Taking Stock: Restaurants Are Headed in a Positive Direction

Josh Wolkon at Vesta, which closed for good in 2020.
Josh Wolkon at Vesta, which closed for good in 2020. Secret Sauce
For Bites, our annual restaurant guide, we asked a handful of prominent restaurateurs to answer a questionnaire looking back over the past nineteen months and forward to the future of the local dining scene; you can read their responses here. Secret Sauce's Josh Wolkon has seen a lot of changes in his own company, having never reopened Vesta after the restaurant shutdown in March 2020 and repurposing Steuben's in Arvada into something of a commissary kitchen; he served up the following:

At the moment, business is booming at both Steuben’s and Ace. We’re seeing great guest numbers, and we’re booking a lot of events.

But even as we’re overjoyed to welcome back guests, we’re not “back to normal.” This phase is not without issues — shortages in staffing and supply chain, increased product and labor costs and an existing workforce that was pushed to their limits in 2020, to name a few — as we’ve gone from zero to literally 100 percent in such a short time.

We’ve learned that we need to redefine what it means to work in restaurants if we want to attract and retain great people. One part of this is incorporating more programs that encourage work/life balance and self-care into our wellness programs.

Prior to the pandemic, we were dealing with labor shortages and a mental health crisis in the industry. The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, and we must put greater effort into redefining what it means to work in the industry if we want to continue to attract great people to Secret Sauce. This is one of the reasons we decided to focus our energy and efforts on our business in Uptown. At Ace and Steuben’s, staff wages are higher and our benefits package is greater than ever. While always part of our culture, there is an even greater focus on the wellness and mental health of our staff. We have leveled the pay scale for BOH and FOH staff while making work/life balance attainable as a chef or restaurant manager. I believe the industry must continue to find ways to attract a new generation of hospitality professionals that see value in the art of taking care of others.

We also know that diners missed the full-service restaurant experience, and they’re coming back with more knowledge around what it takes to run a full-service restaurant. Because many were cooking at home, a lot, they’re coming back with deeper culinary knowledge, too, which breeds an appreciation for the sourcing, prep, execution, presentation and even the cleaning that goes into a restaurant meal.
click to enlarge Peking duck, an Ace specialty. - MARK ANTONATION
Peking duck, an Ace specialty.
Mark Antonation
It’s also clear that guests have missed human interaction and being in social settings. Everyone is happy to be greeted, to be served, to be engaged, to enjoy live music or a DJ, to eat hot food off real dishes and to drink from specialty glassware rather than from the takeout packaging they got to know so well during the pandemic.

We’re also seeing that guests want to directly support Steuben’s and Ace in a couple of ways. First, they’re ordering direct for pick-up vs. placing orders on third-party delivery apps. Second, as compassion for ongoing challenges grows, guests have become more likely to give feedback directly instead of airing their grievances on review sites. We’re all hopeful that shortages on the supply chain and labor sides of the business will be resolved, but until then, the greater level of acceptance and patience from our team and from guests is a key part of our ongoing success.

It’s our goal at Ace and Steuben’s to bring guests back to a happy place and a simpler time by providing a nostalgic and comforting dining experience. The memories of playing ping-pong in your friend’s basement, your mom’s meatloaf, eating a lobster roll on the beach, or hanging around the fire with a warm cocktail in hand are all part of our collective effort to get back to what’s real and what matters.

There’s a built-up demand and desire for genuine, authentic, unique and memorable experiences that serve as a reinforcement to some of our values as they relate to friends, family and community that were rediscovered during the pandemic. While more challenging than ever, restaurants are heading in a positive direction.

Ace Eat Serve will be transformed into the Peking Duck House on Tuesday, October 19, when every table will get a three-course dinner including Ace's Peking duck, carved tableside. The fee is $100 per duck (serves up to four guests); all proceeds from the evening will support Denver Housing Authority’s Youth Employment Academy. To-go options are available; find out more here.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.