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Eat and Drink

Labor Issues Shut Down Two Front Range Businesses

Grateful Bread Company and Ohana Island Kitchen have temporarily closed due to a lack of staff.

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Editor’s note: After a successful hiring and training period, Grateful Bread will resume delivering its wares to a short roster of Colorado restaurants and hotels on Friday, July 13. Retail service will resume on Saturday, July 14 with a limited run of products, followed by more robust production in the weeks to come. 

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“I don’t know what else to do,” says Jeff Cleary, longtime local restaurant industry pro, baker, and owner of Golden’s Grateful Bread Company. “I need 12 to 13 people to run operations and I’m down to four.” Cleary has worked 18-hour days for more than two weeks straight in an attempt to continue wholesale production—he announced the cease of weekly retail operations via social media on June 9—but facing employee absences due to illness, inexperienced new hires, and a lack of time to train incoming staff, Cleary has made the decision to shut down his entire wholesale operation until mid-July.

“I need to let my crew rest, hire more workers, and train them,” Cleary says, “and I can’t do that if I’m baking all day long.” Front Range hotels (including the Kimpton Hotel Born, Four Seasons Hotel Denver, and more) and many of our best restaurants (from Mercantile Dining & Provision to Ultreia to Boulder’s Blackbelly) are impacted by the closure, scrambling to find an alternate source for fresh-baked bread. “What do I do? Make them mad now or on a daily basis when I can’t get their orders to them on time, if at all?” Cleary asks. He estimates that Grateful Bread will lose $150,000 in revenue over the next three weeks, but feels that he has no other choice.

Louis and Regan Colburn of Ohana Island Kitchen, who had to close their LoHi poke shop today when two employees called out with personal emergencies, relate to Cleary’s struggle. “It’s been so difficult to hire and retain kitchen staff,” Regan says. “We need five to six workers in the kitchen to open, but people just don’t show up.” The couple has done everything from increasing wages to giving holiday bonuses to taking employees on company retreats, but “nothing is working,” Louie says. “We’ve hired felons, we’ve taken people back who have left us for other jobs…but at this point, employees aren’t honoring their end of the commitment.” Regan reports that one out of every six new hires, or even people scheduled for working interviews, simply don’t arrive for work as scheduled.

Restaurants, bakeries, and other food-related businesses are notoriously challenging to sustain, with razor-thin margins in even the best labor markets. But with Colorado’s low unemployment rate and hundreds of new restaurants opening every year, there are far more job openings than there are qualified—or interested—food industry workers. “Corporate restaurants can pay more,” Louis says, “and our workers can leave for another job that pays them $1 more an hour. It’s an environment in which people can burn bridges without consequences.”

A glut of area restaurants. The cannabis industry. Rising minimum wage rates. The lack of affordable housing. Immigration policy. All of these factors and more have contributed to the (hopefully) temporary closing of these two local businesses, and there’s little relief in sight. “There are days when we think of throwing in the towel,” Regan says.

But for now, at least, so long as Ohana’s employees return to work tomorrow, the Colburns will continue to sell their excellent poke. And in mid-July, if Cleary can hire and train new staff, Grateful Bread will resume baking loaves for Front Range restaurants. 5280 will continue to follow and report on this issue and its effects on Colorado’s dining scene.

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