Whoa. From the outside looking in, everything seemed perfectly peachy at Old Major, Justin Brunson's restaurant in Highland that opened in late February after months of restless expectancy by the city's food-obsessed. The temple to swine, wine and farmhouse cuisine just garnered a three-and-a-half star review from the Denver Post -- a review in which critic Bill Porter ballyhooed both Brunson's cooking and the front-of-the-house staff: "Service is exemplary. The floor staff is led by front-of-the-house man Jonathan Greschler, formerly of Fuel, who is a natty presence in a tweed jacket and vest. Quick to the table, servers arrive with a smile, zero attitude [and] a deep knowledge of the menu," wrote Porter in his review.
But behind the scenes, trouble was brewing, and this morning, during a manager's meeting, Greschler was fired.
See also: - Old Major, Justin Brunson's "elevated farmhouse cuisine" restaurant, is now open - Sneak peek: Old Major, opening on February 24 - Restaurant roll call for February: Old Major in, Pig & Block out
According to part owner and investor Juan Padro, who also owns Highland Tap & Burger with his wife Katie O'Shea Padro (she's also an investor in Old Major), the overall culture of the restaurant had deteriorated under Greschler's watch, especially when it came to the management of staff. "Moving forward, we felt like the business would be healthier without John here," says Padro. "There were a lot of expectations surrounding Old Major, and we certainly tried to manage those expectations, but along the way, one of the things that got away from us was our culture, which is predicated on a set of core values that focus on how we communicate and deal with one another, how we support one another, and when it's appropriate to have certain conversations and when it wasn't -- and at the end of the day, we didn't feel like the environment was healthy with John here, so we decided that we needed a change."
Greschler says he was completely blindsided by the move. "When I went into the meeting this morning, Justin told me that I wasn't connecting with the staff -- that this wasn't the right job or place for me, and I was completely stunned. My jaw dropped to the floor," admits Greschler, who also worked alongside Brunson at Wild Catch, before they, along with the entire staff, sailed out the door when shoddy owner Daniel Kuhlman made things too miserable to stay.
"I feel absolutely betrayed, I'm fucking irate, and I strongly disagree with their decision," continues Greschler. "We just got a great review from the Denver Post, we'd seen eight weeks of constant financial growth, we just had our busiest Saturday, and I thought things were wonderful, but apparently I was wrong."
But there were warnings, notes Padro, who suspended Greschler several weeks ago, on a weekend, after there was reported friction with the staff. "To his credit," says Padro, "he came back and made a strong effort to improve, but he just wasn't seeing what everyone else was seeing and that impeded his ability to lead, and leadership is really important to us."
While Greschler admits he was given a weekend sabbatical, he also points out that he'd worked 45 days straight and was exhausted. "They told me that I was being mean to people, that I was over-tired and overworked, and that I should go home and clear my head" -- which is what he did, coming back, he says, refreshed and rejuvenated. "We were all tired, and we were all yelling at each other, but when I came back, I had some sit-downs with my staff, and I told them how much I appreciated them -- I still do, immensely -- and things became much better after that," attests Greschler.
Perhaps, though, it was too little, too late. "Jonathan is amazing with customers, but I just don't think he applied that same level of hospitality to the staff," Padro tells me. "I personally like him a lot, but we need someone in here who reflects our set of values, and I'm not sure Jonathan reflected those values. Honestly, I think he was just lost here."
Padro points out that Greschler, who's a renowned wine wizard, wasn't actually overseeing the wine program, and nor was he fulfilling his GM responsibilities -- finances, scheduling and inventory. "Those are typically GM responsibilities that John just didn't do," says Padro, adding that Katie was overseeing the majority of the paperwork.
Greschler, however, maintains that not long after Old Major opened, the assistant GM, Jim Soullier was fired, too, which put more pressure on Greschler to manage the staff, rather than the wine syllabus, or numbers. "All of a sudden, I wasn't doing the wine program or the numbers, and the bar became its own animal, but managing a real wine program is a full-time job, and when they fired the assistant manager, I wound up working seven nights a week on the floor. I couldn't do both -- it's a beast -- so I hired a few people and said hey, run with it."
Greschler says, too, that when he hired as the GM, it was with the understanding that his style of service, which he calls "straight-laced, high level and rough" -- Padro calls it "iron fist" -- was the ideal match for Old Major. "I'm really proud of the staff I'm leaving behind - they're awesome and they totally crush it, but my style of service, which is the same style of service that Justin and I had at Wild Catch -- and the kind of service that Justin said he wanted at Old Major -- isn't being a mentor. I try to hold people accountable and keep my distance, and I don't go out and drink with the staff after service -- and I guess that didn't jive with the ownership," says Greschler. He also says that there were "weird routes of command," insomuch, he explains, that "there was no real chain of command that people had to follow." The staff, he claims, "talked to the owners, rather than management, so alternative routes were wide open."
Still, while he's angry at the outcome -- even angrier that he spent a year working at Fuel Cafe while he waited for Old Major to open -- he admits that, in the end, Old Major is "Justin's baby."
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"I chose to stick with Justin, and I guess I didn't do the job the way he wanted, and I regret that," says Greschler. "At the end of the day, though, it's his restaurant, and he has to do what he thinks is right. I was let go by smarter people than I. We broke up because it wasn't the right fit, and, because, I think that Juan and Katie want someone who's more of a friend than a manager to the staff."
For his part, Padro describes Greschler as "truly a good guy, a great sommelier and really great with customers, but not a guy who understands actual business management." To that end, he adds, "We want to create more of a service manager/maître d'-type role, as opposed to a general manager role. In my estimation, having Justin as an owner and Katie as an owner leaves a gap in having a service manager who welcomes guests, addresses issues with service and makes sure they have a stellar experience," explains Padro. "I hope when Jonathan settles down," he adds, "that he takes a strong look at his mentality and how he comes across to people. Customers love him when he hits tables, but you have to work for -- and with -- your staff. The iron-fist way is not our way."
Greschler, now unemployed (although our guess is that it won't be for long), says that he wishes the staff the "best of luck." And while he laments that he's "hurt by Justin," he confesses that "I should have considered Justin my boss -- but he's this big, wonderful guy that gives you bear hugs, so I considered him a friend."
The hardest part, notes Greschler, is that "I can't do another stick-with-me project, because I've been bitten by that too many times." Waiting on a future paycheck, he acknowledges, is "not a smart thing to do."