Old Major celebrated its one-year anniversary on February 24. The LoHi restaurant known for its in-house butchery, craft cocktails, pretzel rolls with mustard butter, and ambitious pastry program was perhaps the most talked about new restaurant last year and among the most successful- with a packed house nearly every night since the doors opened.
With the kitchen run by chef and co-owner Justin Brunson and service managed by Paul Attardi, Old Major has attracted a talented pool of professionals in Denver -- folks such as server Jennifer Mikelson, a Frasca and Vesta alum, who was part of the opening team at Old Major and whose service makes you feel relaxed and excited at the same time. Some new faces in the staff are promising to make Old Major even better than it has been. August Poehls, the new sommelier, brings a lot of prowess and fun to the dining room that skirts the line between rustic casual and fine dining. The newest attraction: the house-made charcutuerie that has been curing for some time is finally ready to be sliced and served. Eater checked-in with owners Katie O' Shea and Justin Brunson about their first year in the self-described elevated farmhouse restaurant.
How has Old Major evolved since the opening day until now?
Justin Brunson: Our in-house charcuterie is now up and thriving --that is my favorite aspect. We've grown up as a group together. 80 percent of our original staff is still here. We are really coming together as a group. The new hires have been great for the business. We're excited for year two.
Katie O'Shea: We've been working really hard on our education program. The staff that have been here from the beginning are really prospering. Our newer additions just feel like the right fit. I feel like we are a much better restaurant than we were a year ago.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
JB: More space. We actually had the opportunity to have the bike shop space next door which would have made a great private dining room. In the winter, when the patio is closed, I wish the bar had a lot more seats. We are working on plans to make the patio cooler and hot weather friendly. Eight is the largest group we accommodate. You can have an eight-top or a buyout. We have just 64 seats for reservations.
KO: I agree, we could use a bigger space at times. Definitely more room for private dining. Judging from the volume of emails I get for private dining requests, it is underserved in Denver and I wish we could have capitalized on that more.
You juxtapose your rustic, house made everything vibe with the modern touch of having your wine list on an iPad. Has this program gone over well with your guests?
KO: The ipads are fun but by no means necessary. Some guests love them and I think some guests take advantage of the fact that they can send themselves info on a wine or beer they liked that they wouldn't be able to get off of a paper menu. Some guests definitely prefer the paper menu. We've got both, so whatever floats your boat. Our somms love them because of the ability to change the list on a moment's notice.
JB: It's nice because we can buy 3 or 4 bottles vs. tons of cases.
What has been the most successful aspect of your restaurant?
JB: Our food has been pretty awesome. In our first year, we have featured seven different dinner menus and we are really proud of the execution of each menu change and the food we're putting out. We [the staff] really coming together as a family. We care about people. We're there for each other. When other folks have personal tragedies or issues, the staff steps up to help them. We love our employees.
KO: The most successful aspect of the restaurant is the staff. They've worked and trained really hard. They've done everything they can to help make the restaurant successful. Even though it's only been a year, we can't really imagine life without this place and these people.
Who is your employee of the year?
JB: Spencer Whitaker, our morning sous chef has been a massive part of our butchering and charcuterie program. It was something he was really interested in learning more about and being a part of. He has really owned it.
KO: In the bar, Raquel Tully is just killing it. She started as support staff in the dining room and had never worked behind the bar. She took a real interest in the beverage program and has worked tirelessly to learn as much as she can ever since. There is no doubt that she has created some of our most popular cocktails on the menu. On top of that, she just has a warmth about her and an amazing smile that anyone on the other side of that bar would be happy to have greeting them.
What staff member should Denver keep their eye on?
JB: Our employees of the year for sure. Galen Kennemer, our chef de cuisine and our sous chef, Kona Bobek have put everything they have into this project. Nadine Donovan is so young and so talented.
KO: Ryan Ravenscroft our beverage director and April Martz our assistant floor manager have shown an equal level of dedication in the front of the house. It just feels they care about the restaurant not just as a place they work, but as something they own. There just never seems to be a personal agenda with any of these people. They all just truly want to do what they can to make Old Major better.
Many restaurants open without a designated pastry-chef often due to budget restrictions. You hired Nadine Donovan, a promising young pastry chef before opening. From a business standpoint what has this done for your bottom-line?
JB: We believe that to be truly great restaurant, you have to have a great pastry program. The sweet really needs to hold up to the savory part of the meal. It was a part of our business plan. We're really glad we brought her on. It's been great to watch her grow. I think we are going to have a long career together.
KO: And the bread service. Those ridiculous pretzel rolls. It helps complete the meal. We are so proud of Nadine for being chosen for Denver FIVE this year. So well-deserved. We do look at pastry as an investment and we couldn't be more pleased with our return on that. We will continue to invest in Nadine.
Assuming you use a tip-pool, what have been the pros and cons of that system at Old Major in the last year?
KO: We have tip pooled at OM since the beginning. We feel that it is just one more way to foster a team environment. I think it's easier on the guest too who shouldn't have to worry about closing out tabs if they move from the bar to the dining room.
JB: It makes everybody work as a team. Sometimes you get a whale in your section that needs extra attention and your team can step in and help out. If you didn't pool tips that might not happen.
You've received a lot of praise and publicity since the day you signed your lease up until right now. How do you keep the egos in check?
JB: It's just not our style. We're just really humble people. I feel super proud. It's awesome. We are just so honored for the praise we have received and feel so lucky to be a part Denver's dining community. We'll just continue to keep our heads down and work hard to provide the best dining experience we can.
KO: We have received a lot of local and national press. We are super grateful for that. I'm not sure it's so much of an ego thing. Our staff is really good, and part of what makes them good is being humble. At the beginning, we might have not been as good as our press, but I think we've caught up to that and that's just due to, as Justin said, people putting their head down and not listening to the noise.
How did you react to Stacey Brugeman's review in 5280 Magazine?
JB: I thought it was great. At the time, we were only six months old. As a team we had a lot to work on. This restaurant is only a year old and I think we are running at 90 percent of its potential. We still have room for improvement. There is no such thing as perfect food- just good food and bad food. I think my kitchen staff is putting out damn good food. I'm looking forward to year two. It's going to be rad.
KO: Anytime 5280 takes the time to write something about you, that's a good thing. We always appreciate the exposure. In terms of the content of the article, they did their job. They shared their opinions of the restaurant in an unbiased fashion. You have to respect that. The thing that stuck out the most to me was that the constructive criticisms they had for us we agreed with, had discussed and addressed prior to the article even coming out. That's just a timing thing and we change our menu so often it's tough to keep up with us. But her commentary was fair and mostly very positive. I was particularly pleased with the fact that the writer really seemed to understand the magnitude of what we are trying to accomplish. It's hard from the outside to see the amount of work behind the scenes at any restaurant. The level of sophistication at Old Major is very high, it a complex project. I think she respects that and seems to be rooting for us.
How do you motivate your staff?
JB: It's very motivating to the kitchen when we are bringing in the best products and work with the best ingredients in the city. Always teaching new techniques and giving people ownership of things like the vegetarian three-course menu that changes all the time. It provides a challenge and space for creativity. This is the only restaurant in town that gets whole animals, butchers them down, and turns them into salami.
KO: We have good leadership. Paul Attardi, Ryan Ravenscroft, April Martz, Mike McGill, really do lead by great example. I think when your leaders are doing everything they can to contribute, educate, and mentor the staff -- that is very motivating.
When you're hiring, what do you look for in a candidate?
JB: Young, motivated, hard-working people. Young because I need people to keep up the hours. The need to love food and love the restaurant business. They have to want to be someone in the restaurant community.
Have you noticed any changes in the Denver restaurant culture in this last year?
JB: Just that it's getting better and better. Paul Reilly [of Beast + Bottle] is killing it. The Populist. Tommy at Uncle. So many people are just doing such a good job. It is a testament to the talent that we have in this city and the respect that we are gaining on a national level.
What can we expect from Old Major this year?
JB: Our focus will continue to be on developing the people that work for us and to give them the tools to open their own spots one day if that is their dream.
KO: A really kick-ass brunch beginning end of March! We are super excited for that. We just hope to continue putting out great food in an unpretentious environment and be a real fixture in the community for years to come.
· August Poehls, Old Major's Sommelier, On Being Mammals, Sexual Saxophone Performances; More [EDen]
· The Essential 38 Denver Restaurants January '14 [EDen]
· Old Major Shuffle: Courtney Wilson and Bruce Conklin Out; Ryan Ravenscroft New Beverage Director [EDen]
· Ryan Conklin, Brian Melton, Melissa Durant Depart Old Major [EDen]
· Old Major Front of the House Shuffle: Some Leave, Attardi Joins the Team [EDen]