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The Team Behind Acorn Chats About The Restaurant's First Year

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.

Chef Steve Redzikowski and bartender Bryan Dayton
Chef Steve Redzikowski and bartender Bryan Dayton
Adam Larkey

Acorn celebrated its one-year anniversary in September The second restaurant at the Source, brainchild of Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski, has caught a lot of people’s attention over the past year including Andrew Knowlton who nominated the restaurant for America's Best New Restaurants in 2014 list by Bon Appetit Magazine and Amanda Faison's who ranked it #2 among Denver's 25 Best Restaurants. Experiencing similar praise with their first restaurant, Oak at Fourteenth, Dayton and Redzikowski are not strangers to success in the food industry.

In his open kitchen in RiNo, Redzikowski focuses on creating dishes that all diners will enjoy— whether adventurous eaters or not. Dayton curates a creative cocktail menu and directs the hospitality with an iron fist clad in a velvet glove. The two talked to Eater about the last year flying by, the press they received, and silly customer requests.

How did Acorn come to be?
Bryan Dayton: We were approached by the developer a couple of years ago and it started from there. It was a brief conversation like, "hey, this is what we are looking at." We came and looked at the space when it was just an empty former foundry. It is very different from what we do at Oak at Fourteenth and it has a very different feel. Steve grew up in Long Island and has spent a lot of time in the city and I have spent a lot of time in urban environments and I like old buildings. The building spoke to us and we went from there. We looked at it and started feeling it out and the pieces fall into place.

How was moving into this space?
Steve Redzikowski
: Physically moving in was easy, but dealing with the day-to-day stuff here is a pain in the ass because you have to share everything; people can’t be responsible for their own stuff. There is a little more involved.

BD: I think with any new project and anything you do there are always growing pains getting into a new space. Whether it is a new development, a seasoned restaurant, even buying a house or whatever, I think just dealing with the day-ins and day-outs of trying to figure out the space and how it works has been a little challenging but we are making it work. Moving forward, we are looking forward to adding some nuances to the space as we grow and soften it up a little bit. The Source in general has been a really cool part of Denver. It is fun to see the excitement and watch this spot be a pillar in this neighborhood moving forward.

How was opening week?
BD: It was a shit show. Openings are always shit shows. I mean we literally got our liquor license two hours before we opened. It was intense. There were things on both sides of the line that we had to deal with. Since we already had a restaurant we thought we would be really on point when designing stuff such as the bar a certain way or the corner house wait stations this way and different things like that. In reality, we needed about two more feet than what I asked for on the bar. We still made it work but there were definitely some growing pains in the beginning on how to sort some things out on the front of the house. I think some of the back of the house stuff was like that in the beginning too but now we have smoothed things out.

SR: It was just a blur. I don’t remember anything.

What changes have you made to Acorn since opening?
SR: The room downstairs used to be dry storage and prep but now it is just prep. We didn’t have enough room so we moved all the dry storage upstairs and all the liquor came up here as well. About two months ago, we put in a secondary walk in cooler too because the first one just wasn't enough. That new cooler is saving lives.

How are you handling the amount of people coming in?
: Shared plates help a lot. At Acorn, we put out a lot more food than Oak because it is all shared. At Oak, you have to focus a little more on everyone coming together at the same time. Here you can just send the food out as it comes—kind of like a sushi restaurant. It is definitely a lot easier to do service here, numbers wise. But it is harder on certain positions in the kitchen because they just get beat up over and over and over again.

What has it been like with the press that Acorn has been getting from magazines like 5280 to Bon Appetit?

BD: We have heard a lot about the Bon Appetit article over the past month. It has been really cool. Since DIA is so close a lot of people traveling stop in too. People stop in and are like, "We read about this place, and you are so close to the mountains figured we’d check it out." We had noticed that to a degree. The 25 Best Restaurants list from 5280 Magazine definitely helps a lot. The press has been great. I think it’s a testament of what our teams do. Steve and I are spread between the two restaurants now and it is about what our teams can produce and what our kitchen staff, kitchen managers, and front of house managers can do—those two teams coming together to be a cohesive unit. I think that is something that has really helped the Acorn philosophy and culture to where we were able to do what we are doing now. It’s a great feeling.

Do you feel comfortable where you are at with Acorn now?
: Never. That’s why I always say it's hysterical when people come in and review restaurants before the first year because it changes consistently. It is so funny. You see a review and you are like that means nothing because the place should hope to get better and better. I just don’t see the point of it whatsoever.

BD: One thing I always say is ‘be aware of the cliff no matter what.’  You look at Oak and we have been through hell and back with that unit and we have three consistent steady years up there. You should always be aware of what is going on around you no matter what especially in this environment and the restaurant world. People’s choices, people's taste, people’s attitudes, trends, and all that crap just changes so fast; you have to be aware. You have to be consistently on and consistently thinking and consistently evolving to what is going on. It is sticking to the basics of great basics of culinary side of things, great basics of the service side of things, and both of those back and forth really help us be there and aware that you can’t fail you can’t fuck up. You fuck up, lights are out.

What does turning one mean to you?
SR: Nothing. A year is so short of time. I would say 10 years is really a goal to get to.

BD: To me when you get to five I think that says something like you are a stickler. I think two honestly is your stability in the market and the five and six year is your foundation in the market. Then 10 says you are that pillar in the community and a staple in the community. That is something to strive for and go for. Those goals and those years are something that are obtainable but at the same time it is a long road to get there. Shit, four years at Oak feels like a decade, right?

SR: To me it feels like a blur. It is just very fast. It feels like we just opened a week ago.

What has made you most proud at Acorn?
: Maintaining and retaining staff—quality staff.  We have really good staff here that have been here since day one. They drive the ship here every day. They are excellent. At Oak we have four line cooks that have been with us for two plus years.  I think that says a lot. That says more than any review.

BD: Same with front of house. We have staff that have been here since day one and they came from Oak. A lot of the core staff have been here for almost a year. We do have turnover but that’s part of this environment but I have core people that really keep us moving. We like to keep them happy and keep that sane which is always hard in this business.

What are the most popular items on the menu?

SR: The market salad is the only thing we have ever put on the menu that rivals the kale and apple salad. Kale production is cut in half when the market salad is on. When that comes on, it takes over the kale. I would say that is the only dish that ever rivaled the kale. Meatballs are always a staple as well. We always try to make sure we are running something that you aren't intimidated to order like the roast chicken or you can come in order something that you might not have tried before like the bone marrow. This way there is something for everybody.

BD: When we talk about the staples that we have had on the menu, the Across the Atlantic is always one. It’s a staple we brought down form Oak. We sell a ton of those. The Crossing the Track cocktail is the other one that has been a  staple—both of those have been extremely consistent.

What would you say is the difference between Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn?
: It is weird. They are pretty close. Service and food are pretty neck and neck. It is kind of what atmosphere you want.  At Oak, because of the way of the decor is it runs itself to be a little bit more of a quieter night, but it is not really because it is loud as hell.

BD: They both are so similar so what I always say is they have the same DNA and vastly different personalities—just like two brothers would be. It’s the same core values brought in but you have a total different feel on the outside. I think it is a lot of feel. I was talking to someone the other day and they were talking about Oak and they said, " I like Oak because I can have a business dinner there, I can take my parents there, or  I can take a date there." It is all these different environments for a one stop shop restaurant, which is really great to hear. I feel like you are starting to see that same dynamic here too. You see a lot of people bring their parents here, having a date night, or a business meeting. It is very similar, just a different feel.

What have been the things that you have heard the customers say?
SR: The thing I hear from the guest side of it is the food and the amazing quality of the food. Then you hear about the cocktails and the drinks and the service. I hear those different things but everybody is like food, food, food and how wonderful it feels. I think that is the biggest thing we hear on the front end. We are a restaurant business so it is hard to make everybody happy all the time.

BD: We are dealing with hundreds of personalities a day and to deal with that and make it consistent is always a challenge. We have been pretty successful on it most the time but we drop the ball like everybody does from time to time and we try to pick the ball up and run with it again. That is our consistency.

SR: That is the biggest thing we hear consistency, no matter what it is. We try to be consistent with food, beverage, and service in some fashion.

What is the craziest request you have had from a customer?
: I think I am so numb to bizarre requests so they don’t seem bizarre to me anymore.

SR:  We are a shared restaurant and it transfers over to lunch too even though lunch isn't shared.  A request we have had, which has happened twice now, is to have one of our sandwiches split nine ways. I’ll cut it and then I go, I’m never doing this again.

At this one year point, are you where you wanted to be?
: Yeah I think so. I think we are where we wanted to get to but we want to do more. The patio is closing soon, who knows exactly when though since it is Colorado. Then we are starting to do the food for the Yacht Club. It is something challenging but also fun to do when the patio is closed and keep business up. A place that just continues to get to their goal and then just maintain that will not continue to work. You have to get to the goal and then you have to say where do we want to get to next and what do we want to continue to push. Providing quality food at the Yacht Club is going to be a whole different challenge.

What is the philosophy here at Acorn?
: I think we just continue to stick to the basics and do what we do every day. It is not really frilly but it is just steady putting a brick on top of a brick. It is building a foundation and I think that’s been our philosophy since day one. We always talk about how it doesn't matter how many pre-services we have, once a week we always a "comeback to basics." It is about cutting something if you are a chef. How you place a napkin down if you are front of the house person. How you pour wine if you are doing wine service. But it is always about the basics and not getting carried away with metrics. It is what we strive to do well.

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