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October 15, 2022

It’s 2022: The pandemic is over (according to some, at least), the national discourse has shifted to inflation, dining rooms are as crowded as ever, and openings have skyrocketed. Everything is back to normal, right?

Anyone who pays the slightest attention to the hospitality industry knows that it still does not operate on pre-pandemic paradigms; Dining requires deeper pockets and more flexibility than it did just a few years ago, and running a restaurant comes with great challenges. But we are also at the point where restaurants can simply be restaurants again, not political proxies or activists.

We asked four restaurant and bar owners in metro Denver — Bo Porytko, chef-owner of Misfit Snackbar and the upcoming Molotov Kitschen; Kiendl Smith, operating partner of Dew Drop Inn; chef-owner Penelope Wong of Yuan Wonton food truck; and Paul C. Reilly, chief owner of Coperta and Apple Blossom – for their thoughts on some of the hot topics in the industry, as well as what they’re loving right now.

Chef Bo Porytko was last seen working at the Bindery with Chef/Owner Linda Hampsten Fox, but you can soon find him at the Misfit Snack Bar in the Middleman.

Westword: Is tip dead?

Bo Porytko: It’s interesting; this is something we are struggling with right now. I think people will always be stuck in that model, especially in bars—dive bars are never going to add a crazy charge. In some places it is alive and well, and it should be. I love that fast food workers get tips! I don’t know if it’s dead or not, but I’d like the structure to change more.

Kiendl Smith: Maybe not in drinking establishments. … I don’t think it’s dead. I have worked for places that do not allow tipping; I wouldn’t do that to my coworkers personally. What’s the incentive to work your tail off if you get paid whether you have a smile on your face or not? I think [employees] should be rewarded.

Penelope Wong: Tipping is dying, sure, unfortunately. Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the last few left with that old school mentality when it comes to typing. … I tip a minimum of 25 percent, and I always include a tip in addition to the automatic gratuity that restaurants have implemented, just because I know how important those extra funds are to the employees. I know how important they are to our little team.

Paul C. Reilly: It’s an endangered species. My restaurants have a service charge; this is something several restaurants have made a conscious decision about. It would be great if we all went non-tipping, but I’m not sure that will happen.

What permanent changes in the bar and restaurant industry do you see coming out of the pandemic?

Wong: I think that there is definitely a more positive change in the industry, that there is a shift in industrial workers to prioritize work/life balance. We’re seeing so many different pandemic-born concepts that are successfully making the transition from side-hustle to brick-and-mortar [stores] and setting up hours that are more suited to finding that balance. It’s nice for employers to look into it too, and create weekly schedules to allow their employees shorter work weeks and/or consecutive days off.

I also think that the industry has gained a greater sense of respect from the community since emerging from the pandemic. The industry has been vocal and loud over the past two years about the hardships and real struggles to survive. … The community – or a large percentage of it – rallied around the challenges of the industry and all the changes we had to implement in order to survive.

Smith: To be honest, I think the biggest change in our industry will be the implementation of a service charge instead of a tip (we have a service charge that is solely for the house). We have not implemented it ourselves, but we see it everywhere. I understood it; it is therefore the back of the house also makes a decent wage.

Reilly: Random [temporary] restaurant closings, whether that’s related to continued outbreaks, staffing issues, or staffing issues due to continued outbreaks. Things like, “We’re closed today, but we’ll be back up tomorrow!” And I hate this so much, but probably QR code menus. I absolutely despise them. I am a real concrete person, and there is something about sitting down and holding a menu that I love.

Porytko: We still can’t get staff, [so] everyone is doing what I’m doing: getting smaller. Everyone is looking for 1,200 or under 1,000 square meters of space and loads more. It will probably take about five years to get more good cooks. I’m glad the pay scale is better [for cooks]; I think it’s fucking awesome. That’s the best thing that came out of the COVID.

Chef Paul C. Reilly, owner of Coperta and Apple Blossom.

Steamboat Food & Wine Festival

What are the biggest challenges you are currently facing?

Reilly: Where do I start? Number one is staff. We get applicants, but I often don’t get people to show up for interviews. … If you don’t go for your interview, it’s no big deal – just let us know! The experience that the candidates we get is not like it was pre-pandemic. Instead of teaching them how to cook at Apple Blossom or Coperta, I often teach them how to cook. That’s not just line cooks, that’s sous chef and prep cook candidates too. … It’s really hard to convince people to be managers, I think, because of so many tipping or even non-tipping models. Many people who are candidates for management say, “Why should I make less money and work more hours?”

Smith: Without a doubt, the staff is number one, both front and back of house. Back to the pandemic issue, I think that instead of the employer having the upper hand with hiring, it is now the employee who has the upper hand. They can walk in and say, “That’s not exactly where I want to work.” It keeps your staff happy and ensures they are paid a fair wage. They can walk at any time.

Porytko: Trying to find good people. It’s always staff. … What’s nice is that there are tons of places open and it’s a less saturated market – but even in a less saturated market, you still can’t find help. I was lucky with my staff, but it took forever. And all the food costs! That sucks. Everything is depressing when you go to the grocery store, and it’s hard because it doesn’t translate to how we’ve changed our prices. We have to gradually raise and raise our prices. Brisket used to be $3.50 per pound; is now $8. That is more than double. Our razor-thin edges are even razor-thin.

Reilly: Costs are up, and they’re going up. [Think of] a fuel surcharge that [seller] puts in place; now that gas prices are coming down and I’m asking if they’re going to withdraw the surcharge, I’m not really getting an answer. The cost of goods is increasing. Beef and dairy don’t seem to have a ceiling. We use a nice frying fat; You thought that a fried item is a cheaper item, but now the frying fat is as much as the cost of the ingredient. I literally have no choice; the cost must be passed on to the guest.

Wong: Costs increased. We all feel the effects of inflation, but as a food service operator the impact has been quite severe. There was an average increase of 30 to 35 percent on most items, but we also saw increases that exceeded 50 to 60 percent on some items, and many of them happened overnight. … Can you imagine if you go to your favorite restaurant and overnight their menu prices have increased by 50 percent? But it is highly likely that at least half of the list of ingredients of a certain menu item has increased in cost by at least 40 percent.

Paul C. Reilly is a fan of the Greenwich.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve eaten all year? Wong: A knuckle in a traditional Indian curry. I’m not sure how I felt about that, but it made me think of this scenario: A young, anxious chef was given the opportunity to create a special and decided to throw a grilled chicken into a makeshift tikka masala that also is burdened with much. lots of cumin and turmeric and tomato paste instead of chili powder, threw it all in with a little overcooked penne, presented it and said, “It’s an Indian pasta!”

Porytko: I had a really good meal at Noisette; it was crépinettes (pork sausage) with oysters. [It is still available on the dinner menu.]