Culture Club: Secret Sauce

BY Amy Antonation


Culture Club: Secret Sauce

When Josh Wolkon opened Vesta in 1997, Denver was a different beast. John Elway was still sporting number seven, Stapleton was the only way to fly in and out of town, and Denver Public Library was offering “internet lessons.” 

“I was coming from Boston, which was a bit edgier from a restaurant perspective than Denver,” he says. “It wasn’t conscious, but I still think we take that attitude [when it comes to hiring]. It was progressive to have employees who had tattoos.” 

Twenty-four years later, Vesta is closed—a COVID casualty—but Wolkon’s Secret Sauce restaurant group still operates the wildly popular Steuben’s and Ace Eat Serve. When asked about his restaurants’ culture, he has a ready answer: “We’ve always been about fun and family and community and philanthropy and that unique independent operator feel. Hands-on ownership and diversity. Wellness has without question over the past decade become a large part of our culture.” He can reel off a list of benefits and initiatives illustrating that: an annual employee cleanse, smoking cessation programs, health insurance, an employee assistance plan, a book club, volunteer opportunities, holiday toy drives, regular manager outings and seminars.

How does Wolkon ensure that cultural fit when bringing on new employees? “It’s a big cliché,” he says, “but it’s the Danny Meyer 51 percent.” Meyer is probably best known to Denver diners as the founder of Shake Shack and owner of a gaggle of NYC restaurants, including the high-end Gramercy Tavern. In his much-referenced book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, Meyer advocates hiring employees with a balance of 51 percent emotional skills (optimistic warmth, curiosity, work ethic, empathy, self-awareness, and integrity) and 49 percent technical skills (the difference between macarons and macaroons).

“[Stages] are tricky now. If you offer [applicants] a stage they could be hired in the meantime in this climate….But it’s so valuable to get the feedback from the rest of the staff.”

Josh Wolkon, Secret Sauce restaurant group

“We’ll hire people with no experience if they come in at 70 percent good energy and cultural fit,” Wolkon says. “They look out for others, they care for others. Engagement is a big one—it drives me crazy when people apply and say they haven’t even been here.” After applicants interview with at least two managers, the next step is a paid stage (think of it as a partial- or single-shift audition). “That’s tricky now,” he admits. “If you offer them a stage they could be hired in the meantime in this climate. And if it doesn’t work out, you’ve wasted money. But it’s so valuable to get the feedback from the rest of the staff. Without question it’s the best way to find out are they hands-on? Do they ask questions? Are they standing there holding up the wall?”

“What’s great about that is when they do a good job, they’ve already done their tryout,” he continues. “They’re welcomed by the staff.” 

Back to diversity (one of Secret Sauce’s cultural values): How does Wolkon ensure he doesn’t end up with a restaurant staffed entirely by white dudes named Chad? “I’ve always been fairly good at being colorblind.” He pauses and then acknowledges: “This may be bullshit. But if you focus on the quality of people and you create an environment where people feel comfortable…I think that’s a good thing.” He notes that like attracts like. “I find that a lot of applicants want to work for a company that has a larger purpose. There’s a greater understanding in terms of what is possible in job culture.”

Wolkon continues, “It’s crazy the amount of yoga teachers that have come through Ace. On the wellness side, I hope we’ll continue to attract more people who identify with a healthy lifestyle.”

In some ways, Wolkon thinks his restaurants’ culture is stronger than ever before. “Relative to other restaurant groups we’ve always been small, and now we’re even smaller. I am very aware of how appreciative staff has been if they come from places that are in major growth mode. They’re not always feeling like they’re stretched. A lot of the staff we have attracted have come from places growth mode and they’re they’re over it.” 

“Culture requires people who have been around for a while to pass stuff down to new people. Because 80 percent of our staff is new, we have to reestablish traditions and culture from the other 20 percent. After we get a year under our belt with this staff, we’ll absolutely be on a good path of passing things down.”

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Amy Antonation

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