.
Hank’s Texas Barbecue was named after Nicki’s four-legged business partner, Hank.
“He's my first dog. The logo comes from him. He’s a miniature wiener dog. So, 'lower and slower' is our slogan,” said Nicki.
The restaurant opened in Denver in 2019. One year and one month before COVID-19 hit.
“We were finding our strides, getting into proper routines. All the labor and everything was starting to finally line up, and then early March, everything just shut down,” he said.
The staff adapted to the changing restrictions, month after month, but when Nicki could finally welcome customers back into his dining room, the business became more complicated than ever.
“We had to stop doing chicken wings when our price per case went from $90 to $190 because it just didn't make sense anymore,” said Nicki.
Food prices skyrocketed and shortages forced menu changes. “I'm used to being able to get five cases of ribs per order, twice a week. And now, you're telling me I can get four cases all week?” said Nicki.
Nicki also said the cost of supplies went up exponentially. It became so expensive that a price hike for customers couldn’t make up for the expenses.
“We did see a double in our increase of wood,” explained Nicki of the special wood needed to run the smoker. “Our meat doubled [in price].”
Labor costs went up, too. Even though Nicki only had a small staff, getting workers to come back was tough and more costly than it was pre-pandemic.
“It just got to the point where I could either pay them, or I could pay rent, and I had to pay my employees before I would not pay rent, and that's kind of where it all ended,” said Nicki.
The supply chain burden became too heavy. Hank’s is now closed for good.
“I would say this is the first time in about 16 years that I don't have a plan,” said Nicki. “I just had a breakdown. It's like when you lose your first high school sweetheart or something, you think the world's ending. But honestly, the more cooking I do, the more it drives me to just get going again.”
Hank’s is one of many family-owned businesses now out of business this year. The National Restaurant Association found supply chain issues and other pandemic-related problems have caused 110,000 U.S. restaurants to temporarily or permanently close.
In Colorado, 100% of restaurants recently surveyed by the Colorado Restaurant Association said it is costing them more than it used to, to stay open. Even now, 25% of Colorado restaurants are still considering permanently closing.
“People think when they go to their local restaurant right now and see them busy, they think, ‘Oh, restaurants are back to normal.’ Half of restaurants that we surveyed said that it will take three to five years for them recover to recover from the pandemic,” said Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.
“Any small restaurant and local business needs everyone's support now more than ever. You know, McDonald's is going to be there tomorrow, but your favorite ice cream shop that's a ma and pa could shut down tonight,” said Nicki.
Now that Hank’s is gone, Nicki is starting to think about what’s next. He’s hoping to use his love for barbecue in a new way.
“I would like to try and maybe get a food truck up and running down in the future,” he said.
Because pandemic or not, this chef knows the joy food can bring not only to him but to those he’s serving.
“I will miss Hank’s every day. I would give anything to walk back into there right now and serve someone some delicious brisket. We may not have made it in the long run, but what we did when we were there, I don't think anyone could be more proud of,” he said.
Riggs and the Colorado Restaurant Association are pushing for more support for family-owned restaurants, so what happened to Hank’s stops happening to other locally-owned restaurants.
“We've been pushing very hard for the replenishment of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund,” said Riggs. “Unfortunately, in Colorado, only about 40 percent of restaurants that applied actually got funding. So, the majority of our restaurants who, by the way, could show a financial need did not get funding, so that's a real concern.”