A year ago, Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski were just hitting their stride at Boulder's Oak at Fourteenth, garnering national accolades in the process. And then on March 9, fire broke out in the chimney of the wood-burning oven, forcing Oak to close for months so that the entire space could be gutted and rebuilt.
Oak resurfaced in December with a fresh look and a tighter concept, and it quickly made headlines again. And now that he's had a few months to settle back in, Dayton is able to reflect on how his restaurant changed as a result of the fire.
"It makes me nervous," laughs Dayton, thinking of the impending anniversary. "It's overwhelming. I feel like something bad is going to happen."
Still, though Dayton says the fire was an "extremely traumatic experience," he's quick to acknowledge that the consequences of the nine-month closure weren't all negative. "We had a lot of downtime," he says. "We had a lot of time to think about things and evaluate things that were good and things that weren't so good. It made us hungrier. We asked, 'This was great, but how can we be better?'"
While Dayton spent the time developing Oak's bar program and figuring out how to make the restaurant more efficient, Redzikowski passed the months making changes to his menu. "On Steve's end, I think he was just hungrier," Dayton explains. "When we closed, he was somewhat happy with the menu but not overly excited about it. Now he's hungrier and more focused. He's changing the menu all week long, and building that true neighborhood restaurant and bar."
And that's translated into more clarity about what they want to do for both owners. "We have a broader vision, and we've really been staying on top of it," Dayton says. "Now that we're open, it's easier to say, 'This is working, this isn't working,' and adjust quickly. It's like a game of Tetris."
As a result, Oak is now running full throttle, filling the expanded space many nights of the week. "It feels busier," Dayton says. "We were busy for the space we had in the past. But now if we have a slow night, it's what would have been a busy night before -- and it doesn't feel as hard. That said, Friday and Saturday nights still feel insane."
Post-fire, Oak also picked up a lot of new staff, including some top-notch players in the industry, including Mario Nocifera, who was the general manager of the Frasca empire until the end of 2011. "We were really fortunate to bring on really solid people in the kitchen and Mario as part of our management team," Dayton says. "Some stellar players have come on board, and that's what we need here."
But the partners were lucky enough to keep old staff, too, which has helped lend continuity after the long closure. "We retained about 50 percent of our staff," notes the restaurateur. "And some of my old staff that has been with us is hungrier than before. It's really neat to see some of those guys really going after it, and they're helping me get better at my job. I think some of these guys will be with us for a really long time, which is really all you can ask for."
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Above all, says Dayton, the fire made them better businessmen. "We became better operators because we know how the whole building works," he explains. "There are behind-the-scenes things you never really think about in running a restaurant. At the end of the day, you learn to look at things in a different light. We got a crash course in business from all of this. If we go onto another unit, we're already versed in all of those things."
So is an expansion next for Oak? Not exactly. "I'm just trying to get to Friday night," Dayton jokes. He will admit that the restaurant has some plans in the works, though, including a quarterly pig roast coming up next month. "We'll keep on getting better and keep on evolving," he promises.
As for the anniversary of the fire, Dayton says they'll likely let it pass quietly. "We may come up with something, though," he concludes. "At least a cocktail."