Chef Justin Brunson’s routine looks a lot different than it did five years ago when he opened Old Major — starting with his daily diet.
Now, every morning, the famed meat-lover starts his day with spinach and two eggs. For lunch and dinner, he usually has a chicken breast, grilled broccoli or salad. He’s walking three miles every day, and he’s already lost 60 pounds.
“I went and saw a nutritionist,” he said. “It’s all about portion size for me, but I do have a bite of our fried chicken seven days per week. You know — for quality control.”
But that’s not all that’s changed. In 2013, with Brunson & Co. was formed, the chef only had Old Major and Masterpiece Delicatessen to consider. Now, his plate is a bit more full. But more on that later. First, we’ll look how Brunson’s grown alongside Old Major for the last half-decade.
When asked what year of Old Major’s five-year tenure has been the hardest so far, he’s clear about the answer.
“The first year was really rough,” he explained. “I didn’t have my hands around the business side yet. The first year taught me that I had to move from being an artist or chef to a businessman. It was the hardest thing to happen to me, but it needed to happen.”
After learning that lesson the hard way, Brunson developed a management style that became a springboard for some of Colorado’s biggest chefs — including Amos Watts of Corrida in Boulder and Caroline Glover of award-winning Annette.
“That’s one of my favorite things about this restaurant,” he explained. “It’s the opportunity that it has created. Not only for me, but for others. I’ve always looked at this place as a finishing restaurant. After you’re a chef here, my hope is that you go to open your own place… it feels really cool to have a hand in that. I definitely didn’t do that for them, though. I just gave them an opportunity.”
Nurturing that talent earned his team the title of “best restaurant” from various local publications in 2013, 2014 and 2015. In a city where restaurants sometimes close as quickly as they open, Brunson said he isn’t sure what made Old Major have the staying power it has years later.
“I don’t know,” he said, pausing. “We just do a good job. We focus on serving just honest and upright food.”
His advice to other chefs opening restaurants and hoping to do the same?
“Just go do it. Charge into darkness. You’ve just got to show up and be present — be a good cook and a good time.”
Now, the “good cook and good time” has created a meat empire within Brunson & Co. After Culture Meat & Cheese inside Denver Central Market gained national recognition from Bon Appetit and more last year, Brunson turned to three new opportunities for expansion — private dining, meat production and television.
While Brunson wasn’t able to share much about SEARious Meats — the show he’s currently working on with the Food Network — he was able to share more about the other two projects.
The Foxwood Room is Brunson’s newest up-and-running endeavor. It’s a private dining space that the Old Major team will use as overflow dining on busy shifts, and, more purposefully, for private dining and events.
The biggest challenge is ahead with Red Bear American Charcuterie — Brunson’s own cured meat production company that he hopes will open in July. He said the decision to open it was obvious.
“We’re one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and we have amazing ranchers, but we don’t have a true local meat distribution company,” he said. “This is about putting your money where your mouth is. The meat game is dangerous if you don’t do things properly, and we wanted to make this to do things right.“
The company will produce and white label meats for grocery stores (like Costco) and restaurants. The team plans to have two tiers of meats — heritage breed and a deli level. Brunson jokes, “I’m not an elitist. I want to be able to afford to use my own stuff at a casual place like Masterpiece Deli.”
Besides finer cuts of meat you may have at Old Major, Brunson also hopes to do more casual projects like a grass-fed, uncured hotdog that kids will enjoy.
But, Brunson also admits that diversifying Brunson & Co.’s offering is a financial decision as well.
“I don’t do this for the short hours and high pay,” Brunson joked. “Don’t get me wrong — the restaurant business is good, but there’s no way you’re going to make retirement money off of this. It’s just not what it used to be. If you want to do it right, pay people well, give them insurance. It’s hard to make ends meet. And I only want to do it right.”
Looking back, Brunson said he doesn’t know if the small-town Iowa farm kid that majored in horticulture would ever believe where he’s ended up, but that boy might be happy to see that he’s enjoying more vegetables in his weekly diet.