Chef News

What's Cooking? Four Denver Restaurateurs Take Stock of the Dining Scene Today

Dave Query at Lola, which closed this fall and will turn into a Post Chicken & Beer.
Dave Query at Lola, which closed this fall and will turn into a Post Chicken & Beer. Big Red F
On a Zoom back in April 2020, when everyone hoped the pandemic would be under control in a matter of weeks, Dave Query, the chef who went on to found the Big Red F restaurant group — and, along with wife Dana Faulk Query, just won the Noel & Tammy Cunningham Humanitarian Award from the Colorado Restaurant Association — threw some cold water on the discussion. He was worried about what would happen not just that summer, but the following winter...and the winter after that, he said.

Turns out, Query was right about the challenges that restaurateurs would not just face in the early days of the pandemic, but would continue to grapple with today. So we decided to pick up where that conversation left off, and contacted some of the most experienced — and outspoken — members of Denver’s dining community to talk about where the industry’s been and where it’s headed.
In addition to Query, we queried longtime marketing expert John Imbergamo, who started out with Mr. Steak and now works with Crafted Concepts (the group founded by Jen Jasinski and Beth Gruitch), as well as Jacqueline Bonanno of Bonanno Concepts and Juan Padró of Culinary Creative. As a special bonus, Josh Wolkon of Secret Sauce — a previous winner of the Noel & Tammy Cunningham Humanitarian Award — served up a tasty essay in answer to our questions.

Bon appétit.
click to enlarge John Imbergamo runs the Imbergamo Group. - COURTESY OF JOHN IMBERGAMO
John Imbergamo runs the Imbergamo Group.
Courtesy of John Imbergamo
What lessons has the industry learned over the past eighteen months?

John Imbergamo: We learned that being nimble was the key to survival. Government shuts down inside dining? Crank up pick-up and delivery systems and create new patio spaces where streets and sidewalks once stood. Labor shortages creating a crisis in the restaurant? Eliminate meal periods, trim menu offerings and go “all hands on deck” with owners, managers and chefs working shifts. Government rules and relief programs dictating daily operations and survival? Get involved with EatDenver and the Colorado Restaurant Association to influence officials and let them know how important restaurants are to the economy.


Dave Query: There have been a few really important lessons learned over the last eighteen months. Kind of the same takeaways the investigative crew must have made after looking at the Titanic disaster. “More lifeboats, watch out for icebergs!”

I think everyone is more efficient. More efficient with labor and scheduling, hours of operation, menu layout, less likely to put up with bullshit from customers, employees, landlords, bankers, vendors. More calculating. Budgeting, labor analysis, costing efficiencies — it’s harder to make a buck, and everyone is taking it a whole lot more seriously than just waiting until the end of of the month to “see how we did.”

Juan Padró: There have been a lot of lessons learned, some good and some bad. From the perspective of the independent restaurant, I think the need to have a voice, to organize and to have a lobby are probably right at the top of my list. We’ve had some groups help, for sure, but we have a long way to go. I’m really encouraged by some of the leaders we saw emerge over the past eighteen months. I’d like to see those groups trying to help and lobby, engage those who really stepped up in these difficult times, not just the big names in the industry who as a group really didn’t do a good job. And I don’t want that to sound like criticism of anyone, because in times like these, people react differently. But it’s worth noting that the real heroes were more often than not the small operators who don’t have a PR machine behind them. That’s where the inspirational work was being done. The celebrity chef worship, I think, has slowed down quite a bit from those in the industry. And there has been a greater level of respect and admiration on a more local level as it became very clear who was a leader. As an operator, I paid close attention and have a clear picture as to who I want on my teams.

Jacqueline Bonanno: I can’t speak for the industry, but I can tell you that I learned how resilient my co-workers are and how loyal our clients are. The law changed every two weeks, it seemed, and we changed right along with it — dine inside, dine outside, six-foot spacing, mask/no mask, vaccine/no vaccine. Just. Wow.
click to enlarge Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno run everything from Mizuna to the Denver Milk Market. - BONANNO CONCEPTS
Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno run everything from Mizuna to the Denver Milk Market.
Bonanno Concepts
What changes do you see in how restaurants will be operating in the future?

Query: To-go is here to stay. Everyone is figuring out how to properly send food out the front door. I think we will see fewer huge restaurants: higher dollars per square foot in smaller spaces. And in my opinion, all marginal restaurants will fail. There will be fewer mediocre restaurants in the future — the dining public will no longer tolerate mediocrity.


Imbergamo: While the current labor shortage is the top issue facing restaurants in the short run, value will lead the hit list for the foreseeable future. Consumers are going to have to adjust their “value barometer” to reflect the changes in labor rates, commodity prices and energy increases that are happening or are on the horizon. Price increases and shrinking portion sizes are inevitable. The days of the $12 hamburger are now the days of the $16 hamburger, and guests will simply have to get used to it or give up the pleasure of eating in restaurants. It’s not like those price increases aren’t happening in the grocery store, too.

Padró: You know, it’s an industry that’s in a constant state of change. I think QR codes are here to stay. I think making sure your online presence is as good as your in-store presence will be important. I think you’ll see a good bit of M&A activity. Business models will change as costs increase. You have this contingent out there that thinks raising prices is the answer to increased COGS and wage requirements, and I’d encourage people to strongly disregard that as any type of long-term solution. That’s very dangerous advice, and ignorant beyond words.

Bonanno: I hope carry-away cocktails become a permanent thing, because what a way to round out a meal! We all got to up our takeout game, and I believe the systems — Tock, Toast — that allowed us to implement that in a cost-effective way are only going to improve. I think everyone has higher expectations for a restaurant meal at home, which is a fantastic thing, and virtual cocktails and appetizers in the winter will always be a wonderful way to connect. And for crying out loud, let’s honor the workforce that stayed with us by paying them a living wage.
click to enlarge Juan Padró's projects stretch from Denver to Aspen to New Orleans. - ESTHER LEE LEACH
Juan Padró's projects stretch from Denver to Aspen to New Orleans.
Esther Lee Leach
How do you see other industry developments — third-party delivery systems, for example — affecting restaurants?

Imbergamo: Restaurateurs will pick and choose the pandemic-related developments that work for them. Say “yes” to extended patios, limited meal periods, restricted menus and constant recruitment. Say “maybe” to third-party delivery after carefully analyzing its costs and effect on brand.

Query: Doordash, Uber Eats, Grubhub — none of those companies have made a dime. As Wall Street demands better performance from these public companies, their only road to profitability is raising fees for both the vendor/restaurant and the customer/diner. The fees are already too high on both ends. They’re going to get clobbered even if their stock prices continue to rise since going public.

Padró: Third-party delivery is here to stay. It has a trillion-dollar market cap. How it affects the standalone, sit-down restaurant will vary. I think these platforms will continue to get better, and they need to. They will begin to replace things like the drive-through window. And for meal prep, etc., I think you’ll see a lot of movement there. As far as to-go food at restaurants, I mean the obvious stuff is menu engineering and perhaps even having some different offerings than in-store. I think packaging is a big factor as well. Will commissary become a bigger thing? Probably. Some of that will have to be combined with ghost kitchens, and some of that will be event space or even hybrid retail/food models; basically some secondary use because of the cost of construction and real estate.

Bonanno: Our old reservation platform didn’t evolve during the shutdown. It didn’t really embrace or understand take-away food or virtual celebrations, and we were forced to switch to a system that recognized all of those components at a tenth of the price. Yes, third-party delivery systems are problematic. Here’s the thing, though: Our guests evolved right alongside their preferred restaurants. They figured out QR codes in concert with us. They learned to pack phones, masks, vaccination cards and whatever else it takes to have a good meal into a restaurant. Who didn’t “pivot”? There are businesses that lift restaurant workers, potent satellites of who we are and what we do, that I believe will be markedly different in 2023.

Who wants to watch reality television that insults and dramatizes when David Chang is just filming great cooking right from his home kitchen? (I had my fill of that tension this past year, didn’t you?) The Beard awards didn’t adapt — they just shut down for 2021 and pretended they hadn’t already chosen their winners. We lost some of our strongest local food writers right here in Denver (to, what, the CRA?), which speaks to an entire peripheral community unable to adapt. To pivot. What on earth happened with the Aspen Food & Wine Festival? Elite PR firms seem to be doing just fine — but how do you suppose their clients are feeling about those dues and their representatives’ ability to shape food stories from home computers while restaurant workers are out in the snow building yurts?

And how do you see diners’ tastes changing? When they go to a restaurant, what are they looking for?

Imbergamo: Just as pre-pandemic diners grew accustomed to replacing meals cooked at home with nightly visits to restaurants, they’ll modify their post-pandemic dining habits to occasionally include delivery and takeout after becoming comfortable with those service methods during the crisis.

Denver’s minimum wage increases to $15.87 on January 1, 2022, with minimal effect on full-service restaurant wages, which have already blown by those levels. Importantly, however, Denver’s tipped minimum wage notches up to $12.85 on the same date, which could influence the tipping and payment model for restaurateurs and consumers. More service charges, modified tip pooling and possibly lower tip percentages from consumers when they realize they’re looking at price increases to pay for these wage bumps.

Query: Outstanding food. Everyone hunkered down during the pandemic and learned to cook. So bullshit food and service will not be tolerated. Mediocre dining experiences will be spotlighted and harassed. Guests want excitement, thrills, new education, new dazzle — but it has to be platformed on solid cooking and service skills.

Padró: I’m not sure if tastes are changing. I think now people have to ask what’s more important — food and hospitality or vibe. And that’s different for every person, so whatever the mix is that works for you, there are places out there that will satisfy your needs. A few months ago, I would have answered this question very differently. The conversation would have been more around social impact, but in Denver it seems that we have lost our steam on that subject. That’s not a huge surprise in a mostly white city where life is pretty magical. I do hope we can get back to that, though, and I think that would impact the Denver restaurant scene in a really positive way.

Bonanno: My understanding of my own clients is that they want to be respected and treated kindly and joyously when they dine out — and it is such an honor and delight to do so. Shoot, it’s a treat to be out in public among friends. Dining out is a privilege and a celebration. Don’t you want to feel celebrated? To let the politics and unkindness just melt away into this perfect bite and that perfect sip? Forget about the popularity contest or the current buzz: I truly believe that for a good while, people will just want to be in talented hands of professionals who celebrate them with deliciousness.

This story originally appeared in Bites, our annual guide to the local dining scene, which was inserted in the October 14 issue of
Westword.
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