It was another astonishing year for the restaurant industry with mass continued growth and the inevitable shutters. The Mile High alone has gone through several changes in the past several years with some of these changes being more specific to 2016. In order to weed through the highs and lows of the past year, we sat down with five of the more established chefs in the Denver restaurant industry to talk 2016 and ponder 2017.
What are your thoughts on the passing of the social consumption [of marijuana] initiative? Do you think it will directly affect the industry? Could it provide a new source of revenue?
Ryan Gorby (Chef de Cuisine Cho77)
“I kind of have a feeling that with what we’re reading recently is that the liquor enforcement division passed a law that negates restaurants and bars with liquor licenses to participate in social consumption. I think it’s still kind of a back and forth in a gray area so I guess we’ll have to see how that plays out. I think it will definitely be a draw for people, definitely in the tourism industry — they say it’s the new Amsterdam. You know, you’ll go to a cafe and get your coffee and your weed brownie for breakfast. I think that those types of places and establishments [cannabis cafes] would open but I don’t think they’re going to have any kind of effect the kind of business you’d see at your own restaurant because we’re focused on food and the experience surrounding the actual food not getting THC while you’re doing so.”
Frank Bonanno (Bonanno Concepts)
“I think the passing of that [social consumption] is brilliant. I think it’s going to help so many businesses that are going in in 2017, it’s whether the state can understand it and comply with it. I think there have been some common consumption liquor licenses already approved, but I think Denver is a bit behind. I do think that this is going to change the way projects are being developed. I think for sure if I were to open a really cool market in a development that you could have people interacting throughout the market. I think it would be an incredible way to spend an afternoon downtown. I would absolutely love to be a part of something like that. I would love to be a part of a project that just does that. It’s a game changer, Colorado has always been progressive which is one of the reasons I love Colorado. I don’t smoke weed but I think the passing of the medical marijuana and recreational has done wonders for us. It’s not well monitored but I think it’s great.”
How do you think the rise of the state minimum wage will directly affect the industry? Do you foresee the restaurant industry continuing to thrive?
Jeff Osaka (Chef/Owner Osaka Ramen & 12 at Madison, partner at Sushi-Rama)
“Obviously it benefits the FOH [Front of House], but it can create some animosity between BOH [Back of House] and FOH. FOH always benefits from rising minimum wage, rising menus prices — tip percentages always rise with little or no extra service.”
Lon Symensma (Chef/Owner ChoLon)
“I think you’re going to see menu prices go up obviously. I don’t think there’s any way around that. I also think you’re going to see a little bit more of the no tipping that Danny Meyer’s vision of equaling the pay between the FOH and BOH. With the increase in menu prices I think a lot of people are going to start using this as a way of segueing this into raising menu prices and going no tipping then distributing the increased check average amongst the entire staff. It’s such a weird industry that servers for years now have made so much money, and chefs and cooks in the BOH basically live paycheck to paycheck. I think it’s an archaic way of having things setup and I think it’s ballsy for Danny Meyers in New York to be the first one to kind of go that direction. Now we’re almost forcing our hand to maybe just straight across the board pay everybody in the restaurant $12 an hour and then with a 20 percent or so increase in menu items I think a lot more restaurants are going to take that approach that maybe everybody just gets paid minimum wage and then the increased menu items will be distributed out amongst everybody. I think it’s the right thing to do, an equality between the back and the front.”
Justin Cucci (Edible Beats)
“As for the minimum wage raise, I think there are a lot of positives for that. Selfishly I think I can say that we can work as an industry without it. My feeling is that we don’t have anyone who would be affected by that because we pay people more — nobody makes less than that now.”
“I think that the rise in minimum wage is long overdue. I think all it’s going to do is — prices are going to go up. We’re going to see a lot more tip pool. In the kitchens we’re already paying well above minimum wage. The $10 an hour employee is a thing of the past, it’s like a dinosaur now. You’re not finding a dishwasher or busboy, prep guys working for $10 anymore.” [FB] “I think the people that write these laws, I understand why they’re doing it but I don’t think they understand the big picture. They don’t understand a server, quite honestly in a lot of restaurants is, making more than the manager.”
We’ve seen an incredible amount of growth in the past years in the industry. Do you think Denver can sustain this type of upward growth or will we peak and witness several shutters in 2017?
“I think there will be continued growth, maybe not at the same rate as the past few years, but like this year (I was an example of this) there will be fallout from the rapid increase. I believe the strong growth will be from current restaurant owners opening their second, third or more locations or even other concepts.”
“I don’t necessarily want to use the word peak, I think that there’s going to be a slow down possibly in the future. I think Denver has definitely exploded the past six and a half years since I moved here. It’s been a great ride but at some point restaurants need people to sustain their business and with so many restaurants opening and so many more choices for people that it’s spread the dining populous. I’m not saying there will be a lot of shutters, but there will be shutters, it seems to happen naturally. There are a lot of people opening restaurants that may be new to it and aren’t prepared for the ups and downs of the industry. It always sounds like a good idea to open a restaurant, it sounds easy and fun but there’s a lot more to it than just opening the doors for people to come in. I think there will be a noticeable slow down maybe not just next year but in the years to come. I think at some point it’s just going to have to happen. There’s limited housing and limited space.”
“Let’s talk about the quality of the people the people moving to Denver, too. I think in the past it was people from smaller communities surrounding Colorado that maybe there wasn’t a lot going on. And maybe those people weren’t as up to speed on the food scene and what good quality food is all about. But I think what we’re seeing in Denver is a lot of the people moving here now are coming from New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago — these places where there is an expectation of the quality of food that they’re going to expect moving into a force like Denver. Denver is a powerhouse now. As it grows the quality and the people that understand the food will eventually weed out the mediocrity. We’re going to see all the guys that thought that they could pop open a restaurant and just serve food and make money. The people that are going to be our new diners are going to know cooking techniques and ingredients and know what they grew to expect in the cities they are moving from. So I think that yeah, there are going to be restaurants that close — the restaurants that open will get better and the ones that close are the crappy ones that shouldn’t have stuck it out that long anyways. I think the expectations going to grow as Denver becomes a major food city.”
“I think you’re going to see closures, it’s the restaurant business survival rate is probably higher here in Colorado because of the influx rate and growth. But I do think that dining in general, especially in cities, is changing. The destination restaurant isn’t necessarily the thing.”
“I think we’ve peaked but I know there [are] several places, including myself, waiting to open. It definitely applies to how smart I have to be opening this next restaurant or two. But I do think 2017 is going to regulate the market quite a bit and we’ll see some things fall to the wayside unfortunately.”
Were there any closures that surprised you or you were most disappointed by in 2016?
“Z Cuisine closing was kind of an interesting thing to me. I thought it was in a great part of town and French bistros are one of my favorites styles of restaurants and one you can go to more than once a week. French bistros are comforting and I think Z Cuisine closing was kind of surprising, more so because they are one of the French bistros in town worth talking about.”
“No. I think if it’s someone I know who closed, I’m always bummed out. But if it closed and I didn’t even know then I didn’t care. I feel bad for people because you lose a lot of money. You just have to learn from it. But no, it doesn’t bum me out when someone closes, I do get excited when someone does really well. Maybe there [are] too many restaurants are opening and we don’t notice the closures. That’s the beautiful thing about the restaurant industry, every day is a new day. So if someone closed I didn’t notice but I’ll hear about when someone opens, that will hit my radar. You’re [restauranteurs] focused on one day at a time, it’s a marathon in the restaurant business.”
As a chef, what did you learn in 2016?
“You can’t be everything to everybody.”
“I think we’re going to see a lot more little boutique bakeries. Those are really awesome and people have been showcasing their baking skills. There’s a little bit of a void for those high end European style bakeries and I think we’re going to see more of those. Definitely more low country, South Carolina Sean Brock type places that were popularized a few years back.”
“I learned it’s really hard to hire people and find cooks. This is probably one of the hardest years I’ve ever had in this industry as chef finding cooks. I learned that if you’re not getting the quality of person you were getting before you have to change, sometimes the food you’re doing because if it’s too complicated for someone who doesn’t have a great deal of experience you will not be successful. Sometimes you’re creating dishes you know people can execute. That’s been one of the biggest changes for us, knock on wood we’ve been fortunate enough to find great people.”
“I learned that insects are probably going to be a really important protein in the future and probably for the rest of the world is already a really important protein. The other thing I learned is about healthy fats. I really learned this year that the right way for food to really be flavorful — there’s probably a couple ways people could do it salt, sugar, but I really learned about fat. If you get the right fats it can not only be good for your body with the right fats in it but it also can add alot of flavor to food and you don’t have to use salt in such an incessant amount.”
What are your predictions for 2017?
“As mentioned before, I foresee the additional restaurants from existing restaurateurs. We haven’t seen anything from Frank Bonanno, lately?”
“I think we’re going to see more markets like Central Market. I think that’s something that’s exploded everywhere. Look at Chelsea Market in New York — Denver seems to always be a little late to the game but I think we’re going to see markets opening everywhere, some in the suburbs.”
“My predictions for 2017? Shit, I don’t know. I would say what the fuck do I know. I say that in this context, and I don’t want to get political but man, anything I thought I knew got blown out of the water after the election results happened. When that happened I said, I know absolutely shit.”
What openings are you most excited for in 2017?
“I’ve been so busy that I haven’t kept up on what’s going on in the industry, but I know the Eastbridge project has some great operators — Elise, Lon and Troy.”
“El Five could be fun. Justin’s killing it.”
“Everything Justin touches is gold, that guy — he’s the most visionary restauranteur in Denver by far. He just gets it. Maybe the food isn’t going to blow their mind every time but the experience as a whole is always going to be top notch.”
“I’m excited for Juan Padro and Max Mackissock doing something in the old Jezebel’s space. I’m very excited about that. I like what they’re doing, their style and hospitality.”
Editors note: Lon Symensma was unavailable for the “chef shoot” and therefore is not pictured above.
All photography by Lucy Beaugard.