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Embrace Change

Every new restaurant has growing pains. Zeal is no different. This week we said goodbye to our inaugural Chef Arik Markus. We’d like to thank Chef for laying a beautiful foundation, and wish him luck in his future endeavors. We’d also like to congratulate Sean Smith on a well-deserved promotion to Executive Chef here at Zeal. Onward and upward!

He Did It For Love

My absolute favorite part of running a restaurant like Zeal is interacting with our guests. I love talking to them about their experience of our food, atmosphere, and culture. Maybe as much as I love the food itself. Recently, I met a table of new enthusiasts enjoying their meal – family style. In fact, one of them suggested we should have called Zeal “Share” instead, because it’s such a great place to pass the bowls around the table, touring a world of flavors.


Two couples sat at this particular table, and one of the ladies was telling me about a book that she was super excited about called Eating on the Wild Side. I’d read it too, and it’s a great, well-researched book about how to get the maximum benefit out of the fresh foods we buy and love from local farmer’s markets, or our favorite fresh food stores. It’s an inspiring read, and will make you want to hunt down the freshest produce possible and handle it with care to get every bit of phytonutrient bang for your buck.

As they were getting ready to leave, I dropped by their table one last time. One of the couples hung back and asked if I’d like to try a new product they had brewed. A mulled wine with dried fruit and spices. Really good stuff. Typically this would be a cold weather drink, served warm on it’s own or mixed with some creamy coconut milk…but the proprietor assured me it’s just as lovely over vanilla ice cream.

After tasting it, I told him we might be interested in carrying this bottle of locally made deliciousness.

“Is it organic?” I asked, retreating in my head in anticipation his answer, an answer all too typical in the food and beverage industry.

“No, it’s not.”

An uncomfortable pause…How could this table of food enthusiasts not value the mission of organic when it comes to crafting their own product?

I could have thanked them for coming in and said goodnight, but I was curious about this apparent dichotomy. I continued to probe.  Their first answer was that going fully organic is cost prohibitive, that’s the answer I hear the most.  As a restaurant operator trying to achieve 100% organic sourcing, I understand this argument, but it’s a weak one if you consider the many variables that go into profitability. Lowering the cost of your raw materials is important, but it isn’t everything. There are other ways to be more efficient to help offset higher costs in one area.

Then he said that the consumer of this product doesn’t really value organic as a differentiator. His feeling was that if he used organic ingredients, his price would have to be higher and his consumer would choose another brand.  Yep, possibly.  But in this case the argument is being made based on the fact that no one is currently making an organic fortified wine. He’s assuming that since no product exists, no consumer for it exists. Hmmmm…

I figured that instead of going after his technical reasons for using conventional over organic, I would appeal to the moral argument.  “Okay, I get that” I said to the couple. “What bothers me most about conventional agriculture is the way it turns fertile land into wasted deserts, the eroding of our topsoils, the persistent use of chemical fertilizers which are made by using oil to run industrial equipment turning rocks into nitrogen.  We are not leaving the world in good shape for our future generations unless we insist on organic farming practices”.

I was on a roll. “Organic farming leads to bio diversity, respects existing ecosystems, is better for the health of those working the farm, leads to greater choices for consumers, and creates better tasting food that is clean and therefore better for our health”.

Then it got interesting.

“I used to believe all of that,” he said. “I built a house that was organic, I grew organic food, I only purchased furniture and accessories and clothes and consumer products that met the highest standards of clean and sustainable.”

Wow, I suddenly felt like a bit of a sellout myself.  Maybe I wasn’t going far enough in my mission with Zeal? This guy had gone zero impact in every area of his life! But at some point he shifted away from that, why? And why had he taken it so far to begin with?

Love.  As the story started to unfold, I discovered that this was a mission to save someone he’d loved. Someone who was dying from cancer. As his current girlfriend moved in to comfort him, he explained all these amazing changes he had made to his life in the hope that if he could provide the healthiest environment imaginable he could save his wife from the cancer that was killing her.

But ultimately, cancer won and his wife died, and with it his trust in the organic way. He rebelled against everything that he had originally pursued with such passion. His heavy heart connected his loss to all the changes he had made. His optimistic belief that any of it would make a difference suddenly felt foolish. He had believed organic living could beat back a disease like cancer, that food is potent medicine.

And now I was the one feeling foolish, standing opposite this man making a meaningless pitch use organic grapes and other fruits for his wine.

He had me, and I backed down. I told him I understood and did my best to empathize as we wrapped it up.  I gave him a hug. Maybe eating clean food and cleansing your environment of toxins isn’t a guaranty that you can beat back a vicious disease? Maybe nothing could have solved his problem? Life is afterall, uncertain and impermanent.

But what if he could have prevented the cancer from ever showing up in the first place?  That’s the possibility that the world seems to have given up on. We can never prove it in his particular case, but what about all the other people the organic way could positively impact? Like this man’s new love, his friends and family, the people that will grow the grapes that he uses to make his wine, the people who consume it. This man probably learned to do things that many of us don’t know, and he could be a leader and an inspiration for tens, hundreds maybe thousands of people. That’s the optimistic view, that’s the man who rises up to a challenge, and that’s the way you memorialize someone you love passionately enough, someone for whom you changed the way you lived. You stay with it and continue to do it in their honor because their life may have been a sacrifice, so that others could thrive.  Breaking free of the status quo requires fortitude, perseverance, and patience. It’s not easy, it never will be. But it’s worth it, for love.

Zeal Takes the Title of Best New Restaurant!

On April 1st I got a visit from Julian at the Boulder Weekly and he started off telling me that we finished an impressive 3rd in the voting for Best New Restaurant.  Oh, I replied rather flatly… April Fools, this blond haired pink hued irishmen bursts out laughing, we won the title!

Wow!  Can’t believe that we took first out of all of Boulder County.  And I love this particularly because you only get one crack at it, next year we aren’t new anymore.  It’s like that feeling of finishing your first marathon, or your first public speech, or going to your first prom.  We’ll never be virgins again so it’s nice that on our rookie appearance we nailed it.

So congrats to us!  Our enthusiasts that make up the zeal family deserve this for bringing great energy into the restaurant every day.  And our fans deserve this because they grace us with an amazing spirit every day and attract other that do the same.  I’ve never been in a restaurant where so many people are genuinely high on life…go #boulder  go #zeal #food for enthusiasts.


First Zeal Blog – checking in at the 100 day mark

zeal_food_lightedsignMore highs than lows which makes for a promising start in our young life at Zeal. The smiles on peoples faces, the positive feedback and appreciation of the food and the atmosphere have all been amazing and rewarding. The people of Boulder have been gracious and I feel really fortunate to have made new friends and connected with so many conscientious, warm and generous locals. Food, as has been my experience, is something that opens sharing and communication. The act of eating wakes up the senses and can alter your state of mind (even without the wine). But this doesn’t happen with much of the heavily processed foods we often find in front of us. I know my senses come alive more when I delve into a bowl of vibrant food that was picked fresh, handled with care and served with love.  And that’s why I wanted to bring Zeal to life – I call it food for enthusiasts.

There have been a few lows. It was tough, particularly that first month, getting to a consistent meal and service level. Everyone worked hard logging beastly long hours, and we all grew short. One day a couple of vegans who had ordered take out brought it back claiming their vege bowls were tainted with meat. I fielded this complaint with all the grace of a three legged bull and asked the two fellas if they realized that those organic vegetables were grown in manure…”where do you draw the line?” I snooted. That didn’t go over well.

Then there was the time one of our managers, tired and cranky, actually told a table full of young women to “move it along”.  He was in table turning mode but failed to realize that a) we had no one waiting for a table, and b) the ladies were only still there because the server was struggling to add up the check correctly. Whoops.

But probably the biggest challenge of the first three months has been keeping everyone positive and mindful of the reason we are here: to share a passion for eating really good food and carry this enthusiasm out in a warm and inviting setting with a dash of cool that makes it a place you want to see and be seen.  It started out very positive as we introduced all of our new job applicants to the story of Zeal, to our mission to bring about change in casual dining and to our vision of a future with multiple restaurants serving organic cold pressed juice and hand prepared food using the freshest and best ingredients possible.  But somewhere in these first few months that story has been shadowed over by the realities of things like: working 90 hours a week, tip pool sharing, job pay by position, schedule assignments, wardrobe and uniforms, company meals, employee discounts, not breaking every plate and glass, and probably a few others that I’m forgetting.

 Wait, what about my perfect Zeal utopia…where all the guests are happy and flood our dining room daily, all the food is delicious and fairly priced, and all the employees are fully engaged and love the work they perform?  Ah, not so easy to execute I discovered.  The lesson that comes back over and over is that communication is so important to maintaining unity and helping everyone feel like they are valued and essential.  Take the tip pool as a case study in the importance of constant and open communication.  In February I was looking at potential revolt by the front of house crew and a looming walk out.  The communication started out well and during interviews and orientation we educated the staff about the plan to pool all gratuities and share them.  The point of tip pooling has merit, imagine a system that encourages a cooperative culture of teamwork and gives everyone the upside of earning tips to increase the value of their time worked. The idea is that employees in positions which normally do not interact much with guests are encouraged to jump in and help make the guest experience exceptional.  But this system broke down as those who were working the hardest to earn the tips felt like they were disproportionately compensated.  To make things worse, they didnt have any transparency into how the tips were being allocated and it was a bit of a surprise each pay period when they learned their pay.  Anyone that has worked in the service industry can appreciate that this is anathema to what normally occurs, and tips are usually taken home the same day they are earned.  So not only were the tips delayed, but they were a total mystery!

 To everyone except me, the man paying out the tips every two weeks.  So I had to make some adjustments and be up front with everyone about how the tips are divided and why pooling the tips is essential for the health of the restaurant and the philisophy of Zeal on an organizational level.  This meant explaining that one of the uses of the tip pool is to help out labor costs by offsetting wages.  Part of the business planning for Zeal involved accepting higher than normal food costs in order to source all of this high quality product, like organic and non-gmo vegetables, grains and fruits; local grass fed beef, local pastured organic pork and chickens, organic spirits, organic beer, organic nuts and milks, and so on.  Restaurant economics are simple, and the model is proven that if you can keep food and labor at about 30% a piece, then you can eek out some profit after you pay rent, utilities, and other operating costs.  But since organic costs so much more, I estimated our food costs at about 36%, which meant that labor had to offset it.  The way this could be accomplished was to pay a lower employee wage and make it up to everyone using the house gratuities.  Only, I never actually shared all this backstory this with everyone, and certainly not in enough detail that they knew what to expect.  So I apologized for neglecting to do this and gave everyone a complete description of the plan and the theory behind it.  We have lost a few people here and there, but I think overall the family is sticking together and while many of our servers would otherwise still prefer to keep their own tips, the pay is actually pretty good and the busier we are the more everyone takes home.

zeal_food_patio_earlyspringEveryone is looking forward to the warm weather and opening up the Zeal to Pearl St.  As part of the remodel of the space we occupy at 1710 Pearl St., we installed two eight-foot wide garage doors smack in the center of the front wall and can’t wait to have these open on a regular basis as warm weather sets in this Spring.  On Sunday March 9th I posted a picture on our Instagram page of what’s to come: it was a 70 degree day and a day full of sunshine and Pearl Street was alive with activity.  At about 1:00pm, and for the very first time, we opened both doors all the way up and they stayed wide open for about 3 or 4 hours.  It was a real scene to be proud of as the owner of this beautiful new restaurant, and people filled our outdoor patio, filled the restaurant, and even occupied the sidewalk outside of the patio talking to friends who were inside the railing.  Ah, it was a coming of age moment for this place.  Bring it on!