For entrepreneurial couple, restaurant closure marks an end to “sweet life”

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

After 16 years as a mainstay on Main Street, Dolce Vita Italian Restaurant has closed.

In what they described as a “difficult and heart-wrenching” decision made just before Christmas, owners Rick and Susan Crippen  served the last meals and poured the last glasses of wine on Dec. 29.

Dolce Vita — Italian for “sweet life” — opened in 1996. Rick Crippen began working there in 1999. In 2004, Rick and wife Susan purchased the restaurant.

A few days after closing, the Crippens said down amidst piled tables, empty wine racks and a darkened bar to discuss what lead to their decision. What they described was a perfect storm of debilitating circumstances.

“The construction on Main Street had a terrible impact on our business” Susan said of the 2010 Downtown Uplift renovation project. The construction, occurring at the outset of a general economic downturn, led to a reduction in business in which the restaurant never recovered.

“For about six months we had nobody coming in,” Susan said citing the inaccessibility to Main Street, a resulting lack of visibility and parking issues. “The mindset during the uplift was that going downtown was not worth the hassle.”

“We were running a business off of six months of income instead of 12, but we still had 12 months’ worth of overhead,” she added.

Coming as it did on the heels of a regional energy downturn and recession, completion of the project — which replaced aging water pipes and made aesthetic improvements to Main Street —didn’t bring with it the return of customers.

“We lost them with the construction. And with the economy the way it was, they didn’t come back” said Rick, adding that 2008 and 2009 were the best years for the restaurant.

Parking was seen as a major impediment to doing business downtown, even before the construction. The Crippens said they’d received or heard numerous complaints about parking despite the construction of a nearby parking garage.

Susan said many people, especially older customers, are wary of using the parking structure. “A lot of folks have complained to us that it’s complicated, the machines don’t give change, they’re not easy to read and so forth.” She also cited safety concerns. “Unfortunately, many people simply did not feel the garage was safe, especially in the dark.”

But other issues also factored into the decision to close Dolce Vita.

“We were seeing more impact from more taxes; more state, local and federal regulations; more infringements on employer’s rights, you name it,” Rick said.

Susan, who managed the finances of Dolce Vita and was until the closure of the restaurant the local representative to the Colorado Restaurant Association, agreed. “We were seeing increased payroll taxes, utility taxes, sales taxes, unemployment tax,” she said. “We were also seeing more and more regulations each and every year coming from the food industry responding to government requirements.”

The Crippens also blamed increasing costs. “All of our input costs were going up,” Susan said, noting the rise in food prices, especially for dairy products. “Our dairy costs went up 48 percent in the last six months.”

The fact both of them earned income from the same source made the situation even more difficult for the Crippens. Said Rick: “Both of us earn our money from this restaurant, so we can’t rely on the others’ income to help us through hard times.”

Despite his many years in the restaurant industry and other ups and downs in the energy economy, Rick said this is the toughest business environment he’s ever encountered.

Still, neither Susan nor Rick are bitter. Although saddened a business that encompassed their lives for eight years has come to an end, they said they cherish the friends they’ve made along the way and remain proud of their impact on the community.

“This was not just a restaurant. It was our home, our life, our passion,” Susan said. “We have seen people hold their wedding receptions, celebrate births, first homes, graduations, even hold wakes for beloved family members. This was a family atmosphere, and we regarded our customers as family.”

Susan said she mourns the greater loss to the community from losing a small businesses. “Small business in any town is a tapestry of who we are …. It is what distinguishes us from Durango or Aspen  or Canyon City.” Moreover, small businesses are often the largest donors to local causes, she said. “When we were doing well, we would donate to just about every cause that approached us, from local charities to schools.”

In the end, it was a combination of factors that led to the difficult decision to close Dolce Vita “We know the construction had to happen, the pipes had to get fixed. We just wish that the timing was better,” Susan said.

Added Rick: “We did all we could to get people back in the door. But at the end of the day, restaurant money is disposable income, and people just don’t have that now.”