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Sensi Magazine

A Taste for Truckin'

Jul 25, 2019 10:41PM
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 start-ed working at a restaurant, and we all stepped outside for a cigarette break. Somebody broke out the pipe, and we passed it around 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 COOKS

In 1997, Wolkon opened Vesta Dipping Grill (now simply called Vesta). He introduced the region 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,” he said. “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.”

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 we 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.

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.

WOULD YOU DO IT FOR A STEUBIE SNACK?

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 Goods 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. Ace 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 from Anytown, USA. “I like going into neighborhoods undergoing revitalization. All of our restaurants are in old buildings that have character,” 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.

CANNABIS CAUSING COOKING CUTS?

Cannabis intersected dining in challenging ways post-legalization. “When we opened Vesta and Steuben’s we had stacks of résumés. 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 is 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 by 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.