Chef Jesus Silva Is Caught in the Middle of a Legal Battle at the Golden Mill

Jesus Silva at the Golden Mill.
Jesus Silva at the Golden Mill. Molly Martin
This was supposed to be a banner year for chef Jesus Silva. His three stalls at the Golden Mill food hall in Golden — Tacos al Chile, Republik of Chicken and Sushi Sora — had a highly profitable 2022; restrictions from COVID were in the rearview mirror; and there were rumors of expanding his portfolio to other food halls.

But now Silva has become collateral damage in a complicated power struggle between the Golden Mill owners (Wes and Susan Ganter, Don Martin and Corby Felsher) and his GM Food Concepts business partners, James L. Wright III and Mark Shaker, co-founder of Stanley Marketplace, the now-closed Broadway Market, and…the Golden Mill. Although Silva is often thought of as the face of Tacos al Chile, Republik of Chicken and Sushi Sora, he is only a 10 percent owner of parent company GM Food Concepts.

Because none of the original Golden Mill owners had experience as restaurateurs, they brought Shaker in as an acting general manager. “I oversaw the design, I oversaw the construction. I brought in people to develop the website. I brought in a marketing company. I brought in a PR company…and part of that responsibility was determining not just the layout of the concepts, but who would be good fits to run a food concept in there," Shaker says.

Shaker tapped his Stanley Marketplace and Broadway Market connections, convincing Terry Walsh’s Rolling Smoke BBQ, Hap Cameron’s Happy Cones and longtime friend and partner Silva to join the Golden Mill enterprise. One big problem: This was the beginning of 2021 — a time when the last thing on most restaurateurs' minds was expansion. With only six weeks left before opening, there were still two empty stalls to fill.

So Silva stepped up. “It was a big challenge to open not just one, but three different concepts in that place,” he remembers. He and his partners brought over two of his branded concepts from Broadway Market —Tacos al Chile and Republik of Chicken — and were able to set up the food stalls in time for the Golden Mill's grand opening in April 2021.
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Chef Jesus Silva's Sushi Sora has been a highlight at the Golden Mill.
Molly Martin

Despite the pandemic challenges, the concepts were wildly successful. According to legal documents obtained by Westword, GM Food Concepts “averaged monthly sales in excess of $253,000 — more than three times the projected revenues which were determined pre-COVID.” And since GM Food Concepts’ rent was not a fixed fee but instead 20 percent of gross sales, the Golden Mill owners benefited as well.

But the relationship between those owners and Shaker was starting to fracture. In January 2022, “they asked me to leave my partners and work for them, and, well, I have a contract with my partners first,” Silva recounts. “Second, I mean, I have a lot of respect for the people who gave me the opportunity in the beginning.”

Last June, the Golden Mill owners removed Shaker as a co-manager, listing their reasons in a lawsuit that followed in February. Primary among the allegations (there are over twenty) is that Shaker betrayed the owners by “engaging in self-dealing" — notably, not informing them of his partnership stake in GM Food Concepts and providing GM Food Concepts with overly advantageous contracts.

Shaker denies that the Golden Mill owners did not know he had a financial interest in GM Food Concepts; the company's lawyers responded with specific incidents of email correspondence and meetings contradicting this allegation. Additionally, Silva and Shaker’s partnership has been widely publicized, especially around the two concepts that Silva brought to the Golden Mill from Broadway Market.

The Golden Mill plaintiffs also allege that Shaker advantageously lumped the three concepts into one in terms of paying a single security deposit, having a combined minimum sales threshold, and general reporting, making it impossible for the Golden Mill to identify underperforming concepts.
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Molly Martin

For example, GM Food Concepts only paid a $2,500 security deposit for its three food stalls, whereas the other businesses in the food hall were each required to pay a $2,500 deposit. But that amount pales in comparison to the $1.83 million that legal documents state GM Food Concepts has paid in rent to the Golden Mill since opening.

GM Food Concepts does have a combined minimum sales threshold of $1,000,000 compared to $300,000 for Rolling Smoke BBQ and $100,000 for Happy Cones. Westword was able to obtain and analyze the difference in contracts between GM Food Concepts and Rolling Smoke BBQ and found only minor differences; some of the differences were more beneficial to Rolling Smoke BBQ, such as the Golden Mill "will reimburse [Rolling Smoke] in full for all costs of wood purchased by [Rolling Smoke] to be used to heat the outdoor smokers.”

In January, one year before the earliest possible contract expiration date, Golden Mill lawyers sent all vendors revised license agreements. For GM Food Concepts, the agreements were accompanied by what they felt was an ultimatum: Sign or be terminated. (Rolling Smoke BBQ and Happy Cones did not return a request for comment on their respective contract negotiations.)

“They presented us with the new license agreement, which changed all of the terminology to be favorable to them and with untenable terms,” says Shaker. “Nobody, no restaurateur I know, or no operator I know, would be comfortable with how they changed a totally legal, fine, fair market contract.”

Among the changes were a dynamic minimum sales threshold and an annual renewal term (whereas the current contract provided three years, with the option to renew for two more three-year terms). Silva and Shaker can only guess at the ultimate intention of the owners. “I think they want to take over the whole operation,” Silva offers. Neither Susan Ganter nor Don Martin responded to a request for comment.

When GM Food Concepts refused to sign the new contract, the Golden Mill terminated its license to operate and theoretically evicted the businesses under its umbrella. However, because the legal system is slow-moving and complicated, current patrons of the Golden Mill wouldn’t know that there’s anything amiss. All three of GM Food Concepts' stands are still up and running and are still paying rent. But below the surface, there’s strain and tension. Rumors float among the staff, not helped by tours given to other restaurateurs of the still-occupied spaces.

“They’ve been showing my kitchens already to other vendors, which I find very, very disrespectful," Silva notes. "I put a lot of work in this place. I spent nineteen-hour days when we opened. I was there from 6 a.m. to midnight every day for three, four months. I mean, our employees, my guys, they’re scared. ... I have thirty people working for me, and in the summer, it’s probably going to be double. So all these people feel...they are all confused.”

Desperate for help, Silva went to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to raise awareness of his situation and ask them to pressure the Golden Mill’s owners to come to the table and negotiate. “It is deeply troubling to hear that Mr. Silva's license agreements have been terminated, putting his businesses, reputation, and the livelihoods of his employees at risk,” the chamber said in a letter addressed to the Golden Mill owners. “As you may be aware, the Golden, CO community has a significant Hispanic population, with Hispanics making up 15.7% of the population. ... Hispanic-owned businesses, like Mr. Silva's, are a vital and growing part of our state's economy and play a crucial role in supporting economic growth and job creation in our state and in our country.”

For now, Silva and his partners are operating in a stressful limbo as the lawyers attempt to negotiate a resolution. But the damage might have already been done for Silva, who is questioning his path. “You know, I've been doing this for 33 years, and I've never been more disappointed in my whole career to do this,” he says. “It's just like, I don't know — it's heartbreaking, and I don't know how I’m going to keep going with this.”
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Helen Xu is a freelance writer living in Littleton with her beloved senior Russian Blue cat who answers to Thomas or "handsome sir." Her favorite stories to write are either about food and dining, where there's an unexpected, surprising twist in what may initially seem mundane and boring, or being able to fold in data-driven quantitative analysis.

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