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Small Businesses See Surge of Community Support During Pandemic

Two bowls of ramen in the kitchen of RamaMama

For local business owners Jeremy Kempter and John Lawyer, staying open in the midst of a global pandemic has been business as never before.

 

Kempter, the owner and master distiller of Old Town Distilling Co., is a Colorado State University alumnus who has worked in the spirits industry for over 15 years, first as owner of Luscious Nectar bar in downtown Fort Collins where he fell in love with creating experimental cocktails and flavored spirits. 

 

“We wanted to create [spirits] of exceptional craft as high-quality as possible,” Kempter says in opening Old Town Distilling. “Colorado, and Fort Collins in particular is a tremendous canvas for entrepreneurship, and distilling has a unique opportunity here in that brewing has laid the foundation for many of the same demands and materials that we need.”

 

Since its debut in 2015, Old Town Distilling has been a trailblazer in the industry, becoming the first certified organic distillery in northern Colorado and creating Colorado’s first certified-organic bourbon and rye whiskeys, now offering a wide selection of “hangover-free spirits.”

 

Their bestsellers are classic staples — their bourbon whiskey has a smooth and clean finish, while their rye whiskey is a favorite of Kempter’s and his business partner Patrick Saul’s for its “flavorful, complex fruit notes with a distinctive baking-spice finish incredible as a sipper or in cocktails.” 

 

“Just being able to sit inside a restaurant or hang out at a bar, getting back to those timeless activities are what I’m looking forward to, and being able to regain that sense of safety and normalcy downtown will allow businesses to thrive.” — Jeremy Kempter, owner and master distiller of Old Town Distilling Co.

 

Following pandemic shutdowns, OTD experienced a shift to online and phone orders, quickly expanding their offerings to include whiskey-infused hand sanitizers and later introducing a premium single-barrel bourbon to meet customer demand. 

 

Kempter’s new tasting room and outdoor seating were quickly tabled with the COVID-19 pandemic; with current health guidelines, they are hoping to return to in-person tasting and dining this spring.

 

Despite COVID’s challenges, Kempter appreciates the outpouring of community support they’ve experienced with the distillery’s loyal following. In a post-pandemic world, he is looking forward to business as usual. “Just being able to sit inside a restaurant or hang out at a bar, getting back to those timeless activities are what I’m looking forward to, and being able to regain that sense of safety and normalcy downtown will allow businesses to thrive.”

A Rama Mama chef seasons a bowl of fries.
A RamaMama chef seasons a bowl of fries. (Colin Shepherd | College Avenue Magazine)

Newly opened restaurant RamaMama has experienced many of the same challenges. Lifelong restauranteur John Lawyer first debuted RamaMama as a pop-up concept four years ago with flavorful bowls offering new, delectable twists on ramen noodles with gluten-free and vegetarian choices. As the owner of Corndoggies food truck and Lickskillet Catering enterprises, he is honest about COVID-19’s toll on business.

 

By itself, the RamaMama food truck would run at local food truck rallies, private events, and was a mainstay at Timnath, Maxline, and New Belgium Breweries.

 

However, when the pandemic hit, most events evaporated. 

 

“It’s like going back in time to three or four years ago,” Lawyer says of the shift. “We used to do a certain volume [of orders], and it’s depleted to minimal volumes. … It required a rethinking of our strategy entirely.”

 

Lawyer decided to shift RamaMama to a brick-and-mortar location to re-ignite the business, securing The Gold Leaf Collective’s former location at 120 W. Laurel St. in June. Boasting an eclectic mix of pop art and funky décor, its welcoming environment is now open for takeout and indoor dining in accordance with Larimer County guidelines.

 

Currently, their most popular bowls are the Korean style Ramyun, the pork-based Tonkotsu, and a coconut-curry based Laksa served with shrimp or vegetarian-style. They also serve Banh Mi sandwiches and homemade dumplings for those looking for additional options. 

bowl of Rama Mama ramen takeout
Takeout from RamaMama. (Colin Shepherd | College Avenue Magazine)

 

From Lawyer’s perspective, the most positive thing about operating RamaMama has been the support of the Fort Collins community. “The support for small and local businesses has been even stronger than before, [which] makes you step back and rethink your entire business structure around what’s really important and what’s not,” he says. “We need to help lift each other up.”

 

As for the future, Lawyer is most looking forward to cultivating a communal atmosphere with the unique, vibrant energy of Fort Collins. “The most fun part about the food industry is that people are excited about food and love to eat; when you try to create a concept around [experiencing food] … having more people out [dining] and being able to establish relationships within the community is what I love.”

 

Old Town Distilling is available to ship nationwide via their website oldtowndistilling.com and offers curbside pickup by calling 720-220-6384. RamaMama offers online ordering on their website at ramamama.org and walk-up service at 120 W Laurel St.

 

Story by Corinne Neustadter. This article is part of Best of CSU 2020

CategoriesLocal Gems