CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (CBS4) – People were back raising margaritas indoors at the upscale La Loma restaurant in Castle Rock Tuesday night. The restaurant met the qualifications for the enhanced Five Star certification program over the weekend, which makes more stringent requirements on operations, but allows indoor dining again.

“To have people in our dining rooms is a relief, incredible,” said Mark Brinkerhoff, co-founder and owner of Brinkerhoff Hospitality. The group includes the large, La Loma and Sierra Restaurants in Douglas County and the La Loma in downtown Denver near the Brown Palace.

La Loma

(credit: CBS)

“The first shutdown hurt tremendously,” said Brinkerhoff. “We got open a little bit in the summer, that was the relief and we got outdoor dining.”

But with the change in the weather came the uptick in COVID cases and the imposition of a new ban on indoor dining. November and December began to show how people were not as willing to eat outside in the chilly air.

“Without any end in sight it was definitely more, terrifying.”

The group was able, like many businesses to obtain PPP loans to help out earlier in the pandemic. And more PPP loan money could be coming in the latest COVID relief bill. But as the restaurants suffered under the new ban, Douglas County stepped in to help the two Brinkerhoff restaurants within its borders.

“That was a huge shot in the arm for us for sure,” said Brinkerhoff.

“We realized the virus was absolutely real, but so are business closures and unemployment. So for us it was about protecting both lives and livelihoods,” said Douglas County commissioner Abe Laydon. “We thought what better way to implement these resources than to provide it directly to the struggling businesses.”

The county set up criteria for businesses to apply for grant money under the CARES Act dollars it received.

“This had to be COVID related and we want to be sure that the expenditures are within the criteria and that each applicant is receiving a proportional amount based upon that criteria,” said Laydon.

They have given out $13.7 million so far to 160 businesses out of 222 applications. Laydon says they hope to process the remaining applications and give out about $17 million. Brinkerhoff Hospitality, because it has two large restaurants in the county, has been one of the larger recipients — close to $500,000 said Laydon. It does not make the restaurants whole for their recent losses said Brinkerhoff, but is a big boost. The company pre-pandemic employed about 200. That dropped to about 100 and has risen again to 150.

Mark Brinkerhoff

CBS4’s Alan Gionet interviews Mark Brinkerhoff at La Loma. (credit: CBS)

“It’s definitely enabling us to keep our employees employed and provide jobs and stay open. … I know that there’s people in restaurants in other counties that I’ve spoken with who would appreciate the same opportunities. We feel very blessed.”

It’s even clear in the restaurant group. While PPP money benefited all three restaurants in the group, the La Loma in Denver has not been on the receiving end of anywhere near the CARES Act money the other two restaurants have been eligible for.

“I know that there’s different needs in Denver and it’s a different environment, different community. So you know there’s a bigger picture,” said Brinkerhoff. “I know the hospitality industry as a whole has not received, it has received, very little assistance,” in Denver he explained.

The owner of a series of restaurants in Denver including The Highland, Sloan’s Lake and DTC Tap and Burger restaurants and others including Morin and Bar Dough employed about 400 pre-pandemic. When asked how much CARES Act money the mostly Denver restaurants had received through the city and county, owner Juan Padro replied that two grants that probably totaled less than $15,000.

Alan Gionet