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Three Things You Didn’t Know is a reoccurring series where we dig up interesting facts about your favorite chef, bartender, sommelier, cheese monger, cicerone, GM, or industry insider.
Today, July 19, is a banner day for Vesta founder Josh Wolkon. Not only is it Vesta’s 20th anniversary, but the milestone is also a nod to Wolkon’s unprecedented influence on the local restaurant scene. In addition to helping pioneer LoDo dining back in 1996, Wolkon, who co-owns Vesta, Steuben’s, Ace Eat Serve, and Steuben’s Arvada with his wife Jen, could very much be considered Denver’s own Danny Meyer. Wolkon, who opened Vesta when he was 25, is a true believer in hospitality, a factor that balances guest experience with internal restaurant culture. He’s become such an expert on the topic that he teaches a course for EatDenver on hospitality at Metro State University.
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The restaurant industry runs in his blood (his great-uncle owned the original Steuben’s in Boston from 1945 to 1958) and his love of a good party and good food runs deep. That interest took shape in college, when he planned parties for his fraternity and dug into the details of theme, invitations, playlists via mix tape, T-shirts, and cocktails—and then watched the party bloom around him.
The Boston native also put in time working, bartending, and cooking in restaurants in his hometown and later in Boulder at the Oasis and the Foundry. It’s funny to think now that despite multiple attempts, he couldn’t land a job bussing at Jax Fish House or Zolo Grill. He and Jax and Zolo owner Dave Query still chuckle over that detail.
While many restaurateurs don’t dine in their own establishments, Wolkon does what he calls “restaurant tours” where he picks a Saturday night and hops from one spot to the next. Wolkon began this tradition when Steuben’s opened in 2016 and he began splitting his time between his two restaurants—now he divides his time between four. In addition to walking the inside and outside of each space and having a quick bite, he talks with staff, checks ticket time, dish presentation, the music, lighting, and temperature. “Mostly I’m trying to take a pulse on the energy of the shift from both a staff and guest perspective. I do a handful of table touches which I still love and I believe it means a lot to the guest,” Wolkon says. “I always ask ‘what could have been better?’ forcing the guest to tell me something. I hate the answer ‘fine.’”
This dedication to guest and business has yielded a loyal following from diners and staff alike. (To wit: Vesta has only had three chefs, Matt Selby, Brandon Foster, and Nick Kayser, in 20 years.) With two decades to look back on, Wolkon credits hard work and dedication and, yes, a little bit of luck. Tonight, as he reaches for a glass to toast Vesta’s success, we should all follow suit. In the meantime, read on for three things you didn’t know about Josh Wolkon.
1. Location, location, location… “[My realtor] brought me down to Denver, which in 1996 was a bit of a mystery to me. Zenith was one of the few notable restaurants. Governor Hickenlooper had just opened the Wynkoop and the ballpark had just opened. Still, the 16th St. Mall was weird to me and LoDo was still sketchy and mostly filled with empty warehouses…ultimately I fell in love with the built-in character of 1822 Blake Street: brick walls, old wood flooring, and some very cool wood beams. Arnold Schwarzenegger owned the block across the street (now the Dairy Block), which was originally supposed to be a project called Stadium Walk with Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock, and movie theatres right across the street from Vesta. This was the kicker for me and the Stadium Walk info was half of my business plan. I thought that if Vesta failed I could do pizza or burgers with the movie theater across the street. The Pavilions ended up with most of those tenants and it’s taken 20 years for this block to finally develop but I’m OK with the way it all played out.”
2. The list…“It’s a piece of paper that is in my pocket at all times with a red pen and it’s how I run my life. I have a copy of all my To-Do Lists, by date, saved electronically. I try to clean it up nightly if possible. It includes manager meeting notes for each unit, home/personal stuff including movie and book recommendations, and Band Practice (our bimonthly manager seminars).” [A look at recent notes included bullet points for: Learn to DJ, get set up on Instagram, Vesta 20 playlist.]
3. Thoughts on technology and hospitality…“Things have changed since Danny Meyer wrote Setting The Table, from both a guest standpoint and a staff standpoint. Attention spans are lower. People seem afraid of eye contact. Our relationship to our devices is far more comfortable than with that of a stranger…Our opportunities to demonstrate genuine hospitality are dwindling. We have lost the opportunity to make that initial connection with a guest by making them a reservation over the phone. Left alone at the table, a guest used to sit and sip their wine, observe the design details of the restaurant, or watch and feel the energy of the restaurant. It used to serve as an open door for our servers to make a personal connection with the guest. Now, the first time any of us are left alone, the first thing we do is pull out our phone…A family comes in with their children and as soon as they sit down, the headphones and iPad movie come out. This is our introduction to dining out to today’s children…The overall shift in our culture from human interactions and toward virtual interactions has created a new environment as it relates to hospitality. Advances in technology have forced us to pay even closer attention to every opportunity we have to make eye contact with our guests, to ask questions, to actively listen and to demonstrate why no device or new app can replace the emotional and human personal connection of genuine hospitality.”