The Great Big Why: Josh Niernberg

I rise each day and do the work.

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Josh Niernberg, chef-owner of Bin 707 Foodbar, Tacoparty, and Bin Burger in Grand Junction, laments the dizzying pace of change. All the same, he draws inspiration from the constant struggle.

Why are we here? That is the question we’ve been asking ourselves, each other, and our loved ones weekly (if not daily) since mid-March. As COVID-19 drags on and fall and winter approach, the answer becomes more and more difficult.

The main issue we all face isn’t the restrictions, the reduced business, the risk of getting sick, the threat of going out of business, or even the treatment we all are subjected to by following and enforcing guidelines. No, it’s the effort required to adapt and change for the next set of challenges. That is crippling. I’m dizzy from pivoting. No other industry has been subjected to this new reality of what is required to simply do business. Nor could any other industry or group could even begin to understand what we have all been subjected to and are navigating daily.

As of today (the end of August), I am operating Bin 707 Foodbar, Bin Burger, and Tacoparty. For Bin 707, we’re doing expanded outdoor seating serving dinner five nights a week, down from lunch and dinner seven days a week. Tacoparty has increased from lunch and dinner five days a week to seven. When dining rooms were allowed to reopen, we launched our newest concept, Bin Burger, in the space that previously housed Dinnerparty. Bin Burger also serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. 

It’s an arduous schedule, but I’ve kept our staff and avoided layoffs. Despite our combined total revenue dropping by about 30 percent, we went from 24 shifts per week to 33. We have been able to keep 95 percent of our staff employed and continue to buy from all of our producers. That alone was our mission when we started 10-plus years ago and even now we are still able to do it. In this respect, we are doing OK, but we won’t make it past January with this model. Something has to change…again.

Our local university just opened a destination restaurant aimed squarely at “being better than Bin.” The interstate that provides several of our deliveries has often been closed by wildfires. The fire 20 miles to the north is dumping ash on our outdoor patio and enshrouding us in smoke. Even our local health department is contributing to the struggles by penalizing businesses for marketing outside of our local community. But this set of challenges I face is unique to me. Every single operator has an impossible list just like this. For some of us, sales are up, while others have already closed their businesses. The constant that remains is that this is our industry. We understand it. We speak its language. We love it even when we hate it. And this grueling chapter brings us to how we can be better.

While “my food” and my ability to add to the national culinary dialogue may be gone for some time, it’s for the best. Instead, I rise each day and do the work….This is energy well spent—and it has awakened another form of creativity in me.

I had a conversation recently with Mike Winston, the Bin chef de cuisine. I explained to him that one of the most rewarding parts of my job has been creating and plating new dishes. Using food to tell a story and using that story to develop a language we speak within the restaurant means everything to me. Through our ingredients, aesthetic, prices, inspiration, and even emulation, we’ve been contributing to a national dialogue: Food should function as an extension of where we are, who our customer is, and which ingredients we are surrounded by and choose to work with.

COVID-19 has shifted that part of the conversation for me. In its place, I’ve engineered new ways to interact with guests and new ways to provide service and ambience both within our restaurants and with our products inside of someone’s home. Creating experiences that bring guests happiness while simultaneously providing safe, well-paying jobs for my crew has become my sole motivation.

While “my food” and my ability to add to the national culinary dialogue may be gone for some time, it’s for the best. Instead, I rise each day and do the work. I share the love and support for our crew and our guests; I provide safe, reliable, and responsibly run spaces for the benefit of my community. This is energy well spent—and it has awakened another form of creativity in me. Now, hopefully, that fire and hope will continue to serve as motivation to keep pushing until we stabilize and rebuild our industry into a stronger and better version of itself.

What is your “why”? Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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