March 18, 2022
 | 4:38 pm

Post-COVID landscape takes shape for Pueblo restaurants

Many small businesses already faced an uphill battle.

SPECIAL TO THE PUEBLO STAR JOURNAL
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COVID-19 will loom large for years to come in the collective memory of everyone whose lives it has affected. The far-reaching and often turbulent impact it had left nothing unscathed, least of all the food service industry. 

Pueblo restaurants – many of them small businesses – already face an uphill battle in a generous economy. With COVID shutdowns, mask and vaccine mandates, and supply and labor shortages, the food industry has been hard hit. What does that mean for Pueblo’s food landscape?

Blackbox Coffee and Provisions - a newcomer among Pueblo restaurants
Blackbox Coffee and Provisions

The newcomer

Fairly new on the scene is Blackbox Coffee and Provisions. The restaurant opened in June 2021 on the corner of Court and West 15th streets, well after the initial wave of COVID-19 and the ensuing shutdowns. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the owners, Anthony Hill and Cordelia Smith-Hill, and their son, Ryan (who runs the café), as they adapted to a world changed forever. They tweaked their menu to be travel friendly and were better prepared for the challenges presented by this revised version of the restaurant industry. 

“We had the luxury of kind of rethinking our menu, realigning it towards food that would travel well,” Anthony Hill said.

The Hills didn’t have to weather the challenges of closing the business, even temporarily. This turned out to be a boon for them as they were able to quickly pivot and make their concept work for a post-COVID world. By offering local products, Blackbox has avoided most of the supply chain issues that have plagued others in the industry. Nor has the labor shortage affected them. 

The inspiration for the restaurant came from Boxpark restaurant in London. Hill and his wife are self-styled foodies who wanted to share their passion for travel and food with the denizens of Pueblo. The collaboration with their son, who has been in the food industry since he was a teenager, resulted in Blackbox. 

El Nopal is one of the oldest Pueblo restaurants.
El Nopal

A neighborhood staple

For one of the oldest Pueblo restaurants, El Nopal, the battle was uphill throughout the pandemic and the recovery is anemic so far. Owner George Torres talked about the woes of what used to be a thriving small business. 

“To be honest, it’s been rough these last two years,” he said. “We’re a business that’s been around for almost 70 years so without our customer support, you know, it’s just been rough. It really has, from having to shut down (and) going strictly to carry out, which did fairly well at the beginning, but I think the pandemic has just wore on people so much.” 

Torres talked about the supply chain issues El Nopal has faced, from produce to chicken to carryout products. 

“Every week when I order stuff, it’s a challenge,” Torres said. “You know, (with) a small business, you can’t carry a lot of things at one time, but now we’re finding that when you do find a product, now you’re ordering three or four cases where you were only ordering one or two just because you’re afraid of not being able to get it.”

Torres also mentioned the added burden of price increases which will only be exacerbated with gas prices currently skyrocketing. In addition to these problems, El Nopal has been facing a labor shortage hurdle that seems bleak.

“I think one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do since I’ve owned this business was that day that they shut everything down and I had to let people go,” Torres said. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Torres said that at least five times he and his wife and daughter were the only ones running things at the restaurant. The employees that had to be let go moved on to other jobs, leaving Torres to try to recruit a new employee pool. He talked about getting few new applicants and the unreliability of some that do apply.

“I’ve just never seen anything like this. You know, in the restaurant industry, food service has always had a high turnover in employees. That’s no secret. But nothing like now. We’ve always had a stack of applications back there. When we do lose somebody, you go to that stack of applications and go through it,” Torres said. 

Hope is not lost at El Nopal, however. Torres spoke about his new Blue Cactus Room that will have its official grand opening March 25. The concept was borne out of a blues speakeasy idea that Torres had. He didn’t want to limit it to just blues, though, so the room will feature an open mic night, eventually a jazz night, and possibly some comedy nights. 

The room is meant to be like an old-school supper club. Torres is reviving a concept that young and old alike can enjoy – dinner and live music without having to go to a bar or club.

Shah’s Kabob and Gyro restaurant in Pueblo, Colorado
Shah’s Kabob and Gyro

Branching out

On the north end of town at 940 Eagleridge Blvd. sits Shah’s Kabob and Gyro. Opened by Pueblo native Andrew Shah in December 2018, this brick-and-mortar location was the evolution of Shah’s food truck. The interior is a blend of industrial décor and a clash of sci-fi and sports iconography. 

Shah first spoke of finding reliable employees. He, too, has been hit by what some have dubbed the great resignation. 

“It’s hard to find employees, no doubt. That’s challenging. When I first opened it wasn’t as bad, but I’ve seen a decline of applicants,” Shah said. 

Aside from finding employees, Shah’s has done well through the pandemic. 

“When they did the no dine-in (mandate), that’s when I doubled down on marketing and just really pushed carryouts. And then we built our own in-house website,” Shah said.

He drew on the experience of operating a food truck to adapt and overcome the hurdles set by COVID lockdowns. Sales also improved for Shah’s, he said, because of the swift pivot towards carryout. 

“If anyone was ever interested in doing this type of business, definitely that’s the route to take. Go through a food truck and learn, take the baby steps, because when we transitioned in here, we already had a good menu built; we were familiar with how to cook things, so we were very prepared.”

Shah does have another truck in the works, but it will be in the form of an extended kitchen to bring back his kabobs. He has looked into opening another location further north in the Fountain area but hasn’t settled on anything yet. 

Papa Mario’s Grilled Cheese Truck in Pueblo, Colorado
Papa Mario’s Grilled Cheese Truck

Going mobile 

One of the up-and-coming food trucks in the Pueblo area is Papa Mario’s Grilled Cheese Truck. Owned and operated by Tiffany Gernazio, this truck specializes in what used to be a mundane dish. 

“I was working at McAlister’s at the time the pandemic started and decided to jump out and start this,” Gernazio said. “I had seen how we weren’t allowed to have customers in the building and everyone had to be so far apart, and I figured this would be a great time to open the food truck because you’re outside and everyone distances themselves anyway, so we just jumped right in and did not have any problems.” 

She thinks the pandemic may have been just the jump start needed to get the food truck going at a good pace. With people seeking different dining options that conformed to pandemic guidelines, a food truck was a sensible and easy alternative to waiting for other restaurants. Her decision is paying off: Papa Mario’s won the People’s Choice, Best Truck, and Governor’s Plate awards at the Colorado State Fair in 2021.

Labor isn’t an issue when you have family to rely on, as Gernazio does.

"I figured this would be a great time to open the food truck because you’re outside and everyone distances themselves anyway."

Tiffany Gernazio

“My family helps me on here, so my daughter, my brother – everybody in the family works,” she said.

As for supply chain issues, the only ones Papa Mario’s has run into is getting products for a to-go business. Gernazio makes it clear, though, that these issues have been minimal and can’t stop her full-steam-ahead truck. 

“Right before the pandemic hit, my dad actually had passed away, so we did it in honor of him,” Gernazio said, explaining where the name of her truck originated. The menu also reflects those strong family bonds with little explanations of the various “grilled cheese and more” offerings. 

As for the choice of cuisine, Gernazio said, “Come on, in all honesty, Pueblo’s a huge pot town. You know – the munchies. I just thought it was, like, perfect. And we have so many taco trucks; we have so many barbecue trucks here in Pueblo, why not bring something different? There’s nothing with grilled cheese in Pueblo.”

The pandemic and shutdowns caused harm for many businesses, but Pueblo’s food scene remains robust and appears to be rising to meet the challenges presented over the past two years. New and established Pueblo restaurant owners have taken these trials head on and changed the way they do things to keep moving forward and continue serving their customers.

Blackbox Provisions:
1437 Court St., 719-696-9587 or
blackboxprovisions.com

El Nopal:
1435 E. Evans Ave., 719-564-9784 or
www.elnopalpueblo.com

Shah’s Kabob and Gyro:
940 Eagleridge Blvd., 719-766-1088
or pickupshahs.com

Papa Mario’s Grilled Cheese:
719-252-5595 or Facebook,
@Papamariosgrilledcheesetruck


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303 S. Santa Fe Ave., Pueblo CO 81003

Rebecca VanGorder
Rebecca is a freelance journalist. She is a graduate of Colorado State University Pueblo with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications. Her purpose is to find the truth and share it with anyone and everyone. She is a Christian, a wife, a mom, a friend, a chicken and duck tender, a flawed human being and many other things. She eschews labels in favor of learning more about those around her.
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