Fast-Forward: Catching up With Industry Leaders a Year Later
We follow up with a handful of leaders who came to the forefront of the restaurant industry in the thick of COVID restrictions.
A year ago, we ran a story called “The Wave Makers,” where we championed 10 industry folks who had emerged as new leaders. We chose them for their fight and for their willingness to go to the mat for their staff and their businesses. Now, two-plus years since the world changed, we checked back with several of these game changers. Here’s what they have to say about powering through.
THE HUMAN SIDE
From “The Wave Makers:” It’s a good thing Sarah Gartzman loves baking bread in the middle of the night, as that was some of the only quiet time she’s had in the past year. She and her husband, Rob, had just begun an ambitious DIY renovation of a historic building—a new home for both their restaurants—when the pandemic struck…
Flash forward to March of 2022, almost exactly two years since the pandemic drastically altered the landscape of commercial food service, our little family’s life, and our two Salida restaurants. Now, still running on very little sleep but with a new building that houses both Sweetie’s and the Biker & the Baker, business has never been better for us—and never more unpredictable.
While we face the same struggles as most other restaurant owners and chefs—inflation, food distribution shortages, workforce shortages, housing shortages, burnout, and mental health struggles, just to name a few—somehow, we still feel confident, maybe even more confident, leading a staff of 30-plus as empowered and capable humans and cooks.
The pandemic brought us many obstacles, and we have gotten through each and every one of them. Maybe not as we imagined, sometimes not super gracefully, but Rob and I are better at pivoting, adjusting, and letting go of what’s not in our control than we were before March of 2020. We are not in control has been ingrained deeply into our burnt kitchen hands and hearts and we have learned to lean into that. Our employees have witnessed our humanness and I think that gives them a sense of peace when they arrive for each shift.
We go with the flow a lot better than we used to, we make the best choices we can for everyone in the moment, and we always, always put our staff first. Not that we didn’t before this, but our appreciation and gratitude for our staff who have stayed with us the past two years has deeply impacted us. Our respect for their devotion to Sweetie’s and the Biker & the Baker is incredible.
We lead by example: We’re the first to show up and jump in and we’re the first to get everyone excited about our new ideas. Those things have made our leadership a little more lighthearted and has strengthened our team. We are so proud to be owners, chefs, leaders, entrepreneurs, and restaurateurs in this ever-changing community and world we live in.—Sarah Gartzman, co-owner and pastry chef, Sweetie’s Sandwich Shop and the Biker & the Baker, Salida
DO RIGHT, DO GOOD
From “The Wave Makers:” Alejandro Flores-Muñoz (who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was seven) is committed to sharing what he’s learned in business through activism, mentoring, and other channels…
I’m an entrepreneur. I’m also a DACA recipient, an activist, and an educator who leads workshops for undocumented people looking to start their own businesses. I am among a group of Latinx-led business owners who have found their own paths to success in Denver. I am on a mission to showcase that entrepreneurship is a viable option for folks, regardless of your immigration status. Every single person in my family and others in my community can have the right tools to get started.
Since the start of the pandemic, I have focused not only on figuring out creative ways to stay in business but also ways to support and push for policy changes that would allow undocumented folks to benefit from programs geared toward revitalizing small businesses. I stay informed by being involved with local nonprofits that support small businesses, like Small Business Majority and Good Business Colorado.
In 2021, I, along with these organizations and other community leaders, spearheaded an effort to pass bill Senate Bill 21-199 and provided the following testimony before the State Senate. [Editor’s note: SB 21-199 proposed that residents would not be required to prove they were in the U.S. legally in order to access certain state and local public benefits, such as the receipt of professional and business licenses.] The bill passed and is now law in Colorado.
Thank you, Chairwoman Gonzales, Vice-Chair Coleman, and Members of the Committee:
My name is Alejandro Flores-Muñoz and I am the owner of Combi Taco, a ghost kitchen taquería located in Denver, and I own and operate several other business ventures. Thank you for allowing me to share comments in favor of Senate Bill 21-199, which will remove barriers to access certain public opportunities for undocumented entrepreneurs like me.
Undocumented immigrants encounter an uphill battle to achieve success. Our journey starts at a disadvantage, as we often lack access to resources or lack the knowledge of existing resources. These barriers also prevent us from accessing funding that could help us expand our businesses and make a living to support our families. However, we’re also used to overcoming barriers and we can achieve success through hard work.
But as a DACA recipient and an entrepreneur of all trades, I always come across the same issue: I’m unable to get occupational licenses to legitimize my businesses. I have found ways to work within the system and worked with city officials to remove some of the bureaucratic hurdles of the process. But I worry about those who are not as familiar with bureaucracy or who can’t speak the language because they face an added layer of obstacles to advocate for themselves and their businesses.
Colorado officials cannot afford to exclude thousands of undocumented entrepreneurs from actively participating in our economy. Immigrant entrepreneurs like me create one in 10 jobs in the United States and are the lifeblood of the small business community. We want to work within the legal system, and we want to fully participate and contribute to our communities, but we need support from lawmakers if we are going to survive the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is why I strongly support SB 21-199 and urge you to consider supporting this legislation. Removing these barriers will open opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs to apply for professional and business licenses, and it will legalize our businesses so we can access critical funding to help stabilize our businesses and continue to create jobs in our state. Additionally, having a business license can help us work with dignity and stay out of the shadows.
State and local officials have the power to eliminate the costly and inefficient requirement of verifying legal status when determining eligibility for public benefits, which would ultimately help our agencies run more efficiently and pave the way to offer more resources for immigrant, undocumented Coloradans.
Getting a business license is only one of the many hurdles that undocumented entrepreneurs face when trying to build a business, and this is one action you can take today to allow us to operate more freely in our communities.
I urge you to pass this legislation to support our immigrant small business community in Colorado.
Too often my community is only making enough to survive. I want to create wealth—not only financially, but in terms of opportunities and leadership advancement—to pass down to future generations. I don’t want people to worry about how to pay for college or put food on the table. Instead, I want communities of color to achieve a level of economic independence that makes it easier for us to fight for policies that create meaningful change.
Policies will only reflect our needs when we are represented and heard. Only when people of color and immigrants have a seat at the decision-making table with other business owners will we have the power to create and enact policies that truly benefit us, now and in the future.—Alejandro Flores-Muñoz, owner, Combi Taco and Combi Cafe, Littleton
From “The Wave Makers:” Yume Tran has been called the unofficial mayor of Parker, with good reason. She’s been offering dishes from Thailand and her native Vietnam for the past 18 years and attributes her restaurant’s longevity to relationship building and great customer service, elements that have allowed her business to unexpectedly thrive…
The pandemic brought out more awareness for me in terms of taking good care of our staff. I found myself more concerned and asking about my staff’s well-being. Sometimes it feels a bit intrusive asking the staff when they look a little down, a little out of sorts. But we decided that we want to make sure everything is OK. We also found ourselves discussing things like savings and investment for their futures.
So far, we still enjoy and feel extremely grateful for more than enough staff. We’ve decided to keep our short hours (11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.) so that our staff is not working long, drawn-out hours. We want them to have time outside of work for their mental health and to spend time with their families. If anything, COVID has brought more awareness to us that life is a gift and that it can be taken away from us. So, we want our workplace to have a more positive impact on each of our staff member’s lives. We continue to pay our staff very well and feel that they are becoming part of our extended families rather than just employees. We feel more protective of them. —Yume Tran, owner, Indochine and SuChine, Parker
From “The Wave Makers:” Like many in the industry, Taj Cooke has a basic mission: to feed people. But what sets this Jamaican-born 32-year-old apart is his infectious energy and passion for community…
My little island of Jamaica has a motto: “Out of many, we are one.” This saying, I believe, can and should be apopted across the lands. The struggles we go through strengthen us. The pandemic, on the other hand, ripped us open and left us with a scar that will be long remembered. The times we did come together changed me as a person and as a chef. I realized that working as one was going to be the only way to get back what we had.
I believe 2020 showed us that our community is greater than the street we live on, the neighborhood we reside in, and the city we call home. When Denver reopened, diners who ventured out were more intentional—they were looking for an experience worth leaving their homes for. It was the perfect time to launch the Supper Club, a series of pop-up dinners to bring intimacy and intention back to dining. The format gave the chef time to connect with each guest and we were pleasantly surprised to see how much the experiences brought everyone together. Supper Club evolved into the chef residency program at Freedom Street Social, which opens this June in Arvada. We will feature a rotating lineup of chefs and cuisines from around the world, bringing beautiful and unique experiences to our growing community in a place we hope everyone will call home.
Building my foundation on this quote (“out of many, we are one”) shows us that no matter our differences, we all are human. When we realize and remember this, we can live better together. Exciting new businesses are popping up like wildflowers, which reminds me of how wildfires can devastate—but that within the ashes are minerals that will help make the soil richer.—Tajahi Cooke, chef and co-owner, the Supper Club and Freedom Street Social, Arvada
Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to email@example.com.