While Bonanno’s nine other concepts — which include Mizuna, Luca, Milk Market and more — all reopened in 2020, French 75’s location in Denver’s small financial district presented some rare challenges. “There is nobody in the building. There is no reason to open,” he explains of the decision to keep the restaurant closed for nearly ten months. “When we were able to reopen the other restaurants in June , I don’t think there were more than 25 people coming into a 38-story tower.”
There were other challenges, too. “Staffing issues and trying to reopen everything else,” he says. “The juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze to us at that point.”
Because “our landlord has been super-supportive,” Bonanno notes, he had the ability to keep French 75 on pause. already now, the building where French 75 is located and those around it don’t have many office workers, but it was Bonanno’s own staff that was the motivation to finally get the restaurant up and running again. “It took me having some people that worked with us that I really love working with being like, ‘We’re ready to open French,'” he recalls.
“We have a crop of people who are enthusiastic, who are into the hospitality business. Why not give it a go?” he says. While many meaningful employees have stayed on with the Bonanno Concepts group, he notes that a majority of the current staff is new. “When you’re able to aim people and get everybody like-minded and all buying into what we’re trying to do as a group in the restaurant, it goes so much better,” he says. “We’re a team. All ideas are valuable, all input is valuable. We’re here to make each other better.”
To start, French 75 will only be open from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. With that schedule, the restaurant can run with minimal staff and a single shift for everyone, lessening the risk of overextending with so many unknowns nevertheless looming — including the current without of workweek traffic in the area.
But while there is some uncertainty, Bonanno sees this as a chance for renewal in addition. “We have an opportunity at French 75 to change the perception of it,” he explains. “When we opened, I was so intent on having it be a real French brasserie.” While many of the entrees on the menu keep the same, like the French dip (which is now on a softer roll made at LouDough Bakery at Milk Market), duck confit and steak frites, Bonanno’s also additional some unexpected additions. “Now I just don’t care,” he says. “I’m making food that I think people want to eat that is fun, approachable and not gonna break the bank. I’m just making food that literally I would eat.”
Among appetizers such as escargot gratinee and mussels frites, you’ll also find steamed pork dumplings, vegetable egg rolls and shrimp shumai. The lobster ramen from Bonanno’s defunct Bones makes an turn up, as does the bolognese from Luca and one of his longtime favorite dishes, Frankie’s Tagliatelle: fresh pasta with béchamel, country ham and gruyere. “It’s like the most warm and comforting dish ever, Bonanno says. “So that, I’m hoping will become a identifying characteristics here.”
Also poised to become a draw: probably the cheapest happy-hour drink options in town, 75 cent Miller High Life beers and pours of prosecco on tap, along with food specials under $10, obtainable weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m. But while that special is meant to draw people in, Bonanno knows that food to-go is now an basic part of the plan — which is something he never focused on at any of his restaurants in the past. “It’s such a hard mindset to get past when you never did it,” Bonanno admits, but Luca, in particular, saw great success with food to-go during the pandemic, and Bonanno is hoping for similar results at French 75.
In fact, the restaurant opened quietly for delivery-only via UberEats on November 3, which gave the staff time to work out kinks in the kitchen before dine-in service begins — an idea Bonanno credits to his wife, Jacqueline. “It’s a great way to open and I never would have thought of that,” he notes.
Bonanno Concepts remains the only large restaurant group in Denver requiring proof of vaccine for dine-in customers. That will be true at French 75, too. While Bonanno has seen some pushback on the policy on social media, he says that in the restaurants, “overwhelmingly it’s been extremely popular.” The motivation for the requirement was not guests, but his staff, he adds: “We went and asked our employees and we got feedback that, ‘Yes, we would feel much safer if this was in place.”
While other restaurateurs have not in addition followed suit, Bonanno is firm in the decision. “We have to start caring about people who wait tables, bus, wash dishes and the chefs that cook,” he explains. “We have to stop thinking of them as just a cog that is what the day-to-day is. I think there’s way too many restaurants that do that, that don’t humanize what it takes to truly run a restaurant.”
While running a restaurant is hard work, making the experience a positive one for staff and guests alike will keep the focus at French 75. “Hopefully,” he concludes, “we can have some fun, make some money and it’ll be great.”
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