On Friday, March 13, Sweet Basil did the unthinkable: It closed before the end of ski season for the first time in 43 years.
“As a community, Vail is known for a spirit of resiliency, cooperation, and good times even in the most challenging circumstances,” the landmark Vail Village restaurant announced on Facebook, noting that an employee who hadn’t been in contact with guests had tested positive for the coronavirus. “For Sweet Basil, serving and nourishing [that] community is what we love to do. As we faced the growing concern of community spread within the Eagle Valley, we made the difficult voluntary decision to suspend operations.”
Sweet Basil, with its downstairs sister dining room, Mountain Standard, had been humming at capacity all week, a combined staff of 160, serving over 1,000 guests each day. On Saturday morning, the place was empty, and everyone on payroll was eligible for unemployment.
“March is our busiest time of year,” explains Matt Morgan, who started as a Sweet Basil busboy in 1987 and now owns the business with his wife, Jana. “We went from a fully booked weekend to a dead stop in about 20 minutes. To say this came like a freight train would be an understatement.”
To make matters worse, both restaurants had just been restocked with $52,000 worth of provisions. While Executive Chef Taylor Frankel and her crew pickled, preserved, and smoked what could be saved for later, the Morgans opened the walk-in coolers and pantries to their employees, then donated all the gourmet leftovers to the Community Market and Salvation Army food banks. The staff checked in weekly with each other via Zoom; at one session in April, Chef Frankel had a brainstorm: although the brand’s delicate balance of flavors wouldn’t translate to takeout, the restaurant could prep and package all the fresh ingredients needed for three elegant courses that could be assembled from oven to plate in just 30 minutes. Frankel’s team refined the proof of concept at the restaurant, which the Morgans’ teenagers tested in their home kitchen. On May 4, Sweet Basil debuted its Finish at Home meal kits. With each new release (via contactless delivery), devotees could re-create a trio of Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard classics at home—from white gazpacho with grapes and blue crab, chimichurri-marinated flatiron steak, and layered s’mores bars to ahi tuna ceviche, Eaton Ranch beef barbacoa tacos, and molten dulce de leche cake—for just $25 a person.
“It was less about making money and almost a ‘Hey, we’re here, and we miss you,’” says Morgan, who helped with deliveries. “People were still on lockdown, restaurants weren’t open yet, and everybody was sick of takeout; one guy said, ‘Thank God I won’t have to eat PB&J again!’”
When Sweet Basil finally reopened its dining room on May 25, at the required half capacity, orders for meal kits dropped precipitously. Morgan says the restaurant will continue to offer a Finish at Home option for those who still may be wary of dining out, but likely at a premium, until village life reverts to some semblance of normal.
“It’s unusual to serve people with masks on,” he says. “Not to be able to shake a guest’s hand or hug, that’s not what we do in the hospitality world. The human connection is why we got into this business. I hope we get back to that soon.”
Until then, he’ll safely welcome anyone who ventures over Sweet Basil’s threshold, with a smile you can see right through the mask.
Sweet Basil 193 Gore Creek Dr, Vail Village; 970-476-0125, sweetbasilvail.com