Denver Restaurateur on Dining Out In Times of Turmoil: ‘It’s Supposed to Be Comforting’

Chef Frank Bonanno is the co-owner of Bonanno Concepts, a Denver-based restaurant operator. He and his wife Jacqueline own 10 fine dining and drinking establishments including Mizuna, Luca, Osteria Marco, and The Denver Milk Market. This is their story.

My wife Jacqueline and I opened Mizuna, our first restaurant, in April 2001. How do I describe the feeling? I mean, every chef’s dream is to own their own restaurant and cook what they want to cook. Denver didn’t have much of a restaurant scene at the time, but we were successful right out of the gate.

One morning, I was in the kitchen by myself with a prep guy, and the TV was on in the background. I just remember stopping everything I was doing and thinking, “Holy shit,” as I saw the towers fall. It was the morning of September 11, 2001. It was devastating. 

That was a difficult span of time, but we never shut Mizuna’s doors. Dining out is supposed to be comforting. You’re supposed to feel taken care of. Going to a restaurant with friends and relaxing in an atmosphere that’s fun and vibrant is what helps you forget about the things that are bothering you.

It’s an escape. It’s an oasis. That’s the beauty of dining out.

And that’s precisely what’s so difficult about the coronavirus shutdown. You can’t go commiserate with friends over a glass of wine and talk about what’s going on. That comfort is what’s being taken from people, and probably, for the right reasons at the moment. 

Since Mizuna, we’ve opened nine other restaurants in Denver. Over the last 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of an incredible community. And then last Tuesday, I had to do the hardest thing I’ve ever done: Lay off all of our people. Four hundred and eighty people. It was just as painful as you think it would be.

Shutting down is the right thing to do. I will stay shut down for as long as the government tells us we need to stay shut down. It just … it hurts, you know? It hurts.

There’s worry in every aspect. I worry about my employees who work two jobs to support their family. I worry about my mom, my brother, my kids. Business is what it is, you know? I mean, shit, I’m not that old, I can start from scratch if I need to. That’s life. I’m just mostly worried about the people affected by all of this. 

It’s important to remember, though, that Americans are a family. We’re close-knit. We’ll come out of this stronger. But for now, it’s just one day at a time.

— As told to Polina Marinova

The Profile’s ‘Faces of American Business’ series continues below. Read more:

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