It’s been a good year for Juan Padro, the president of Tap and Burger Concepts. With five-and-a-half-year-old Highland Tap and Burger going strong, the buzzy new Bar Dough, and the second location of Tap and Burger at Sloan’s Lake (Sloan’s Lake Tap and Burger) in the works for this spring, Padro has been busy making his mark on the dining scene. With Denver’s recent restaurant boom, our culinary landscape is more crowded—and competitive—than ever. But when it comes to the restaurant biz, this Massachusetts native and former headhunter seems to have a knack. We sat down with Padro to learn the secrets of his success. As it turns out, he’s got a pretty simple recipe: Make sure you’ve got the right people working for you and develop their leadership skills. Read on for insight into his simple philosophy.

(Read more stories from our Ask a Chef series)

5280: To what do you attribute the success of Highland Tap and Burger, and how do you build on that for your other restaurants?

JP: We’ve got a lot of really good staff at Tap and we have good retention there. Tap is five-and-a-half years old now, and we’ve only had one kid leave to work at another restaurant. (We’ve had people move and do other stuff.) I’ve got eight kids with their master’s degrees over there—they’ve decided that they want to be in hospitality. To me the biggest thing is that hospitality is something people are really passionate about, and it’s a shame if they’re getting banged over the head and people are saying “when are you going to get a real job?” or “what are you going to do when you grow up?” This is real work and you can make a good living, you can have a good career. You’ve got to teach employees that, you can’t just tell them. The challenges are developing leadership skills and business-development skills. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that. We always have four to five employees in management training. We give our employees the first right of refusal to buy some equity so those who can will move over there.

I don’t think I hire [employees] from the same pool as everyone else. The philosophy around hiring in restaurants is outdated. I was a headhunter for years, so I know how to interview; I know which questions to ask. If you can’t teach somebody how to make an old fashioned, or you can’t teach somebody how to cook a burger, then shame on you. The key is, what do you look for in your employees and how do you figure that out in the interview process? For us, the key word is potential and one of the key factors is emotional intelligence. People who are empathetic. People who have a lot of intellectual curiosity—that’s really important. I’m looking to develop business leaders. There are plenty of kids here who are going to do other things with their lives, but there’s also an unusual amount of people who want to be a part of this long term. The irony is once people understand what you’re about and you’re consistent with it, they’ll seek you out. That’s what happened here at Bar Dough. If you look at the guys in the kitchen, it’s pretty remarkable. They sought us out.

Bonus: Happy Hour at Bar Dough launches today. Stop by Bar Dough between 2:30 and 6 p.m. seven days a week for boozy deals like $6 spritzes and $3 beer. Eats include fried shishitos ($5), a margherita pizza ($6), and an open-face meatball sub ($7).

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Callie Sumlin
Callie Sumlin
Callie Sumlin is a writer living in Westminster, and has been covering food and sustainability in the Centennial State for more than five years.