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The Culinary Creative Group Looks Back at 2021

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The restaurant business has always been tough. But since the pandemic, the hospitality industry has faced an onslaught of new challenges. With indoor dining shutdowns, ever-shifting rules and uncertainty, 2020 was all about survival. In 2021, new hurdles like staffing shortages and supply-chain issues have come to the forefront.

But despite all that, many restaurants have continued to not only survive, but grow and improve. Denver-based restaurant group Culinary Creative operates Ash’Kara, Bar Dough, Mister Oso, Señor Bear and Tap & Burger. In 2021, it also acquired coffee-shop brand Aviano (which has two locations), opened a fourth Tap & Burger in Westminster, and created two new concepts: Cherry Creek cocktail bar Forget Me Not and A5 Steakhouse, which opened in the former Morin space downtown. As 2022 approaches, the Culinary Creative team reflects on the challenges of the last two years and offers insight into what it’s been like to be in the hospitality business during a global pandemic.

On supply chain issues:

Blake Edmunds, culinary director for the Latin & Forget Me Not Division: The unseen struggle across every industry is the supply chain. Waiting eight months for plates to be shipped, product shortages because there’s no packaging for it. Every day of every week, there’s a difficulty getting something. A staple on the Mister Oso menu from day one was our lamb cheek barbacoa tacos, and I haven’t been able to get but one week’s worth of lamb cheeks in the last year. The butchers are short-staffed as well, making it too difficult for them to cut those specialty items.

Nicole Lebedevitch, beverage director, Forget Me Not: We opened Forget Me Not in March 2021, right as businesses were starting to open again, so we had our pick of the litter in terms of glassware, specialty liquor, etc., to start. Now, as supply has outweighed demand, we are constantly thinking of how to best change the presentation of our cocktails, etc., without disappointing guests and their expectations for those Instagram-worthy cocktails. It’s just a matter of flexible consistency, if there is such a thing.

Keegan Labrador, assistant general manager, Señor Bear: Supply-chain issues have affected nearly every industry all over the world, and the hospitality industry here in Denver was no exception. Everything from plastic to-go containers to fine crystal glassware was hard to find and inconsistent when you did find them. Purchasing alcohol was a roller-coaster ride — many brands were out of stock or allocated too small amounts when you could find them, making seasonal menu creation difficult.

Jess Rehs, bar manager, Bar Dough: Oh, boy, this stress was real. It felt like every time I had a new recipe I loved and was excited about, the product I needed was on back order, out of stock or allocated.

click to enlarge Russell Stippich, executive chef at Bar Dough. - CULINARY CREATIVE GROUP

Russell Stippich, executive chef at Bar Dough.

Culinary Creative Group

On survival mode and creativity:

Edmunds: The year 2020 into early 2021 was all about fighting for the survival of our businesses and the livelihoods of all the people that depend on them. Every day we asked our teams to come up with new ways to feed and serve our communities. After a year-plus nd hundreds of different ideas and implementing them — to varying levels of success and failure — we were back to running regular restaurant services under the new normal, and the team’s creative juices were just exhausted. We definitely had a struggle getting back into the routine of a “real restaurant.”

Russell Stippich, executive chef, Bar Dough: If there was something we like, the price could jump so high overnight, or just not be able to source it. The bigger issue is just trying to keep people healthy or keep the restaurant in the black while managing the cooks’ hours or the food cost when the product can double in price overnight. It doesn’t leave much room for creativity. Mentally, it’s taxing and it doesn’t leave much space for your brain to create new things.

On 2021 pivots:

Stippich: We built eight greenhouses on our patio. Our director of hospitality, Kevin Burke, our general manager, Joey, servers, cooks, myself — literally everyone was out there building. Execution of a five-course menu with a small staff in the cold of winter was a real challenge. Our servers were the real champions of the greenhouses in 2021. They were out there weathering all conditions to give people a break from the stress of the world. We were able to give people a beautiful space with good food, great wine and amazing service. I hope that the people who joined us were able to relax and forget some of the worries of the year, even if just for a few hours. The greenhouses not only kept the doors open, but they were so successful that we were able to hire our full staff back and run a healthy business. It was so humbling and amazing to see the community support our idea, and more so, to see our staff be so excited, motivated and hardworking.

Nicole Westerman, senior director of operations: Staffing two new restaurants (A5 Steakhouse and Tap & Burger Westminster) while trying to navigate COVID outbreaks and staff shortages were some of the biggest challenges of the year. As a restaurant group, we made some pretty large investments in the leadership team to help us navigate getting us to the next level in growth.

Emily Obermeyer, Events & Catering director: In our Events & Catering department, we’ve had to be very flexible and still plan an event like normal while taking everything day by day. I had four weddings move from 2020 to 2021 — new dates, venues, guest counts, etc. Our team was able to adjust however we needed to, to accommodate our guests and their big day. It’s definitely been stressful, but I try and put myself in the shoes of the bride and groom: They have been dreaming and planning the most special day of their lives, and now they’ve had to cut the guest list, pivot between outdoor versus indoor event spaces, deal with their guests’ comfort levels and safety during a pandemic. So I do everything I can to make their life easier.

click to enlarge Kevin Burke, Culinary Creative Group's director of hospitality. - CULINARY CREATIVE GROUP

Kevin Burke, Culinary Creative Group’s director of hospitality.

Culinary Creative Group

On staffing:

Max MacKissock, A5 executive chef and Culinary Creative Group culinary director: Staffing was particularly difficult in the summer, but we started reinvesting in employee retention and pay early in the year, and that has started to pay off.

Stippich: Staffing is always hard in our industry. The last few years have been the hardest by far. A lot of that has to do with burnout. I know a lot of talented people who have worked in this industry for a long time who took the shutdown as an opportunity to move into a new industry. Our industry has always been hard, and has definitely had cracks in the system of hours, pay, stress. … I don’t blame anyone for taking an opportunity to better themselves and take on a new career. I am lucky that our ownership used it as an opportunity to rework how we pay our employees and set up partnerships for mental health for our staff.

Edmunds: Staffing for our restaurant and group as a whole has changed so much in the last two years. We’ve adopted industry-leading wage and compensation models for all of our team members, yet it’s still a weekly struggle. Recently I lost four of the nine kitchen team members in a two-week period. Two moved across the country, one moved up to challenge himself in another of our restaurants, and one person just flat-out quit. It really forces you to be agile and look at the issue through a positive lens so that you can bounce back and find great people to fill the void.

Kevin Burke, director of hospitality: We’re more intentional about staffing right now, we take more time to interview and have more conversations before inviting someone to stage. We adjusted our compensation model in January in an effort to introduce pay equity in order to bring it more in line with our vision and values. As a result, we have had above-average retention and have been able to recruit and attract some great candidates.

click to enlarge Katie O’Shea, CFO of the Culinary Creative Group. - CULINARY CREATIVE GROUP

Katie O’Shea, CFO of the Culinary Creative Group.

Culinary Creative Group

On implementing a 20 percent service fee:

Juan Padró, CEO: We have the unfair advantage of having someone as brilliant as Katie O’Shea, our CFO. She went through hundreds of hours of simulations and models, and we decided based on concrete data that the service charge model was the way to go. Other places use some variation of it,  but we are very transparent about where that money goes, and every last dollar passes through to our team, which is unusual. Everyone makes the city minimum wage, and we disperse the service charge equitably to the team. The result has been a 30 percent increase in pay to both the front and back of house, on average. It’s a model I encourage everyone to adapt as we rethink our industry. I’d go so far as to say it’s irresponsible not to look very closely at it.

Katie O’Shea, CFO: Denver now has one of the highest minimum wages in the country, and with the impact of COVID, rent inflation, food inflation, etc., we knew we had to make some changes to close the gap of income inequality that affects our most vulnerable staff members. With the service charge model, that income is shared with the entire kitchen staff, and because of the great service, food and drink our staff provides, guests are still leaving a tip on top of that. As a result, our entire staff is earning a higher hourly wage than they were pre-pandemic.

Westerman: The reason we implemented this is it increases staff wages by 30 percent. We had long discussed this plan, even as the minimum wage went up. Denver is a really expensive city, for both front and back of house, and it was a big goal to close the gap between their pay. This makes the most sense, as every staff member from a dishwasher, to a prep cook, to a server contributes to a great guest experience. COVID seemed like a good time to implement it, as people understood what industry people were going through. Now we pay all staff the Denver minimum as their base pay, and then they are paid from the service charge on top of that. We’ve been blown away by the reception and generosity of our guests —many will choose to add a tip on top of that.

click to enlarge Emily Obermeyer, catering and events director for the Culinary Creative Group. - CULINARY CREATIVE GROUP

Emily Obermeyer, catering and events director for the Culinary Creative Group.

Culinary Creative Group

On helping others:

Stippich: Uncle restaurant, one door down — they are our friends and our neighbors. If they need to-go containers and we have them, you bet I am going to help them. They do the same for us. Sometimes you just can’t eat another pizza or bowl of ramen for dinner. It’s been awesome to be able to feed each other something different. It’s good to just know we have people outside of our group in the restaurant community that have our backs.

Lebedevitch: Success is only measured by how much we are willing to do for each other. If one of our businesses is struggling for servers, for kitchen staff, for dishwashers, for anything, we are always there to help out. The energy a new face brings to a space is often just the amount of energy needed to reinvigorate the team to push through a hard service.

Obermeyer: The beginning of 2021, I was assisting Highland Tap & Burger with to-go and patio service. We had no indoor dining until pretty much March, so it was an all-hands-on-deck situation for the upper management team. It didn’t matter what your job description was, everyone jumped in to help. I was doing everything — phones, tablets [for third party delivery app orders], expo, to-go drinks, whatever they needed me for, I did that.

Kevin Eddy, chief development officer: The owners had an opportunity to get back to touching all aspects of the business. We assisted with to-go orders, bussing tables and supporting the staff. The “all hands on deck” mentality trickled down and trickled up from the team. We wanted to make sure everyone felt that we were working as hard as the staff was.

Westerman: The culture of this company is that everyone pitches in, and no one is above any job. So yes, there were days that, in addition to my day-to-day operating responsibilities, I was also expo-ing food for seven hours or labeling ranch and blue cheese for to-go orders. As a part owner [in Tap & Burger Sloan’s Lake], I took a lot of pride in writing thank-you notes on to-go orders or taking orders over the phone. We were running bare bones at the top of 2021, and we’re lucky that, from the top of Culinary Creative Group, it’s been instilled in us to have each other’s backs. Juan was often running the host stand!

Dan Coelho, server, Señor Bear: COVID has been tearing through small businesses, and many places have been suffering staffing shortages. It’s been really cool to see people fill in the gaps wherever they can, whether it’s subbing in at another Culinary Creative Group location, or performing a job with which they aren’t completely familiar. Restaurant people are a scrappy, hardworking bunch, and we really care about our teams and our restaurant families. It’s one of the reasons why I do what I do.

Javier Delgado, host, A5: I’m thankful to be part of the Culinary Creative Group. [This year] was bumpy at times, and CCG was there for me whenever I needed to work. When Morin paused service, the company made sure I could get hours at the other restaurants. I ran food at Bar Dough, I hosted at Mister Oso. I felt very taken care of, and I feel like I’m working with family. We are always looking out for each other as a team.

Culinary Creative opened A5 Steakhouse in the former home of Morin and Wazee Supper Club on November 18. - MOLLY MARTIN

Culinary Creative opened A5 Steakhouse in the former home of Morin and Wazee Supper Club on November 18.

Molly Martin

On opening a new business during the pandemic:

O’Shea: With A5, Forget Me Not and Tap & Burger Westminster, the biggest challenges with the new restaurants during the construction phases were supply-chain issues. We definitely had some delays that were attributed to that. We were so excited to acquire such a fantastic third-wave coffee brand, Aviano. Compared to the restaurants, the challenges at Aviano were minimal — both stores are set up well to offer window/to-go service. Since it was a well-established business that was staffed and equipped before we were involved, we were lucky to be able to tweak, refine and upgrade as opposed to just scrambling to get open.

Burke: We originally thought A5 and Tap & Burger Westminster would open in the summer. But we had to contend with delays in materials, delays from a subcontractor and occasionally paperwork and inspection delays. When everyone is working with depleted resourcing, things happen a little slower. Open restaurants have a downstream economy, meaning we have ranchers, farmers, liquor distributors counting on us to open, so we can pay them and they can provide for their families. Restaurants in the process of opening have a similar downstream effect of working with electricians, painters and carpenters. Product and time delays can compound. You have to have a very zen mind about it and try to only stress about what you can control.

Eddy: Delays in opening were inevitable with the extra time and cost of shipping and equipment. We tried to capitalize as much as possible by making use of that time to invest in staff training and additional work making sure that the team was ready to open when we had delivery of the space.

click to enlarge Juan Padró, CEO of the Culinary Creative Group. - CULINARY CREATIVE GROUP

Juan Padró, CEO of the Culinary Creative Group.

Culinary Creative Group

On mental health:

Padró: We have a partnership with Khesed Wellness. In the most basic terms, we have a bank that our staff can draw down from to access mental health services, and we cover up to twelve sessions per year. Khesed is also uniquely qualified for our industry, as many counselors are former service-industry workers.

Lebedevitch: It’s an uncharted territory. We’ve always been exposed to more people than most as hospitality workers. We spend more time with each other than most of our families or roommates, and now more than ever, we need to be aware of everyone we surround ourselves with. Sometimes we have to remember, as leaders, that nothing happening inside of our businesses matters if our staff doesn’t feel well or safe. Sacrificing a couple of days of service might be the thing that saves a mentally fragile staff, as conducting a service comes from the heart, passion and desire to put on a performance. If we don’t feel together as one, it just won’t work.

Westerman: As managers, we called our staff weekly during the shutdowns, checking in. It wasn’t just about work. We wanted to see how they were keeping busy and make sure it was in a positive way, and if it wasn’t, we discussed how we could help them. We had weekly Zoom meetings to keep those lines of communication open and to provide some light at the end of the tunnel. We wanted them to know that their futures were safe within the company. We got feedback that providing this type of certainty in an uncertain world was greatly appreciated.

click to enlarge Dan Coelho is a server at Señor Bear. - CULINARY CREATIVE GROUP

Dan Coelho is a server at Señor Bear.

Culinary Creative Group

On masks and the decision to require proof of vaccination:

Westerman: The majority of people are very grateful for our decision, as it gives them an opportunity to feel a little more normal in a setting outside their home. We’ve been told it gives a lot more people a sense of security. We have experienced some negative reviews about our decision, but we feel this is a bigger statement on how seriously we take our guests’ and our staff’s safety.

Coelho: I would say that, more or less, people have been compliant with our requests to furnish proof of their vaccination. I have heard far more people express relief that we are checking vaccination status at the door than people who complain about it.

Rehs: I think it’s great that the Culinary Creative Group decided to make the decision to require proof of vaccination. In these uncertain times, and with constantly varying regulations, it at least affords us a chance at keeping our staff and guests safer.

Delgado: I feel like the community of Denver is very understanding about requiring proof of vaccination at the door. Whenever our guests arrive, we greet them warmly while also reminding them about proof of vaccination. Most guests have the cards on their phones out already, which really helps us all and makes the experience go smoothly.

On the Omicron variant:

Padrò: We are in the middle of it right now. I think once people get over the holidays and through this initial flurry of cases, we will settle back down. There is a ton of misinformation out there, and many people are operating under the guidance of the pre-vaccine COVID. Once people’s emotions subside and reason takes over, I think we are going to have an incredible year.

O’Shea: After such a rough spring, it felt so great to return to some kind of normalcy this summer and fall. Obviously, with the resurgence of cases, the 2020 PTSD starts to rise to the surface again. The difference is we now have much better tools to stay protected; we require all of our guests to be vaccinated. Our staff is required to wear masks at all times, and for anyone that hasn’t had a chance to get boosted, we are working with their managers to schedule them time to do so and have a recovery day if needed. We have winterized every outdoor space so guests can choose a more secluded or open-air environment if they so choose. We learned a lot from what works with our outdoor seating last year and have done our best to improve and fine-tune the options for this winter.

MacKissock: Omicron seems to be aggressive. The good news is that we are so much more prepared with informative data from the CDC, effective vaccines, therapeutics, at home testing and an abundance of much more rapid PCR tests. We may have to shut a space down for a few days, but I’m confident that we have measures in place to move forward in a way that protects our staff, community and the business in 2022.

click to enlarge Blake Edmunds, culinary director for the Latin & Forget Me Not Division of the Culinary Creative Group. - MATT NAGLE

Blake Edmunds, culinary director for the Latin & Forget Me Not Division of the Culinary Creative Group.

Matt Nagle

On lessons to take into 2022:

Stippich: I think the biggest lesson from 2021 that I will take into 2022 is knowing when to ask for help, and letting people help. It’s easy as an executive chef to try and fix everything. Sometimes you need the help of your other managers or your cooks to just help you get things done. So many times this year, I learned that lesson. Blake, Max, Carrie Baird [Tap & Burger culinary director], all owners and chefs have said, ‘Just call me if you need help.’ There were times I didn’t and I should have. It would have made the year easier. The other lesson is that it’s okay to not be okay. There has been this idea that chefs are tough and don’t have issues. I think that sentiment is dead. This year, myself and my staff have been able to say, ‘Hey, I just need a day to myself; my head is in a really bad spot today.’ I won’t let that change in 2022.

Edmunds: I’ve learned not to be fazed by challenges. Success is the ability to look at a challenge, analyze what the issue is, work as a team to come up with a plan of action, and then attack it head-on until you’re successful. Relying on your team and giving them the support, tools, structure and encouragement to rise to the occasion is going to be another key to our success in 2022.

Lex Behler, server/bartender, Tap & Burger: One lesson that I will be taking into 2022 is that resiliency is learned. Navigating a pandemic was hard enough, but life didn’t stop happening just because it felt like the world had stopped. There were many obstacles that required careful thought and execution, and many instances in which there was no solution. We as an industry had to learn how to continue cultivating a business that was now at 50 percent or less capacity, while also navigating mental health challenges. Through that, we learned to try and try and try again, even in the face of adversity. If you’re still here, you’ve learned resiliency — and you will always be able to draw on that, no matter what issues may arise.

Reggie Dotson, chef de cuisine, Ash’Kara:
 I think one of the biggest lessons/skills I’ve obtained through this time is how to ask for and give help. Every day has a new set of challenges, but the Culinary Creative Group is full of great leaders from Juan, Katie, chef Max and chef Blake and chef Russell. We’ve stepped up and communicated how to best have each other’s backs more than ever. This Christmas Eve, I had the day off. Chef Russel of Bar Dough texted and said he needed an extra set of hands, and I jumped in to help. I grew my career as a sous chef there, so it was very cool to be back with them for the night.

Lebedevitch: I remember the feeling of late March 2020, when every guest walking in the door said ‘thank you for being here and staying open’ so that they could feel those few moments of normalcy. I hope more than anything that we can go into 2022 remembering that feeling of truly caring for one another and understanding what it really is to keep each other safe.

Edmunds: For 2022, I just hold on to the fact that at Culinary Creative Group, our company is its people. From Juan, Katie, Max, Kevin, Carrie and myself to our hosts, dishwashers, chefs, general managers, we have not only survived, but thrived because of the diverse depth of talent that showed up, accepted the challenge of the last two years, and kicked ass. Our businesses are built on hospitality, community, progress and the responsibility we have to take care of each other. If we remember that, we know we’ll be okay in 2022.