A local Boulder restaurateur’s Covid survival guide

Arcana owner Elliott Toan + introducing a restaurant-first delivery service

By Paul Hagey Nov 22 2020

As things go from worse to bad and back again for small businesses, especially restaurants and bars, some have developed innovations to keep energy up, doors open and their business evolving.

With the newest Covid restrictions eliminating indoor capacity and colder weather and increased spacing requirements reducing outdoor options, the local hospitality industry faces a daunting task, something they have grappled with since late March this year and will likely deal with until spring.

Arcana, the four-year-old New American restaurant in downtown Boulder at 909 Walnut Street, has innovated behind owner Elliott Toan’s vision of switching things up.

Arcana introduced in-house delivery on Nov. 13. Photo: Arcana

Last week, the restaurant launched in-house delivery, tailored to maintain a high level of consistent service from the chef’s kitchen to diners’ kitchens.

Third-party delivery services such as Hungry Buffs, Uber Eats, Door Dash and more use independent contractor drivers to deliver food and also take a cut of a restaurant’s sales — in the 20 percent range.

But this also leaves food in limbo — without a clear party responsible when things go wrong — which becomes a bigger issue for more upscale restaurants like Arcana and many others in Boulder who finely tune their meals and for whom hospitality plays a larger role in their service, even from afar.

That’s why Elliott launched the restaurant-first delivery service (and by corollary at-home diner-first) with a W-2 employee. “The quality is lacking [in the other services],” he says.

As an employee, Arcana trains the delivery driver on all the dishes, and he or she takes responsibility for the food to the at-home diner, ensuring that the food transports so that its presentation remains and the conditions meet the needs for the restaurant’s quality. If there’s an issue, the restaurant takes immediate responsibility to remedy it.

Like the well-worn axiom goes, necessity breeds invention, the move represents a smart idea that could blossom into a bigger business. Many other restaurants face a similar third-party delivery dilemma — a disconnect between food and service, which many restaurants exist to marry.

Detail inside Arcana, which has suspended inside dining with latest Covid restrictions.

Keeping energy up

This move represents a latest iteration Elliott has made in the business to keep managers and staff engaged and motivated.

In March, when Covid crashed the market, Arcana implemented a pay-what-you-can program in which the restaurant shared 50 percent of the revenue with the 35 hourly staff members it had to furlough.

This energized the core team of seven staff and raised nearly $20,000 for employees who had just lost their jobs.

In addition, it supported people with food without putting a price on it. “It felt good for us,” Elliott says. “We felt useful.”

A few weeks later, however, he noticed energy and focus flag among staff and business dip — the restaurant needed another effort to energize it.

Through a local nonprofit Conscious Alliance, Elliott looked for local food-insecure families to support with meals. They connected with families through local schools. At the end of each school day, teachers would drop by to pick up the meals and then deliver them to families in need.

Mexico-themed items on Arcana’s September menu. Photo: Arcana

This effort reached the radar of national nonprofit World Central Kitchen, who ended up paying Arcana $10 per meal for the eight weeks in ran the program. It made approximately 2,000 meals per week for the program.

When this ended, Arcana partnered with a chef, Modou Jaiteh, whose West African restaurant Jacaranda just left its residency at Rosetta Hall to launch a pop up at the restaurant featuring Modou’s specialties.

“The energy picked up,” Elliott says. Which led to the thought, “Maybe we need to keep changing things up.”

The restaurant then designed a menu themed around Mexico with dishes like hamachi ceviche, succeeded by a Japan-themed menu with items like custom masu boxes that let diners roll their own rolls of salmon, hamachi and avocado. Next up — Italy.


In the midst of this innovation, Elliott and his Arcana team have also used the time as an opportunity to reevalute the restaurant.

They plan to launch a reconceptualized version of the restaurant that tones down the fine dining vibe and adds a more lively feel with live music, family oriented programs, a more vibrant bar scene. And it won’t be American.

Paul Hagey

Paul Hagey is BLDRfly’s founder and editor. When not wrangling video, audio and words in the name of story, he’s riding his mountain bike, trail running and hanging with his awesome wife Jen and their young daughter. paul@bldrfly.com