(From Sensi magazine, May 2019)
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
He didn’t imagine owning four eateries and food truck, but Josh Wolkon knew he wanted to open a restaurant eventually when he migrated to Colorado from Boston in 1995. “I had never worked in a kitchen so I took a lot of cooking jobs at restaurants and at a catering company. I really learned a lot about what it takes to put out consistently good food,” he said.
He also encountered the storied association between cannabis and Colorado’s commercial kitchens.
“I had smoked but I came to Boulder after managing at a very conservative Westin Hotel. Weed was still illegal. I started working at a restaurant and we all stepped outside for a cigarette break. Somebody broke out the pipe and we passed it around and even the executive chef took a hit,” he said.
In an industry with a horribly high mortality rate, Wolkon and his wife, Jenn Wolkon, now oversee a thriving, 300-person community of culinary businesses including Vesta, Steuben’s (in Denver and Arvada) and Ace Eat Serve. Steuben’s Food Truck pops up at some of the most interesting private events along the Front Range.
Of Cannabis and the Cooks
In 1997, Wolkon opened Vesta Dipping Grill (now simply called Vesta) he introduced Denver to unstuffy “casual fine dining” by dishing eclectic, hip fare highlighted by 15 to 20 highly flavored dipping sauces.
Vesta became a hot dining destination and he faced the cannabis question in business at a time when it was still illegal in Colorado.
“We have never drug-tested anyone. At our restaurants the expectation is that you are sober and functional. It doesn’t matter if it’s weed, alcohol or even prescription drugs. It’s a safety issue. You shouldn’t be working with sharp knives or around hot stoves,” he said.
That said, there is an alternate reality. “I’ve worked alongside a lot of stoners who did an excellent job. You don’t always know someone is stoned. As long as they are doing a great job,” Wolkon said.
“I do think there is a creative part of cannabis that appeals to chefs and cooks.”
In an industry notorious for turnover, Wolkon feels “lucky” that he’s only had three head chefs in more than two decades. His philosophy toward people may have more to do with the many longtime employees than luck. “I do the orientation for every new hire we do. It’s important that welcome people into the community and have everyone on the same page,” he said. Opening the new eateries created new opportunities for the many veteran cooks, waiters and managers, he said.
Wellness has been on Wolkon’s mind since the start for a simple, sad reason. “I’ve seen too many good people go down the wrong road in this industry. We need to balance the hard work and party lifestyle of restaurants,” he said. The restaurants sponsor wellness weeks, company-wide cleanses, yoga and a group run at the Bolder Boulder.
4/20 Munchies Created Steubie Snacks
In the heart of the recession in 2006 Steuben’s opened in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood in a renovated gas station. Named after a classic Boston restaurant owned by Wolkon’s great uncle, Steuben’s is a chef-driven modern diner serving scratch-made regional American favorites from Maine lobster salad rolls to chicken and waffles and green chile cheeseburgers along with chicken pot pie and deviled eggs.
The staff noticed a curious seasonal happening almost immediately. “At most restaurants Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day is the busiest day of the year. The busiest day at Steuben’s Uptown was April 20,” Wolkon said. 4/20 – and Labor day weekend when Phish plays at Dick’s Sporting Park – continue to be the restaurant’s peak days, he added.
The birth of legalized recreational pot inspired the uber-popular Steubie Snacks. “We needed a tasty snack for 4/20 you could hold in one hand. We deep-fried pork shoulder chunks until crispy, added powdered sugar and put them in a paper cone,” Wolkon said. Steubie Snacks were soon enshrined on the menu.
By April 20, 2019, special menus of $4.20 items were served at Steuben’s and the nearby Ace Eat Serve. Steuben’s munchies-busters included a maple bacon vanilla shake with bourbon blended with a whole frosted chocolate cupcake. At Ace, It’s Dope! featured savory pancakes wrapped around pork belly, cabbage, scallions, Kewpie Mayo and teriyaki sauce.
Another garage was rehabbed to create the vibrant Ace Eat Serve in 2012 showcasing Asian street comfort food from Chef Thach Tran with a side of ping pong at 10 tables. “I love restaurants but I’ve never been into owning a whole bunch of them. Our growth has been organic,” he said.
That growth hasn’t included opening in nameless beige shopping centers that look like Anytown, U.S.A. “I like going into neighborhoods undergoing revitalization. All of our restaurants are in old buildings that have character,” Josh Wolkon said.
Steuben’s Uptown had been an old gas station. The second Steuben’s was born in 2016 because the iconic 25-year-old Gunther Toody’s Diner building in Olde Town Arvada became available. “There is a story in that place. Our intention has been to open restaurants that feel like they have been around forever,” Wolkon said.
Did Cannabis Create a Shortage of Cooks?
Cannabis intersected dining in challenging ways post-legalization. “When we opened Vesta and Steuben’s we had stacks of resumes. The pool of people interested in restaurant work has shrunk with the low unemployment rate while the number of restaurants has expanded. Some workers attracted to restaurants also find work in the cannabis industry. We’ve lost a few folks to edibles companies but it’s not that big a story. Our job to attract people excited about hospitality,” he said.
“Happy” customers are not a new phenomenon nor have they been a problem. “Stoners are far easier to with deal with than drunks. Occasionally, a newcomer eats too many edibles – they just go limp – but it’s rare,” Wolkon said.
Some had predicted that THC-infused diners would drink less and hurt restaurants which traditionally make critical income from cocktails and beer. “We saw no impact at all on alcohol sales from legalization,” he said.
Colorado’s thriving food, craft beer, cannabis, music and wellness cultures have blossomed together in recent years because they all focus on creating community. They share a focus on product quality, Wolkon said. They develop loyal regulars and serving them on many levels. Budtenders, waiters and bartenders share an ability to figure out the needs of guests and satisfy them.
In fact, cannabis has opened the door to new business. “At Ace we’ve hosted a lot of local cannabis companies for gathering and annual parties. These are non-consumption events but they are a lot of fun,” Wolkon said. The companies partying at Ace have range from Lightshade Labs and Marys Medicinals to Native Roots and iVita.
Having a Smoke After Dinner?
Wolkon’s cannabis-friendly approach does not extend to smoking pot in public places.
“I don’t want anyone smoking anything or vaping on the patios,” he said. Unlike his younger customers, Wolkon remembers when cigarette smoke filled local cafes.
“At Vesta we initially allowed smoking in the bar. One night I was sitting eating dinner and I had a smoker on my right and a smoker on my left. I couldn’t eat without inhaling smoke. We killed smoking in the restaurant right after that,” he said.
When it comes to private events it’s a different story. Wolkon launched the Steuben’s Food Truck in 2009 at the dawn of Denver’s food truck boom.
The truck has been seen at many outdoor block parties, birthday parties, anniversaries and music festivals – many of them cannabis-friendly. “For us it’s easy. We’re just there serving food. We did a great wedding recently where little pinner joints were available at the bar. Grandmas were out on the floor smoking and dancing and having a good old time,” he said.
“I appreciate the fact that cannabis is finally losing its stigma. People at a party can get what they like and it’s not a big deal. They don’t have to hide it. At some point it just becomes normal,” Wolkon said.
Allman Brothers, jam band music resonate with a culinary life
Music is not a minor aspect of restaurateur Josh Wolkon’s life and he has found rock fan’s dream life. His company caters backstage food for some of Denver’s top concert venues and he gets to see lots of shows and hang out with folks like Oteil Burbridge (Allman Brothers Band, Dead & Co.) Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), Jon Fishman (Phish) and Nathaniel Raitlief. Members of the Infamous Stringdusters, the Motet and Soulive have frequented his restaurants when they are in town.
“The live music culture, the restaurant culture and now the cannabis culture all cater to open minded people who crave experiences, whether they be outdoors, at Red Rocks, or in a restaurant with vibe and soul; anything to get away from our screens,” Wolkon said.
Music even plays a role in hiring, although devotion to jam music is not a prerequisite. “It’s always been a good sign when a candidate for a job can connect over a band,” he said.
Tunes were a vital force in creating the community Wolkon now has around him:
“The Allman Brothers Band was my go-to band as I was building Vesta in 1997. I vividly remember my daily drive home to Boulder on U.S. 36, with not much development between Denver and Boulder at the time. I was jamming out to “Jessica,” “Ain’t Wasting Time No More” and “Mountain Jam,” while trying to roll with the anxiety and excitement of watching my dream come to reality. I love that I now hear “Jessica” ripping from the guitar of my 16-year-old son. I’m doing something right,” he said.
John Lehndorff is the former Dining Critic of the Rocky Mountain News. He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU. Listen to podcasts: news.kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles