The Great Big Why: Juan Padro

Making space at the table for more ideas.

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Ivelin Radkov © 123RF.com

Juan Padro, group partner at Culinary Creative and owner of several award-winning restaurants, talks about what keeps him inspired and evolving.

I’ve always been a people person. It’s something friends, family, and strangers alike have been telling me since I was a child. I definitely acquired that characteristic from my father, who was a fun-loving, jovial character from Puerto Rico with a big accent and a bigger heart. Everyone who came within five feet of my dad was sure to get engulfed in one of his famous big bear hugs, whether he knew you or not. He loved first and asked questions later! It’s this passion for people that led me to the restaurant industry. 

I left corporate America and moved my way across country to open Highland Tap & Burger in 2010 with my then-wife and current business partner and confidant, Katie O’Shea. We started a new life and built everything we have from the ground up with hard work, lots of love, and a set of values we still adhere to today. And when you walked into Highland Tap 10 years ago? You guessed it: You were greeted with a big hug and a smile. The business was a mirror of my upbringing in a business setting. [There were] lots of people, everyone welcome; sometimes more people and other times less, but everyone always important and encouraged to be themselves.

When I was asked to write this op-ed, I thought to myself, “This will be easy; it’ll just roll off my tongue on to my keyboard,” and I’d submit it. But truthfully, it’s been a very difficult exercise. The issue is called, “Rethinking our Why” and the editor, Amanda Faison, challenged me to answer the question, “Why as restaurateurs do we still get up in the morning to do this in our current climate?” And while the answer is people (and always will be people for me), the context today is very different from 2010 when I opened Highland Tap and owned a single store.

Today we own nine restaurants in two cities in a world that has ground to a halt from a global pandemic followed by a modern-day civil rights movement. All of it has challenged us to be accountable as business owners—and as human beings—to be leaders, to be inclusive, to create opportunity and growth for people of color as well as our brothers and sisters in LGBTQ community, and to put humanity in front of profit. It’s forced me as a business owner (and more importantly, as a man) to reflect on the world around me as well as be introspective and dig deep to answer the not-so-simple question of, “How do we move forward?”

Over the past few weeks I’ve asked many people what they thought about this topic. Almost all of them said I should go back and watch Simon Sinek’s Tedx Talk about the “why” in business. I did just that several times. And while [it’s] amazing, it just didn’t seem like the direction I wanted to go during this moment in time. Then I remembered what one of my mentors, the world-renowned humanitarian Dr. Alison Thompson (who I worked with to bring aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria) once said: “It’s leadership to be at the wrong place at the right time.” And certainly for all of us in the restaurant industry, 2020 has been the wrong place. But it is without question the right time to move forward and lead our companies into the future even though the times we live in seem so uncertain. 

As leaders in the restaurant community, we must go beyond the traditional role of a restaurant—we must get involved with our communities in a way that alters the decades to come. We cannot prosper until our community, and therefore our people and those we serve, prosper. We must build a legacy of good corporate citizenship, which means we cannot just measure our success by profitability. We must measure it by what we’ve helped create around us. And we must protect those who are our most vulnerable at all costs. 

You see, Denver is full of restaurateurs who have dedicated their lives to building an incredible, vibrant scene in our city. We have been generous, donating millions to our communities; our schools; and local, national, and international nonprofits. My businesses alone have done work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, bringing life-saving supplies, water, and light to a ravaged island left to fend for itself. We’ve partnered with waterislife.com to raise money and install solar- and wind-powered water filtration systems in 58 countries, with the goal of eliminating the world water crisis over the next decade. We’ve worked with Access Opportunity to raise millions of dollars to provide education and mentoring to high-performing, underprivileged students around Denver. But it’s not enough.

I have spent countless sleepless nights feeling helpless and wondering what my next move was. How can I lead? How can I set the standard for what our industry looks like moving forward? And then it occurred to me that I was focused on “me.”

As leaders in our community, we must do more. As a leader, I must do more. It’s why I have spent countless sleepless nights during this pandemic and the BLM civil rights movement feeling helpless and wondering what my next move was. How can I lead? How can I set the standard for what our industry looks like moving forward? And then it occurred to me that I was focused on “me.”

As business leaders, we all share a characteristic: authoritarianism. But what our people are asking of us, what communities of color and brothers and sisters from LGBTQ communities are asking of us, is to start showing vulnerability and be better about inclusiveness. We need to start listening and put more seats around the table. Because you know what? When that happens, the conversation changes. And when the conversation changes, so do the solutions. When we collaborate, truly become inclusive, and truly create opportunities for all people, we move forward. We are reinvigorated and our businesses thrive in the future we helped create.

How did I learn this? As the protests in downtown Denver overwhelmed the city, the news, and social media channels, I decided I needed to form a leadership group within my organization. I needed to challenge this group to come up with solutions to make us a better place to work. The council isn’t made up of managers; its focus is on diversity and developing young leaders. It has white, Black, Latino, and queer people.

And you know what? It’s been one of the best business decisions I’ve made. In a few short weeks we’ve partnered with a teen-run nonprofit, launched a partnership with Khesed Wellness to provide mental health services to the underinsured within our organization, and added an inclusivity statement to our mission. We are outlining what our future looks like as a company that truly encourages diverse ideas and collaboration. All of this in six short weeks! And all of this because of a commitment (or re-commitment) to doing what all businesses should do: leverage our greatest asset, our people.

As I write this, I think of my father who was a political activist in the Puerto Rican community. If his work were to be distilled down to one thought, it would be to fight for the creation of opportunities for the disadvantaged and the underprivileged. One of his weaknesses—and consequently one of mine—is that we’ve always had our ideas about how that should look. My ideas are full of good intentions. But here I am with the incredible social platform that is my restaurants going against everything I learned in management. I’m grateful for my team stepping up, delivering on and implementing new ideas during these challenging times. Without them and without the conversation [including their] different viewpoints, we wouldn’t be headed in the direction we are going in.

So back to that original question: “Why as restaurateurs do we get up in the morning and continue to do what we do in this climate?” The answer is still people, but it’s a lot more inclusive now than it was before. Through this pandemic and civil rights movement I have become a better man and a better leader. So if your name is Troy or Justin or Loca or Jen or Fetien or Siri or Penelope or Dave or Alex or Will or Sean or Patrick or Kendra or Adam or Katie, if you’re EatDenver or the CRA…I say join me. Let’s celebrate a new way forward that honors all people in the interest of a better, more sustainable future, one full of opportunity for everyone involved. And to Denver and to my team at Culinary Creative and Tap & Burger, there is an open seat at my table for your ideas and thoughts.

One final quote from Richard Stack (the founder of Dick’s Sporting Goods), which I think resonates with me the most: ”If I had what I owe, I’d be a wealthy man.” I am a servant to my community and to those who work for me. My hope is that for decades to come, leaders of all colors, sexual orientations, and genders emerge from my organization and impact Denver to move us forward as a shining example for America and for the world. 

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

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