Why Flip Burgers When You Can Sling Weed? Denver's Pot Boom Puts the Hurt on Local Restaurant Hiring

Denver's pot boom is turning into kind of a bummer for restauranteurs as they find their workforce skedaddling toward greener pastures in the legal marijuana industry. While the city keeps growing, and indeed, is also going through a restaurant boom, the young workers the culinary industry relies on are forsaking hot, high-pressure kitchens for cool, quiet cultivation centers, pot shops, and myriad other marijuana industry positions.

Marijuana has helped put Denver on the national map and has helped drive a tourism boom that keeps restaurants full—and new ones opening—but the restauranteurs are starting to grumble about its impact on their ability to find and keep workers, as Bloomberg News reported.

Jennifer Jasinski, a Wolfgang Puck alum whose Denver restaurant empire includes seafood-oriented Stoic and Genuine, beer joint Euclid Hall, and her flagship Rioja, is having a hard time.

“Cooks take trimming jobs and make $20 an hour, but it’s not just that," she said. "Pastry chefs are in high demand in the pot world. Laced candies and gummy bears are sought-after treats when they are made well, so pastry chefs and cooks can make them for three to four times the money a restaurant can pay. All this just exacerbates an already tight work force in Denver.”

She's not alone. Bryan Dayton, who co-owns three popular dining destinations in the Denver/Boulder area—Oak at Fourteenth, Acorn, and Brider—feels the pain, too.

“Our work force is being drained by the pot industry,” he said bluntly. “There’s a very small work pool as it is. Enter the weed business, which pays $22 an hour with full benefits. You can come work in a kitchen for us for eight hours a day, in a hot kitchen. It’s a stressful life. Or you can go sort weed in a climate-controlled greenhouse. It’s a pretty obvious choice.”

Bobby Stuckey, the James Beard award winning co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder and the soon-to-open Tavernetta in Denver, is another big name restauranteur singing the weed competition blues. He said he's losing someone to the pot industry every few weeks.

“A line cook, it’s not a highly paid position: a lot of work, lot of hours, very intense," Stuckey said. "And you’re having a bad week. It’s hard not to quit for a grow facility where you’re making several dollars more an hour.”

And it's not just restaurants being affected, Stuckey added.

“The economy here is booming, but there’s not enough construction workers to get the buildings constructed; they all want to work in grow facilities,” said Stuckey. “Everybody wants to hear funny stories about the pot industry, but it’s a serious part of the business.”

Several of the restauranteurs pointed to another deleterious impact of legal weed on their businesses: they're selling less booze.

Dayton said his alcohol sales are down about 2%, or $100,000, at both Acorn and Oak, and reported that his distillers and distributors are reporting similar sales declines. He blamed people eating pot edibles and then foregoing a shot of whiskey or glass or wine.

Jasinski reported a 4% decline in alcohol sales at Euclid Hall, her most youth-oriented restaurant. "We have very low profit margins as it is," she complained.

Still, there is an upside to the legal pot economy.

"More hungry customers," said Dayton.

“The owners of these grow facilities are pretty sophisticated, and they’re curious about what they’re drinking,” said Stuckey, whose wine program won him a James Beard award. “If you’re into the differences between different strains of weed, like Kush or Pineapple Express, or Incredible Hulk, then I have some old bottles of nebiollo that I want to taste you on.”


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