Chef News

Juan Padro on Neighborhood Spots, Talent Gaps and the New Tap & Burger

Juan Padro, co-owner of Highland Tap & Burger and Bar Dough, swears that his initial foray into the restaurant industry was a mistake. He and his wife, Katie O’Shea Padro, were living in Massachusetts, “and one of my best friends, a guy who stood in my wedding, was opening what we thought was going to be a neighborhood bar and was looking for investment dollars,” he recalls. “We felt comfortable, so we dumped the money in.” They had reason to feel comfortable: The Highland bar was going to be operated by Brad Beale, Kris Slocumb and Kevin Eddy, who already owned Spill downtown. (Beale has since left the group.)
Padro was also looking for an excuse to return to Colorado, but he needed to coerce his wife into returning here, he says. A trip for Katie’s January birthday was enough to sell her on the weather — and meetings about what Highland Tap & Burger could become were enough to convince the couple that they wanted to play a much more active role.

Four restaurant ventures later — including the just-opened Sloan’s Lake Tap & Burger — Padro reflects on what it means to be a neighborhood restaurant, what the restaurant industry can do to solve a looming labor crisis, and why asking whether Denver is a first-tier restaurant city is entirely the wrong question.

Westword: When Highland Tap went into LoHi back in 2010, it was a totally different neighborhood. What did it mean to open up a neighborhood bar there then?

Juan Padro: There were some interesting changes going on; the community felt a little fractured at the time. There were a significant number of Mexican-Americans up here, but also a lot of white folks moving in — so people were kind of walking by each other on the street, and it could feel a little uncomfortable. We started talking about how important having a community gathering place was — how that place should include everyone. My parents are super-involved in politics, and they’ve always been really cautious about gentrification, because that often meant pushing people out instead of lifting people up. We felt like we could open a place where people could gather — eat, drink, sit around and talk about issues, hang out for as long as they wanted — and not worry about turning tables. So we put our heads down and designed culturally what we wanted Highland Tap to be. Our hope is that everyone feels welcome.

As the neighborhood has shifted, you guys remain incredibly busy, and now you’re opening up another location. Is there a key to your success?

People often talk about food and beverage, and you have to be good at that, but it begins and ends with the kids who work there and their commitment to what we stand for. Our business is agile, but we have a set of core values that we manage to, and that hasn’t changed and will never change. We have an absolute dedication to the guest experience, customer satisfaction and good communication — and a bias for action. And we have a group of kids who work there who are empowered to make decisions, who know it’s okay to make a mistake but believe in accountability and communication and moving on, who understand the importance of knowing your neighbors and knowing what’s important for them and establishing a connection for them. This restaurant is theirs as much as ours.

Given the labor shortage that seems to be plaguing a lot of area restaurants, how do you find and maintain employees who subscribe to that mantra?

A lot of owners I talk to tell you how hard it is to hire, but owners have to shift their thinking on how to hire and develop people. One of the things we set out to do when we started working in this business was to understand why there’s this massive turnover. The thing that stood out the most was that every time someone went home to see the family, that family would say, “Hey, when will you get a real job? When are you gonna grow up?” So we worked to instill a lot of pride in the craft: This is real work, serious work, and you can have a career. We’ve worked hard to make that a reality financially as well for people. We offer opportunity to earn into the business, buy into the business and participate in profit-sharing. We’re trying different compensation models. Some stuff has worked and some hasn’t, but we’ve got kids who’ve bought in and are serious about it. For instance, Eli Odell [executive chef and managing partner of Highland Tap] now owns a piece of Tap, but also Bar Dough. Nicole Fairhurst has been with us a long time, and now she’s an owner-operator over at Sloan’s Lake. Bar Dough’s sous-chef, Blake Edmunds, is about to own part of Bar Dough as well.

Is that the answer to solving the talent gap?

Owners need to spend time internalizing a different approach. When you put a financial model together for your restaurant, you need to make a big portion of that development. You need to raise the money to train your people. That’s expensive. You think it’s expensive to pay $15 per hour for a line cook? It’s more expensive to hire five line cooks in a year. Restaurants grow because people love what they’re doing, because they know their product, because they can communicate with the table and understand what they want and help them make the best decision.

Like sales.

Yes. It’s a crazy thing with this business: You’re looking at sales every time you go to the computer, but God forbid anyone call you a salesperson. One of the industries I did a ton of work with was pharma, where it is illegal, technically, to sell. So how do they deal with that? They have relationship managers. Their responsibility is to educate — and whatever you say about pharma, that’s a pretty interesting approach that could serve our industry very well. We don’t need to lose people to an auto dealership or marketing company. We need to figure out how to keep our best people.
Why take Highland Tap to Sloan’s Lake next?

We have a love affair with north Denver: We live here, we’ve owned three homes here, we’ve had three businesses and now a fourth, if you include the three years at Old Major. So it’s important for us to see the area be successful. In Sloan’s, we had an opportunity to be the first liquor license between 12th and 26th and Sheridan and Federal. So that was an opportunity to go in, lay the foundation and be a responsible neighbor, partner with the schools and community, listen to what they want, and say, “We’re all in the neighborhood together.”

The space is bigger and sleeker than the flagship. How has the menu changed?

The model with Tap is, what are the eight to ten core items people ask for all the time? Those things stayed, and we kind of built around it. We took away the premium protein and focused on Colorado-style barbecue: bison brisket, chopped lamb shoulder, Hatch chile hot wings. And we incorporated more Puerto Rican flavor — asopao, which is like a Puerto Rican gumbo, has been one of the most popular items on the menu. The kitchen there is as nice as any kitchen in the city, which is pretty awesome, because Eli has worked in a cubbyhole for the better part of six years. To have people as talented as him and Toby [Prout, chef de cuisine]in that space means we’re not going to do the exact same thing.

You branched out into finer dining with Justin Brunson at Old Major, and then Bar Dough with Max MacKissock. How have those experiences been different from Highland Tap?

We didn’t necessarily start out approaching it differently: We were going to stay true to who we were, to focus on our business values. And the numbers in those restaurants aren’t any different. But the chef-driven thing is much different. Justin’s vision was to really drive the business through the kitchen, and that was something that ultimately we just didn’t agree with. That’s not to say that’s wrong — we learned a lot from Justin and think the world of his talent. But with Max, we said, “This is what we learned at Old Major, this is what we want, can you work in this?” Max had a similar view, and while we didn’t agree on everything, we could work through that. Max has helped Katie and me grow a lot in terms of our approach to food and how we look at it. Bar Dough isn’t your traditional Italian spot — it’s a modern Italian eatery. There’s real technique in that kitchen.
Chef-driven restaurants have more or less dominated dining culture for the last decade or so. As an investor in the space, and given your involvement with two chef-forward concepts, what’s your perspective on that phenomenon?

“Chef-driven” is a super-divisive statement because it suggests that other stuff isn’t important. But you can be the most talented quarterback in the world, and if you can’t get wide receiver to run the right route, you’re never going to complete the pass. This is a young restaurant city, and I see a lot of incomplete passes. Jen Jasinski once told me something that stuck: You’re not a chef unless you’re a leader. At the great chef-driven concepts in Denver and beyond, the chefs exhibit great leadership in the front and back of the house. At Bar Dough, Max and Blake work hand in hand with the front of the house. Everyone there has each other’s back.

Incomplete passes: Is that what’s keeping Denver from being a top-tier food city?

There’s been a lot of conversation recently about whether Denver can become a first-tier food city, and I think that’s the wrong focus. I think the focus needs to be on developing leaders. The talent in Denver isn’t a whole lot different than talent elsewhere. I’ve had bites in Denver as good as bites in Michelin-starred restaurants elsewhere. We need to focus on the cohesiveness of the restaurant as a whole — and you can’t pound that into someone, as I’ve seen some chefs try to do.

You’ve mentioned your wife, Katie, several times throughout this interview, which suggests that the two of you work extremely closely. Does working with your spouse throw an added dimension into this business?

It’s super-hard! The way she looks at things and dissects things, black and white, financially, allows us to do so much as a business. She looks at money going out, I look at money coming in, and our perception is way different. So we have to sit down and have those conversations, and they’re tough. They dominate the conversation at the dinner table. I would caution people against getting into that. If it weren’t for my wife’s patience, it wouldn’t work. But none of this stuff works without her. If you’re going out and getting investment dollars and you’re a chef or restaurateur, when you’re talking to a wealthy investor or a professional investor, all kinds of things can get lost. But Katie is a former investment banker, a CFA, a master’s in math from Harvard, a somm and a cicerone — she may be the only the person in the world who has all that. So nothing gets lost in translation.

So what comes next for Tap and for Bar Dough? Are you thinking beyond Denver?

Yes, we’re thinking beyond Denver, but we have no concrete plans yet. We have another deal in place for another Tap — we’ll be moving south over the next twelve months. And we’ve got some interesting stuff happening with Bar Dough. We’re working with a group based in New Orleans — they have concepts in Vegas and Dallas — and they’ve asked to license Bar Dough in New Orleans. The irony of all ironies, I would say, is that people would put New Orleans in the top-tier-restaurant-city category — but people from New Orleans are coming to Denver and saying they want what we have.

Okay, quick answers. Most rewarding thing about working in this industry?

People, 100 percent. I absolutely love the people I work with, and I don’t say that casually. When I lose sleep, it’s not over whether someone didn’t like our food; it’s over whether I’m letting someone down who’s working with us.
Most punishing thing?

My diet. I’m always trying new things, bites of this, bites of that. It all adds up to 5,000 or 6,000 calories per day. I wake up at 5 a.m. to drive to Broomfield four days a week to work out with this insane dude who keeps me from gaining massive amounts of weight.

Best place in town for a quick bite?

I love the Jamaican Grill on Eighth and Galapagos — I love oxtail and curry goat. Plus, my best friend and godson are Jamaican, so there’s all kinds of nostalgia that goes with that. I also fucking love Brider — it’s worth every penny. I have so much confidence in what those guys do.

What about a drink?

The Way Back. Those guys have a super sense of community. They find the time as new business owners to be supportive of everyone. It’s such a cool place.

How about a restaurant, restaurant person or restaurant group you really admire?

I admire a lot of people. Nationally, Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette — who own Toro, Copa, Little Donkey — and Jackson Cannon [bar manager at Eastern Standard, owner of the Hawthorne in Boston]. I learned tons from sitting in those restaurants. Locally, I’m around really great people, but the person who keeps me the most grounded is Dana Rodriguez [chef/owner of Work & Class]. She is the single best example of marrying the front and back of the house: She’s a back-of-the-house person who is also the most hospitable person in the city. She’s incredible.

Highland Tap & Burger, 2219 West 32nd Avenue,

Sloan’s Lake Tap & Burger,  1565 Raleigh Street, Unit 100,

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.
Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk