Beth Gruitch opens up about the challenges of running an award-winning restaurant group

James Beard award-winning chef Jennifer Jasinski and restaurant-lifer Beth Gruitch are owners of the Crafted Concepts restaurant group. Their restaurant portfolio includes Rioja, Bistro Vendome, Stoic & Genuine, and Ultreia. These two industry veterans have paved the way in putting Denver on the culinary map. Collectively with the help of Director of Ops Matthew Brooks and Culinary Director Tim Kuklinski, they have won countless awards, but it is their hospitality ethos that keeps them more relevant today than when they started 20 years ago.

What is it like to manage an award-winning restaurant group?

Managing a group of different concepts from fine dining to upscale casual to casual is much like having children. They are all different and act out at different times and go through different phases. What they all have in common is the foundation of hospitality. It doesn’t matter if we are doing carry out, counter service, or fine dining—what matters is how the guests feel when they are in the restaurant. So in that sense… they are all the same.

How did you manage your group through the pandemic?

We spent a lot of hours in the early weeks of COVID figuring out new takeout options for each restaurant. This was especially cumbersome for our fine dining restaurant Rioja. Jen Jasinksi (co-owner and James Beard Award Winner), Matthew Brooks (director of operations), and I thought about the guest experience through every moment. For example, we decided to color code and label correlating sauces to entrees and provide instructions so our guests would experience the food like it came out of our kitchen.

Creating virtual wine dinners at home became the new normal. We became experts in video and editing as well as catering to the “do it at home” dinners. Another key part we needed to factor in was the level of cooking experience of the diner. We found the range was huge from people who barely cook, to people who don’t know how to cook, to those who enjoy cooking. We determined that takeout was something we could deliver on for all levels of dining. We are glad we did because takeout was a huge part of how we were able to take care of our staff and keep our core restaurants open during COVID.

How did you manage communication with guests across many restaurants, with restrictions constantly changing?

Email marketing has always been huge for us, but particularly in COVID. We recently booked an entire wine dinner with only one week’s notice from an email campaign. Our OpenTable database is the foundation of 99% of our contacts for email marketing.

What’s been the hardest part during COVID?

People are the lifeblood of our restaurants, so I would be remiss if I said anything other than laying off 99% of our staff. It was heart wrenching and demoralizing.

No-shows are up in a time when we can’t afford it because there is no walk-in traffic and limited capacity. I think the general consumer is under-educated on how restaurants work. The main point I want diners to understand is how important it is to the business to contact the restaurant with any changes before not showing up. Have to cancel? Adding people to your reservation? Planning on staying for hours? We can’t accommodate and move the floor around without proper notice. We can be part of the solution, but we do need some advance notice or it can be a bad experience for everyone.

It’s important to understand that restaurants have a limited amount of seats due to the government mandates so each seat is extremely valuable. This is how we make money and stay in business. At 25% capacity (due to table distancing) we still have to pay rent, employees, food, etc. Please don’t show up with more guests than you told us about and please don’t be upset if we can’t accommodate you. The mask is not our job to police. We are following the rules and have jumped through many hoops to stay open and happily serve you.

What was the best thing to come out of peak COVID?

We are more efficient and all staff can now handle multiple roles. Our servers and bartenders now know how to use OpenTable and take reservations. Given how our team rallied during COVID, the number one lesson we learned is that we will continue to grow our businesses and create new concepts. We will make it and continue to provide Denver with an amazing dining experience!