Apr 4th

The fantasy and reality of starting a restaurant

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The painted watercolor is what draws you in, it’s blurry edges and warm hues allow the mind to wonder and conjure up ideas of fantasy.   But, the real picture, the one it imitates has sharply defined edges, harsh light and confusing levels of detail and clutter that you notice only when up close and personal.  The idea of starting one’s own restaurant is no different.  Everyone wants one, I’ve come to find out after meeting too many people in too many places who quip unsolicited about their dreams of owning their own restaurant .  These people who do not know at what temperature you fry food, how to properly poach a medium egg and who cannot distinguish a condensate line on a refrigerator, live in a fantasy world, a world I once lived in too.  But upon hearing these dreams of fantasy, I am torn between wanting to encourage them and punching them in the face and telling them they are an idiot.

I dream too.  It’s a necessary part of creating and launching one’s own restaurant.  The reality is punishing and scary, the dreams feed the fire that keep you moving.  So I dream, all day long sometimes about every detail imagineable.  I dream of festidiously organizing the walk-in with matching lexan containers and crisp blue tape marking the date in the upper right hand corner.  I dream of  unlocking the restaurant in the twilight before sunrise,  pouring an entire deli container of iced coffee, firing up the oven and prepping vegetables to sounds of Edgar Mayer and Bela Fleck, a luxury I enjoy when alone, while the sun is just beginning to light up the Rockies. I dream of walking around the restaurant with a dirty apron, greeting new customers and regulars and while they tell me how happy they are we moved into the neighborhood.  I dream of cranking at a steady pace with my line cooks as we find our groove to the tunes of Bob Marley while the sound of laughter and conversation creeps in just so from the dining room. I dream of crawling into bed at night, delightfully exhausted after getting crushed from an unexpected late push of customers. I dream of local farmers carrying burlap bags of produce through our doors, still warm from the sun and covered in dirt.  And I dream of the bad times, the times when I become completely unglued because one of my cooks takes a short cut and does not respect the food I’ve worked so hard to create.  But these are just dreams, not reality.  I’m living the reality right now and it is a harsh place the often requires dreaming as an escape.

The reality is that my emotions and confidence swing on a pendulum these days, alway at extremes from ” I will conquer the world” to “What have I gotten myself into?”  I have been reminded at every step during this process that nothing good easy.  I have known all along that this is a journey that will define me and not just a pit stop on the long road of life.  I was reminded when I quit a lucrative job in advertising, traveled in South America and came back homeless and jobless with a clear dream, but only a vague notion of how to make it reality. I was reminded again when I invested the last of my saving into this restaurant and resigned as Sous Chef (with full benefits) from one of Denver’s best kitchens.  And I am reminded everyday as I chip away at the details from paint to polish, the sum of which add up to this big dream of mine, that nothing good is easy.

Opening a restaurant is a marathon, followed by another marathon in which you sprint continuously.  It is about details. It is fun, it is exciting and it is at times excruciating.  I have met with architects, engineers, lawyers, paralegals, real estate brokers contractors and sub contractors too many too count.  I have spent weeks canvassing my neighborhood while knocking on doors in sub zero weather to get petitions signed for the right to use my patio, a right I thought I had when I signed the lease months before.  I have attended a half dozen neighborhood meetings, met with members of the mayors staff and neighborhood presidents for this same reason.  I have logged countless hours at Starbucks and consumed enough coffee to kill a tribe of elephants while filling out paperwork, weeding my way through Denver’s endless labyrinth of rules, guidelines and regulations.  I have tested a dozen types of wood  with twenty-something different stains for our bar tops, only to hit the reset button and start all over. I driven a hundred miles to three different locations to save a hundred dollars on a stainless steel shelf, only to figure out that I had the wrong measurements to begin with.  I have borrowed trucks from friends and driven all over hells creation to fill the bed with three compartment sinks and tables I bought for cents on the dollar, but paid dearly for after realizing I had to unload a thousand pounds of equipment on my own.  This is the reality of starting your own restaurant on your own.

Since I started this journey, I have spent many nights lying awake in bed, my brain doing backflips trying grasp all that is ahead.  But when I feel paralyzed by fear, I remind myself that I am doing all of this to conquer my greatest fear; the fear of not spending the rest of my life doing something I love. I remind myself that with each day and each detail, this fantasy is quickly becoming a reality.  And that reality is better than any dream.


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Mar 7th

Starting from Scratch

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“Nothing good is easy.”  This is a phrase I repeat to myself at least a hundred times a day lately.  It is something that grounds me and helps me to remember how far I’ve come and how far I have to go.  It is a phrase that helps me endure the constant highs and lows, which are many lately.  This journey started nearly three years ago, when I quit my job as an advertising executive in Chicago, intent on shedding my past life and embarking on a career that held meaning for me.  I am a dreamer, always have been.  And, my dream was to become a chef and open my own restaurant.  Having not worked in a professional kitchen since I was twenty years old, I knew the road ahead would not be an easy one.  But, then again, ” nothing good is easy”, right?

After a three month backpack around South America to clear my head, I came back to the states and started a six week road trip across the country intent on finding a new home to lay some roots and embark on a new adventure, a new life.  I eventually landed in Denver where I slept on a friends couch while trying to get my feet underneath me.  With a resume populated mostly with corporate advertising experience, I knew that I would have to baby step my way back into kitchen.  At my first job back in the kitchen, I found myself scooping potato salad for geriatrics and making turkey sandwiches at a deli and cheese shop. I viewed it as a necessary stepping stone, nothing more.  But it served its purpose, helping me to land a stage some months later at a neighborhood bar and eatery.  I must have made an impression, because after my fourth stage, they sent me to their parent restaurant TAG, an eclectic, fine dining restaurant in Denver’s Larimer Square.

My subsequent stages at TAG went well and a sous chef set up a meeting with myself and the chef/owner, Troy Guard.  I met with Troy days later and as he reviewed my resume, he looked perplexed.  He started our conversation with, and I quote ” I would never normally hire someone like you.”  My heart immediately sank and my brain raced as I conjured up objections and began to tell him about my passion for food and cooking. But as our conversation progressed, he went on to tell me a story of a brick mason without restaurant experience he had hired years ago who went on to open six of his own restaurants.  He understood that the most important attribute of any chef was passion.  He agreed to hire me as a prep cook.

I began work at TAG that next week as a prep cook.  I was paid minimum wage and woke up every morning at 5:00a.m. to begin work by 6:00 a.m.  I started off with very menial tasks, meticusiously cutting vegetables, peeling shrimp and cleaning everything in sight.  But, I was elated and grateful for the opportunity. Having only been in Denver for three months, I had managed to land a job in one of Denver’s best kitchens.  I had found the opportunity I was looking for, it was now up to me to prove myself. And, as a prep cook at the bottom of the food chain, I would have my work cut out for me.

I spent the next six months at TAG arriving to work early and staying late every night to prove myself to the skeptics around me and learn everything I could.  I took stock of how the restaurant was run and decided to use my strengths to fill in the gaps and improve what I could.  I created detailed systems and organization in the kitchen where it was needed and worked off the clock regularly to help cement my role as a leader. By Christmas of 2011, having spent just six months at TAG, I was promoted to Kitchen Manager.  In my Christmas card that year, Troy wrote the following” Clay, my gamble paid off!  Thank you for all that you do.”  My gamble was beginning to pay off as well.  Some months later, I was promoted to Sous Chef.

I spent the next fourteen months as Sous Chef at TAG while also helping to oversee our sister restaurant (Tag Raw Bar) just a few buildings down. I was in charge of all ordering, all food costs, all labor and responsible in more than one way for keeping the restaurant running, whether it was fixing equipment or toilets. I had come a long way in a short amount of time, from peeling carrots to running a $4 million restaurant. It was during that time that we took a family vacation to North Carolina.  While in the car with my brother on the way to the outer banks, I brought up the idea of starting a burrito shop.  It was an idea that had been bouncing around my brain for the better part of a decade.  But, I wanted to do so in a way that broke the mold.  To me, a tortilla was a blank canvas and the combination of colors and hues to which it is subject to is as endless as a painters palette.  The idea immediately resonated with my brother, an entrepreneur in his own right and fellow burrito aficionado.  Over the course of our vacation and many beers, we created the idea for Scratch Burrito and Happy Tap and committed to working towards it.

Work on Scratch Burrito and Happy Tap began in earnest in June of 2011. The journey to get here has not been an easy one.  But then again, nothing good ever is.

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