Op-Ed: Why Restaurants Keep Fighting...and Serving

The Steuben's Fight Club on May 2.
The Steuben's Fight Club on May 2. Josh Wolkon
In the early days of this pandemic, our current team members nicknamed themselves “Fight Club.” Any fan of the movie knows that the first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club, but these are unprecedented times when we can serve alcohol to go and dispensaries are “essential” businesses, so we can talk about Fight Club.

Our team at Steuben’s Denver has been fighting. They are the lifeline and heartbeat of Secret Sauce Food & Beverage right now. They are there to give, to serve, to help, to make people smile. While nobody is in the position of our front-line hospital workers, there are many people out there, the “essential workers,” putting themselves at some level of risk to keep this skeleton of an economy running. They are the Fight Club.

As founder of Secret Sauce F&B, which operates Vesta, Ace Eat Serve and two locations of Steuben’s, the past seven weeks have been up there with the most intense periods of my life and career. I know I’m not alone. I’ll spare the details, as there has been plenty of worthy coverage of the brutal condition of the restaurant industry. It’s real. It’s stressful. It’s emotional. The road to recovery is hard to imagine.

So why are we still open? That question keeps me up at night and it’s a daily debate, as our responsibilities to social distancing and the safety of our employees are both immensely important. Are we “essential,” or are we a luxury? There is little to no profit in this business model, and all of our salaried staff has taken substantial pay cuts. We’re keeping about twenty staff members working who would otherwise be added to the unemployment pool. This makes it tough on those who chose to work, as many as their former staff members and friends are making as much money, if not more, on unemployment. But our current team is made up of loyal and hardworking people. They are talented industry professionals who want to work and who want to serve. Their safest and happiest place to be is in a restaurant, even if their smiles are covered with masks, and the risk scale has increased beyond the industry risks of knife cuts and burns.

click to enlarge JOSH WOLKON
Josh Wolkon
We have spent our careers developing a brand of hospitality that encourages human connections. And now we are doing everything in our power to remove as much of the human connection as possible. It’s a weird, strange and surreal restaurant environment. It lacks that instant gratification and reward of smiling guests, groovy tunes and tangible energy that feed us. Why stay open?

Two of our top-Secret Saucers have young children at home that they are supporting through school in the mornings, then giving nights and weekends to Steuben’s. Another is the only working adult in a household of five. The restaurant industry has always presented a tricky balance between work and home life, but this scenario tips the scales beyond realistic expectations of balance. Why not take a break? It’s been 22 years since we first opened Vesta, since all of our restaurants have been closed simultaneously for more than a day. Surely it would be easier to just shut it all down and catch our breath.

On Tuesday, March 17, the day after laying off 180 of our family members and closing the doors at Vesta, Ace Eat Serve and Steuben’s Arvada, an incredibly kind and generous fan bought a $1,000 gift card. It was a moment of gratitude in an otherwise chaotic first day of transitioning to the takeout model at Steuben's Denver. That same day, chefs at Vesta were cleaning the restaurant, preparing take-home meals for staff, and getting ready for a full-staff farmers' market for the food we wouldn't be able to use. This same story played out at Ace, Steuben’s Arvada and thousands of restaurants across the country. With the support of our purveyors, we continue to host free weekly food markets for our former staff. Keeping the doors open has also allowed us to offer a meal free of charge to all former staff every day. We were able to keep enrolled employees' health insurance active and 100 percent covered through April. Our landlords at Steuben’s, Ace Eat Serve and Vesta allowed us to defer our rent payments.

click to enlarge JOSH WOLKON
Josh Wolkon
In a time of anxiety, confusion, constant legislative changes and immense uncertainty, the EatDenver community of over 200 independent restaurants has been an irreplaceable source of trusted information, support and even mental therapy. The collaborative attitude and sharing of advice is a testament to the community-first values of Denver’s amazing independent restaurants. All leaders are being tested like never before, and Katie Lazor, the executive director of EatDenver, has risen to the occasion. Sonia Riggs and the Colorado Restaurant Association have also been working nonstop to support our industry.

Chef Thach Tran from Ace opened his own disinfectant commercial-cleaning company with an incredibly positive response. Former Vesta executive chef Brandon Foster is keeping Project Angel Heart going, providing meals with a lack of volunteers. Our industry continues to be there to give and to help, even while on the verge of collapse.

A GoFundMe, Feeding Colorado Heroes, bought sixty meals from Steuben’s to be delivered to Denver Health. Local news channels picked up the story, and a flood of people reached out to Steuben’s wanting to further support our community efforts. My wife, Jen, was motivated to set up our own GoFundMe page, Secret Sauce Serves. This fund will support our effort to serve sixty meals weekly to Denver Health and the youth of Urban Peak. In addition, we have been able to serve meals at the Delores Project, St. Joe’s and the Medical Center of Aurora.

click to enlarge JOSH WOLKON
Josh Wolkon
One Take-Out Tuesday, former governor John Hickenlooper, a great regular for many years, picked up Steuben’s fried chicken to go and posted it on Instagram, providing a moment of gratitude from our entire staff. Perhaps one of the brightest moments for me was a video montage that our staff put together, while social distancing, expressing appreciation for our efforts. How rad is that? It hit home. A great regular of Ace and Steuben’s texted me to ask if he could anonymously drop off a $100 King Soopers gift card to be given to any staff member in need. Gratuities to our team are averaging over 30 percent for takeout.

The feedback on social media has been overwhelming and heartwarming. Even if we can’t see the smiles, we were part of making another memory marking Easter and 4/20 with our guests at home, and they shared happy photos of their celebrations on social media. Cinco de Mayo and Mother’s Day are next. This is what we do, and this is what feeds us. I have been inspired by so many people: leaders, guests, fellow restaurateurs and our own employees, who have all taken this period in history to find a way to contribute. The positive moments described here represent only a fraction of the countless acts of kindness, encouragement and opportunity that our community has provided.

We are open because of our incredible and dedicated staff, our commitment to feed our unemployed staff and our responsibility to serve the community. We are open because of our calling to cook, our need to be creative and our mission to provide comfort and smiles through our service. We are operating to bring Denver residents exactly what they would expect from your hometown diner. Neighborhood restaurants have always been engrained in the community as places to gather, to celebrate, to mourn, to depend on in a snowstorm, or to grab the ear of a friendly bartender.

Before the crisis, I would preach to anybody who would listen that the value of full-service dining was in jeopardy, threatened by the ease of delivery, food halls, fast casual, Netflix and any other distraction that kept us from going out and enjoying the intangible experience of a memorable dining experience with friends and family. Hopefully, one of the silver linings to come will be that people have been reminded that restaurants are an important part of the culture and fabric of our community. They are where we connect, celebrate, reward, relax, love and laugh. When we get through this, and we will, the feeling of a full house will be as special as the first day I opened Vesta in 1997.

click to enlarge JOSH WOLKON
Josh Wolkon
Thank you, Governor Polis. Thank you, Mayor Hancock. Thank you to the teachers and school principals, to the delivery drivers, the construction workers setting up the Colorado Convention Center, the bankers, the unemployment office, the supermarket workers, my fellow restaurateurs and every other essential worker who is working harder than ever during this crisis to give back, sustain us and contribute to our recovery.

Like everybody, we realize this is a day-to-day venture that could end at any time, but as long as we have the team and the ability, we will continue to fight and to serve. If you want to help, check a restaurant website before jumping to the delivery websites. Donate to our GoFundMe Secret Sauce Serves page. Buy a hospital meal in addition to your takeout meal; many restaurants are offering them. Buy a gift card. Leave an extra-large tip. Commit to a couple of takeout meals a week. Find a local farm or CSA to support. Be patient. We’re all figuring it out as we go and doing our best while trying to keep everybody safe. Don’t play online critic unless your review is positive.

And when all this passes, go back to one of your favorite restaurants and thank the team for figuring out how to survive, and having the will, the grit and the determination to put it all back on the table again so that they have the opportunity to serve.

Thank you, Denver, and this city's restaurant community for all of your amazing support. You give us purpose. You give us an answer to “Why?”
click to enlarge JOSH WOLKON
Josh Wolkon
Josh Wolkon is the founder of Secret Sauce Food & Beverage, which operates Vesta, Steuben's (in Denver and Arvada) and Ace Eat Serve. He was honored for is philanthropic work in the community with the Noel and Tammy Cunningham Humanitarian Award from the Colorado Restaurant Association in 2019.

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