Dave Query. [Photo: Restaurant Owners Uncorked Video].
Dave Query, owner and chef of the Big Red F Restaurant Group, has been earning his stripes on Colorado's Front Range food scene through running and maintaining eight restaurants and six varying concepts successfully for almost 20 years. With two more restaurants on the way in 2013, he isn't stopping there. Eater sat with Query as he shared why he's going for fried chicken and Big Red F brewed beer in Lafayette, his philosophy on maintaining a 512-person company, the evolution of his concepts, and expansion plans that would take Big Red F outside of Colorado!
You manage to keep a great team around you consistently. What is your philosophy and strategy for retaining great employees? It started off early for us in just treating people with a lot of respect, you know? Your opening comment when we sat down was that you have a lot of friends that work for me and my response was, "I've got a lot of friends that work for me." Why wouldn't you want to be friends with the people you work with? They're working their asses off for you so treat them with a lot of respect. A lot of the people that work for me are doing so because it's a means to an end to pay bills and make ends meet while they're pursuing their passion and career and so while they're here, we try to emphasize that we're not going anywhere. We know they will bring their kids here, and their kids' kids here - literally we're getting into that grand-kid mode with some of the restaurants. We're going to be around for a long, long time so we've always emphasized you've got a legacy here. Whether you're here for a month or 10 years, you have to help us build a legacy.
How do you promote your employees and help them evolve their career if they are invested in the legacy for the long-term? We promote based on skills, desire, and passion for what they're doing. Hospitality is tough – people can say, "I'm in this business," but they may not really get it - it's a way of life. The same way we treat our employees is how we treat friends and even people we meet on the street. Truly being immersed in hospitality is a way of life. You're not just nice eight hours a day - you're just a nice person otherwise it would drive you crazy at your job. So, with employees, we embrace their desire and create opportunities for them through advancement and we invite them to the inner circle to learn the business. There's a lot of transparency and they have full access to everything that we do and a lot of people that have worked for me are also off now doing their own thing. I've helped them as much as I could along the way.
With eight restaurants and two more on the way, are you interested in expanding to other concepts or are you comfortable with the concepts and growth? We're looking at expanding Jax more than any of them. We're going to do this next one [in City Set] and then we'll probably do two more next year. I think we're also going to bust the state line next year – maybe Kansas City or Omaha or Phoenix.
Do you have a favorite concept or restaurant of yours that you frequent the most? And if so, why? That's like saying you got a favorite kid, you know? They're all good. I do resonate with Jax because of its simplicity. It's dinner only (except Jax Denver just made a change to also serve lunch) but it's not a lot of moving parts. I also like cooking seafood and eating seafood. I like the challenge of something that is so perishable that you can't fake it. It's either great or it's not. The Mexican concepts are great, the Bitter Bar has been fun to figure out and the West End Tavern is a 27-year old gem that is just solid.
With Jax Denver in City Set, could you talk about how you chose this somewhat suburban, perhaps more sterile, location? Well, Shotgun Willy's is a half a block south, so it's not that sterile! For about a year we looked for a location really based on demographics. We tried for the first time to make a smart business decision about an under-serviced area rather than just "Hey, here's a 100-year-old building in a cool part of town, let's open a restaurant." We went and found an area we feel offered a lot of potential business. So we look at that soon-to-open Jax in City Set as likely being our busiest restaurant.
The Post Brewing Company where you will serve your own beers and fried chicken: how did you choose the Lafayette location and new concept? We've been trying to brew our own beer for a long time and knew that doing it in Boulder would be very expensive especially since we wanted to buy. When that building in Lafayette became available, we bought the building because it's a cool space with a yard on the outside and even 52 parking spaces. The chicken side of it is something I've been thinking about a long time and that is the void that is chicken. You've got great chefs doing burger, taco, and pizza joints to a pretty infiltrated level– but since the demise of Boston Chicken no independent group has come in to fill that slot. So this will be our foray into filling that slot.
What does the future hold at the Bitter Bar after James Lee leaves? Well, Burton who has been at the Bitter Bar for a while is Bar Manager now. He is super geeked out on the whole culture that's going on over there and he fits our model. With all our concepts and restaurants, you can't be too reliant on a single person to make a concept work and when you are, you're stuck there. You know James left once before and things got great and he came back and they got better. He'll leave and things will get great. It's in that same vein of helping people succeed. Burton has got a lot of intention, passion, intelligence and craft and he is going to kill it. It's more about asking is the Bitter Bar well-established enough on its own? If it is – then the right person should be able to come in and run that restaurant. But losing James is hard. He's awesome. This is a challenge of a 20-year business: people come and go. We just need to maintain what kind of business we want to run and put the right people in the right jobs.
How did the Jax Denver remodel work out? What mistakes and lessons did you takeaway from that process? It's maybe, the smartest thing I've ever done. It's so great – the response has been fantastic. I'm pissed it took me 16 years to do. I wanted to do it originally but I was too much of a pussy – excuse my language. We were going to do it here in Boulder and the staircase [in the back of the restaurant] got in the way. I was too chicken to have this downtown restaurant that had a bar down the center of it with steamer pots and a lot of preparation going on behind the bar. Jax Denver needed a kick in the butt down in that area. We know what's happening at Union Station and the revitalization that's going on there - Sage Hospitality is involved and they do great stuff and Mario [Nocifera] previously of Frasca and Oak is doing something behind there, Alex Seidel from Fruition on the north side and other smart operators like the Kitchen are coming back down to LoDo too. There will be 4-5 great restaurants there so we didn't want to be the "old dude on the block" as a 17-year-old restaurant when all that stuff gets dialed in. By doing this, we got "new" again and repositioned ourselves to appeal to a much bigger crowd. Opening up lunch allows us to entertain a much bigger audience too.
What does a day in your life look like? Do you still like to cook in your restaurants? It comes in waves but when we're opening a new store I'm around there a lot. I was hanging around here [Centro] last weekend because Enrique, our chef, is new here so I come in and hang out and watch what's going on. I help in anyway I can and get involved. I think it's disrespectful for people who own a restaurant and used to be a chef, to keep calling themselves a chef if they're not working in the kitchen. If you do, you're full of shit. It's what I know how to do, I'm good at it, but I'm not a practicing chef right now. To say, "I'm the chef of all my restaurants" is entirely disrespectful to everybody who is coming in here as the first one in, and the last one out and working six days a week and thinking about it on the 7th. So I'm very involved in the food business - I own restaurants and I was a managing operating functional chef for a long time but my role has changed into managing a multi-unit restaurant company, which sucks -- because cooking was what I was best at. I'm good at running restaurants, but I'm better at running a kitchen and I haven't fully run a kitchen in a long time-- it would be impossible to do right now. When I get a little older, someone else will hopefully take over and I'll just go back to cooking for a living. I would like to go back to it.
What other chefs or restaurateurs do you appreciate and support on the Front Range? Well, being from Boulder I'm partial to a lot of the Boulder restaurants. I respect what Bobby and Lachlan are doing at Frasca and Pizzeria Locale – it has helped us all do a gut check and try to get better. Those guys are setting a high mark. Steve and Bryan at Oak at Fourteenth are great - I eat there quite a bit. It's a great restaurant. I've always been partial to Sushi Zanmai too – I love those guys. They've been doing it longer than I have and they're always in there, going for it head first. And Basta in the Peloton in Boulder may be one of the best kitchens in Colorado. In Denver, I like the Squeaky Bean. I like it because they're really not following the normal model. All of us are just "doing restaurant", you know? Here's your dining room, that's the bar, the server will explain the nightly special, it's all pretty much the same. The things that catch my eye are people that are thinking outside the box and not doing something unique for the sake of being unique but it's valuable. I enjoyed my time at the Squeaky Bean because I didn't know what was coming next. They're serving delicious food in jewel boxes and on crazy plates and interesting food delivery methods and it's all really well thought out. None of it is silly and it has always been spot on. There are a whole host of new restaurants that have opened in the last six months in Denver that I am looking forward to getting into soon.
You're definitely a guiding mentor for much of your staff, but who has mentored you over the years? I did but it didn't feel like it at the time. I never had one in the form of a chef. I worked for a lot of chefs but none of them said, "follow me and stick with me." I moved around a lot and worked for a lot of chefs and restaurants but the people who had the most affect on me were the people who were front of the house. When I did get a chance to open my own restaurant, service was very big part of my focus. That's not always the case with a chef. Most chefs, especially 25 years ago, being service focused wasn't on their plate - they just wanted to make great food and someone else would figure out the floor but I had a very big part in the level of service. The first year we opened Zolo, we were voted best service in Denver Westword (we tied with Flagstaff House). That made it clear I was on the right track.
I was mentored by people like Cliff Young, who was at Cliff Young's which was a Denver institution. It is where Hamburger Mary now is. Back in the day it's where John Elway would be at one table with the Bronco's coach, then the Governor and Mayor at another. It was the place to dine in Denver. It was very formal and Cliff Young who now owns CY Steakhouse in Denver, is the quintessential front guy. I mean, he just has the finest attention to detail, he remembers everyone's name he has ever met, he pays attention to the finer points of wine service, he can create truly memorable dining experiences for his guests , and really works the floor like a pro.
Another mentor is someone I worked for in Chicago, Tony Amato. I opened a restaurant for him when I was 19 and after I came back after attending the Culinary Institute of America. I opened another one with him and his wife. I just learned a ton about how to treat people and run a restaurant. I learned how to be accountable and not have big highs and lows but provide a consistent level of management. I also learned from him that there's a time to party and a time to work – those two never meet, ever. I recently spent New Years Eve with him and he now owns a restaurant in Saugatuck, Michigan - called the Red Dock and it's open just in the summer. He takes cash only and it's standing room only for 94 days – man, he's just burying coffee cans of cash in his back yard [laughs].
As a well-recognized chef and restaurateur, what have you learned in the past 20 years? Anything you wish you could have done differently in hindsight? No. Not a thing. I have three kids and I had them when I was young, so I think I managed being a chef and in the restaurant business with spending time with them really well. And after I got divorced it really became critically important to figure out how to be a dad first, and then how to be a chef and open restaurants second, which is a hard division to make for people. I'm not sure how I succeeded but I'm really happy with how it turned out. I didn't ever miss any birthdays or school concerts and taking tons of road trips with them and my head was on my pillow right next to my kids every night. So I don't have any regrets.
I sometimes wonder if we've grown the company really slowly. You know eight restaurants over 19 years, with only one failure, but you know, I like the pace of it. I think had we grown faster, we might have made a terrible mistake because we didn't have the infrastructure and culture that we now have. When opening these new restaurants it seems a lot easier because there are lot of smart people involved and a lot of things in place. In the early days it was just me. We opened Zolo and Jax in the same year and I was frickin' doing everything.
I do, however, have a wish if I could go back in time. I would have loved to have gotten my MBA in business. I would have loved to have had a solid business education.
What would you tell people who are just getting going in this business? Earn your stripes, man. These people are coming out of culinary school and they want to own their own joint in a year. I worked for a long time before I could have that. I started cooking at 14 and I owned my first place 15 years later. I spent a lot of time working and spending time in Europe, Chicago (twice), Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco. There's not an appreciation for the incredible amount of work it takes to make a really successful restaurant. Anyone can open a restaurant. All you need is money. Any idiot can. I think that the advice would be to earn your stripes and work and learn your craft. Spend the time it takes to understand what you're doing, get as much exposure as you can, and when you have the privilege to open your restaurant recognize it's a lot of responsibility. Think about spending a half a million dollars or a lot more and go into opening a restaurant half cooked, where then your investors also lose their money and everyone is out of work and the landlord has a mess on their hands. Take it seriously; it's a big deal.