The Good Food 100 2017

Regional Spotlight: Rocky Mountains

The Cost of Real Food

By Amanda Faison

When it comes to food issues, there are two common themes arcing through the Good Food 100’s Rocky Mountain participants. The region, which according to the Bureau of Economics, consists of Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, makes up 36 percent of the Good Food 100 participants. Of those 45 businesses, we only spoke to a handful but the message was largely the same: value perception and labor are two significant hurdles.

“Americans are addicted to cheap everything,” says Jennifer Jasinski, chef-owner of Rioja (six links), Bistro Vendôme (six links), Euclid Hall (six links), Stoic & Genuine (six links), and Ultreia (six links) in Denver. “I just think the overall philosophy of Big Ag is that they’re growing food to be sold, rather than food to be consumed and enjoyed.” That dichotomy creates a real disconnect for diners who think they want good food but aren’t willing to pay for it. One dish that embodies this dilemma is Rioja’s $27 Petaluma chicken. “We buy really great quality food, and you have to pass that price along,” Jasinski says.

The perception is similar across the state. “We fight menu pricing daily,” says Josh Niernberg, chef-owner of Bin 707 Foodbar (four links) and Taco Party (five links) in Grand Junction. Over in Crested Butte, caterer and personal chef Dana Zobs of Crested Butte’s Personal Chefs (six links) is rankled by the division. “People will spend $8 to $14 on a drink in a restaurant but when it gets to the salad course they are horrified that everything isn’t $5 bucks,” she says. “I know I could order off the [Sysco] truck and my margins what would be so much higher but that’s not what I do. And it tastes so much better.”

Of course, labor is another hot-button (and expensive) issue for restaurants. “I used to interview 10 people for a single position,” say Hosea Rosenberg, chef-owner of Blackbelly (six links) and Santo (links) in Boulder. “Now I don’t even get response. We have to hire people that 10 years ago we never would have.” In Grand Junction, Niernberg says the city’s labor challenge is extra tricky because of the lack of established food culture. “In the Grand Valley we start from scratch. Any previous experience is in fast food,” he says. “People are not in the food service industry here because it’s so small.” Many of Niernberg’s 70 employees are college students who stick around until they graduate and leave for the Front Range or elsewhere. Many of them, he says, remain in the industry—just not in Grand Junction.

Labor is not so much a regional crisis as it is a national one. So much so that it came up again and again at the Food & Wine Classic at Aspen. At the Meet the Masters AMEX Trade panel, moderator Carla Hall asked Ashley Christensen, Will Guidara, Steve Palmer, and Ellen Yin about how find staffing has changed over the years. Yin, who owns Fork and several other restaurants in Philadelphia, responded, “I’ve never seen it like this before. We have tried so many ways to bring in new and different pools of people.” Steve Palmer of Indigo Road Hospitality and Consultation with restaurants in six states across the southeast says the company puts a lot of emphasis on retention “We can’t just pay everyone more so we’re figuring out how to get people to come and stay. We’re paying for culinary school and loans for houses.” The company also recently hired an executive chef whose sole job is to travel around and cook at whichever restaurant is short-staffed.

Back in the Rocky Mountains, Rosenberg sums up the labor market perfectly: “This is a great time to be a young and up-and-coming cook because you’re needed,” but he says, “the fact remains—we don’t promote people without them earning it. It all comes down to that plate of food.”

Photo: The Buckner Family of Buckner Family Farm, 2018 Good Food 100 Restaurants Colorado Producer of the Year.
Photo Credit: Brenna Zumbro