In the autumn of 2016, a year prior to the #MeToo movement and some time before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as issues of privacy, trust, and transparency began igniting a national conversation, the Good Food Media Network was just getting started. Industry veterans Sara Brito and Jeff Hermanson were being proactive, endeavoring to create an organization that could hold a mirror up to anyone who made money serving food, with the goal of changing the way restaurants are viewed and valued.

“The essence of the Good Food 100 Restaurants [list] is to try and tell the whole story of food, beyond just taste,” says Brito, president of the Good Food Media Network. “That whole story is how our food choices—in what we purchase and what we put on the eater’s plates—affect everything from the environment to the farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, to the animals, to the restaurant workers, and ultimately, to the eaters who enjoy that food.”

Brito piloted what would become the Good Food 100 Survey with seven Denver chefs, making adjustments according to their input. Eventually, she tapped the Business Research Division (BRD) at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder to finalize the survey questions. The nonprofit launched publicly in 2017 and, that first year, 90 restaurants took part. The survey results were evaluated by the BRD and then verified by the National Science Foundation before being published by the Good Food Media Network.

This year, the organization’s third, 137 restaurants from 29 states participated in the free survey, with 40 Colorado businesses making up around 29 percent of the list. Open to any business that serves food, from catering companies and speciality food counters to fine dining establishments and cafeterias, the survey asks about specific purchasing patterns, as well as whether or not the business uses things like recycling, composting, or LED lighting. Since its inception, the survey has also incorporated feedback from the Food Chain Workers Alliance to include questions about fair labor practices (access to health insurance, if there’s a sexual harassment policy, etc.). 

Participating businesses are rated with links, six being the highest, based on the six links in the food chain: Environment, Plants and Animals, Producers, Purveyors, Restaurants, and Eaters. Six-link rated restaurants in Denver include some you’d expect, such as Beast & Bottle, Fruition, Mercantile Dining & Provision, and Rioja, but also specialty shops Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe, St. Kilian’s Cheese Shop, and Fortuna Chocolate. Based in Colorado, it makes sense that local restaurant participation is such a large part of the list. For Brito, however, there’s also a desire among Centennial State chefs to spark systemic change. “I think the Colorado chefs and restaurants are really embracing challenging the rules and changing the rules,” says Brito. “And leading the industry in order to get the recognition that they want on the national dining scene.”

Most promising is the participation of larger food service businesses, such as UC Davis Health, University of Michigan Dining, and locally, University of Colorado Boulder Campus Dining Services and the Boulder Valley School District

“It’s great to see those types of culinary directors being recognized alongside James Beard Award-winning chefs,” says Brito. “The only way we’re going to change the food system for good is if the larger players—those serving 99 percent of Americans—get on board with transparency and good food.”

Check out the 2019 list, read regional spotlights and interviews from former 5280 food editor Amanda Faison (now the Good Food Media Network’s editorial director), and encourage your favorite culinary businesses to participate in 2020 on the Good Food Media Network website.