Wide Right featured image

Wide Right

BY Mark Antonation


Wide Right

Three industry vets look back on how misses and near failures shaped their current success.

Nobody remembers the NFL placekicker with the most extra points (it’s George Blanda, by the way), but miss the game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl like Buffalo Bills player Scott Norwood did in 1991, and you’ll forever wear the nickname “Wide Right.” You’ll also soon be out of a job. The restaurant industry can be equally unforgiving. Diners and critics are drawn more to new and sexy than steadfast and dependable, and a big mistake or career miscalculation could echo for years. So how do chefs and restaurateurs recover from bad decisions or failures? It helps if those missteps happen early in a career, providing the opportunity to learn and improve. Maturity, after all, means recognizing that all those extra points win games too, and that the misses can build character and lead to eventual success.

Barolo Grill and its owner, Ryan Fletter, are synonymous with fine dining in Denver. The posh Cherry Creek North eatery turns 30 this year, and Fletter has been part of its history for nearly that long. Along the way, and especially since taking over as owner from founder Blair Taylor in 2015, Fletter has moved forward with such poise and confidence that Barolo Grill posted its best revenue year ever in 2021, even in the midst of a global pandemic. But Fletter wasn’t always convinced that the Italian restaurant was the right place for him to plant his flag. A brief departure two decades ago proved such a trainwreck that it reshaped Fletter’s goals about his future and led to his role as the sole owner of Barolo Grill.

In the early 1990s, Fletter entered the fine-dining scene as a server at several prestigious restaurants (including the European Cafe and Zenith) before signing on at Barolo Grill in 1994. His interest in wine grew under Taylor, and by 1999 he felt ready for a management or beverage director role. But those positions were filled at Barolo and didn’t look to be opening soon, so Fletter left for what looked to be greener pastures: a brand-new concept in Governor’s Park called Sacre Bleu. Owner Julie Payne recruited Fletter to run the front of the house, and he left Barolo Grill in the second half of 1999 with Taylor’s blessing and opened Sacre Bleu in early 2000. He had visions of soon becoming a partner in the restaurant.

“For a young, energetic person looking for a ‘school of hard knocks’ situation, it was not a mistake at all to be part of this.”

Ryan Fletter, owner, Barolo Grill

But things didn’t go to plan. “For a young, energetic person looking for a ‘school of hard knocks’ situation, it was not a mistake at all to be part of this,” Fletter recalls. “But it soon became chaotic and potentially cataclysmic. The owners were non-participating and constantly disappearing.” Sacre Bleu, it should be noted, was more Vegas than Denver, and it drew a fast crowd.

Fletter says he ended up hiring the opening chef Don Gragg (who is now chef and co-owner of the Rotary in the Hilltop neighborhood) and overseeing much of the build-out of the space himself. And three months after Sacre Bleu opened, he made the painful decision to leave. The constant partying at all hours was a distraction to the few employees taking their jobs seriously (Fletter includes himself and Gragg in the non-partying group), and he realized the future looked dim. “When you’re working with people who are sort of on a death march, I didn’t want to deal with that, so I left,” he explains.

After Sacre Bleu (which predictably flamed out a couple of years later, a victim of its own excesses), Fletter teamed up with a new business partner to open a wine shop, but that didn’t last long either. “That was the second time I realized that partnerships can be difficult,” he notes. Fletter says the lesson he learned from both experiences was, “Be careful who you saddle up with. Is their temperament the same or similar to yours? It’s no different than a marriage in that way.”

During this time, Fletter never lost touch with Barolo Grill or Taylor, and he eventually returned as general manager. When Taylor decided to sell the restaurant, he approached Fletter with an offer. Fletter’s primary request was, “No partners. It would be 100 percent mine.”

Fletter now refers to his restaurant as a “red oak that continues to grow,” pointing out that 2020 was the only year it has ever failed to outperform the previous year. “It’s still a daily grind,” he says. “Things break, especially in the restaurant business. But I’m grateful to our guests; we were robustly supported over the past two years.” Fletter hasn’t been muscling through the pandemic alone; he’s had the support of his family and his restaurant team in addition to the loyalty of his customers. But as a solo restaurateur he can make decisions quickly and decisively, which has gotten Barolo Grill through the toughest years of its three-decade history.

Kevin Morrison, owner of Tacos Tequila Whiskey and Fish N Beer, worked at Barolo Grill in the 1990s too. Back then, he was a sous chef with visions of one day opening his own restaurant. White tablecloths and vintage wines weren’t part of his dream, though; he wanted a simple sandwich shop that would embrace the culinary excellence of fine dining. In 1999, Morrison and Barolo Grill head chef Tony Walker struck out on their own and opened the Spicy Pickle, which almost instantly earned a reputation as one of the best sandwich shops in the city.

Morrison and Walker took over a vacant space at 10th and Lincoln in Capitol Hill; Morrison recalls they chose the spot because the rent was cheap enough that he could still afford it on a line cook’s wages if the Pickle tanked. He also remembers having a hard time explaining the idea of an artisan sandwich shop to the landlord, who asked, “You mean like a Subway?” To which Morrison could only reply: “Yeah, exactly like that.”

But to a sandwich-starved Denver, the Spicy Pickle—which used bread baked daily by Il Fornaio, quality Boar’s Head meats, and housemade spreads and sauces—held far more appeal than bland, corporate subs. Soon there was a line out the door during weekday lunches, and even on Saturdays, when the rest of Capitol Hill was far quieter during the day. The shop’s popularity continued to grow, so Morrison and Walker opened a second location at 8th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, and then a third in Lakewood. 

But perhaps things were going a little too smoothly. “We got spoiled, bored, and lazy because we were vacationing so much,” Morrison reflects. “I was on vacation two months out of the year back then. The economy was booming and things were dialed in.” After the first three years in business, the Spicy Pickle was attracting national attention, and Morrison began receiving offers to buy the small Denver chain. He didn’t want to sell, but franchising sounded like the right way to go financially. In 2003, with the help of veteran chain operator Marc Geman, the Spicy Pickle opened its first franchise location. Growth was slow at first, primarily because the chefs behind the name didn’t understand how entrepreneurs with no culinary experience would run their franchised shops. “You take two guys who are chefs and you start interviewing potential franchisees—we said no to just about everybody,” Morrison explains.

“I was terminated a couple of days before Christmas 2008. We had already gone public, and that’s a whole other experience I wouldn’t care to go through again.”

Kevin Morrison, owner, Tacos Tequila Whiskey and Fish N Beer

But the gates had opened and with Geman as CEO, the Spicy Pickle had grown to nearly 40 locations nationwide by 2007 and its stock was being publicly traded. But the sandwiches were suffering: the bread had become lackluster; the ingredients fell far below Morrison’s original standards; the size of each sandwich shrank. The restaurants themselves, tucked into suburban strip malls instead of edgy downtown neighborhoods, could have passed for any fast-food chain—even a Subway. Morrison’s discontent must have been palpable to Geman and the board of directors, because he was asked to leave the company he helped found. “I was terminated a couple of days before Christmas 2008,” he points out. “We had already gone public, and that’s a whole other experience I wouldn’t care to go through again.”

Morrison at least walked away with millions—millions of shares of penny stocks. Over the next few months, his only goal was to sell enough shares to cover a year’s worth of living expenses and the cost of a food truck or trailer. That, he thought, was the way back to the simplicity of cooking good food for a small but dedicated customer base. When Morrison had enough money, he bought a used pickup truck and drove it to Lucedale, Mississippi, to buy a fully equipped food trailer. 

If you lived in Denver in 2009, you’ll remember the buzz when Morrison opened that trailer as Pinche Tacos, serving Mexican street food (the queso a la plancha tacos were positively drool-inducing) at farmers’ markets and various locations downtown. The name itself caused an uproar (“pinche” is a vulgar epithet in Mexican Spanish), and he had to change it in order to comply with city regulations when he set up shop on the 16th Street Mall. That trailer led to the first brick-and-mortar Tacos Tequila Whiskey, which Morrison opened at York and Colfax in 2010. Since then, he’s opened three other taquerias (including a brief foray into Arizona), as well as Fish N Beer on Larimer Street in RiNo, all under his KTM Restaurant Group moniker.

“I’ve got a long way to go and a lot to accomplish,” Morrison says. “I learned what I didn’t want to do after making mistakes—sometimes two or three times. Now I’m realizing that it is really all about the crew you hire. When you go from having one restaurant that you’re at morning, noon, and night to when you have more than one, you have to depend on other people. It’s all about communication and culture—let’s build a badass culture.”

Like Fletter, Morrison prefers to make decisions based on knowledge and experience and then move forward quickly. There’s still teamwork, but there are no endless meetings, no boardrooms, no private equity firms. “I like to come up with an idea and say ‘Fuck it, let’s do it!’”

Jensen Cummings is younger than either Fletter or Morrison, but he also found success early in his career—and he blames that success on some of his missteps in the restaurant industry. Now 39 years old, Cummings landed his first executive chef job, with Kevin Taylor’s at the Opera House, when he was 25. From there, he moved on to TAG, which he left in 2011 to become chef-partner at Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar in downtown Denver. And in 2013, at the age of 30, Cummings was a full partner in the Slotted Spoon, a fast-casual meatball restaurant. Rave reviews followed the chef, but in hindsight, he thinks the accolades (for both himself and other young chefs spurred on by the desire to be the best) came at a great expense. “We were at the vanguard and I was proud of that, but it didn’t negate the toxicity we created,” he explains.

The long hours, the competitive need to show up two hours before a shift (which the youngest crew members attempted to emulate), the hazing for anyone who didn’t seem committed—it all caught up. “The facade always breaks down in the end,” Cummings admits. “I went seven years without taking a sick day, and I wore it as a badge of honor. That’s toxic and deteriorating. We thought that by creating great experiences for the guests that somehow by osmosis it would transfer to us. But that didn’t happen.”

Cummings finally realized he needed to step away from the heat of the kitchen when he found out his wife, Betsy, was pregnant with their first child—on the same night that he got pulled over for a roadside sobriety test. He passed the test, but it made him reevaluate the way he was approaching the restaurant business and life as a whole. 

“I went seven years without taking a sick day, and I wore it as a badge of honor.”

Jensen Cummings, co-owner, Best Served

Rather than attempt to open new restaurants or chase celebrity status in the kitchen, Cummings has shifted gears to focus on improving the industry from the inside. Now the co-owner of Best Served, a multifaceted consulting company that helps new restaurants shape their “storytelling, content, and marketing,” Cummings tries to correct the mistakes he made so that other restaurateurs and chefs can succeed. But there’s much work to be done, he insists. “We were the rebels and the cool kids, and now we’ve become the institution,” he points out.

One of the biggest challenges in hospitality right now is that workers are leaving food service for other industries. Restaurants are having a hard time filling their rosters. That’s in part because of the pandemic, but Cummings thinks it’s also because of that toxic environment he was part of in his 20s. He hears many restaurant owners accusing young people of being too lazy to work, but that’s not the way he sees it. “We’re blaming 22-year-old kids for the state of the industry, but those kids are throwing shade on the industry because they see the negative side. We are now the face of the job we didn’t want when we were their age.”

In order to get people interested in restaurant jobs again, he adds, he wants restaurateurs to see that the status quo no longer works, that the numbers don’t add up (Best Served also offers financial modeling), and that an investment needs to be made in the mental and physical wellbeing of restaurant workers. (By this, Cummings means an actual budget line item.) With Best Served, Cummings says, he has “spent hundreds of hours with thousands of people to help tell their stories.” Cummings’ podcast—also called Best Served—delivers those tales. He recently paid 86 industry workers $86 each to write their own stories through the “86 86 86 Challenge.” (You can find those at bestservedpodcast.com.)

Cummings didn’t learn from his mistakes to become a better restaurant owner like Morrison or Fletter. He learned from his misjudgments and is passing that knowledge on so that new business owners don’t create the same old problems for their employees. “We have to be open and honest about the state of the industry, and we have to acknowledge the unsung heroes—the people behind the scenes who make everything run.”

Fletter, Morrison, and Cummings took different paths to get to where they are now, but they share the understanding that you can recover from bad decisions and even failure. They also learned the hard way that the allure of the sexy, flashy side of the business isn’t as rewarding in the long run as focusing on little successes every day. After all, the all-time point leaders in football aren’t the Tom Bradys or Peyton Mannings; they’re all placekickers, including George Blanda.

Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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Mark Antonation