Denver's Restaurants Are Losing Workers to the Cannabis Industry
Bartenders in the Mile High City are ditching cocktails for concentrates and cultivation.
Published on March 31, 2017

If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, we’re gonna let you in on a little secret - all of those smiles are fake. From the server to the bartender, busboy to the dishwasher, all the way through line cooks and hostesses, just about everyone working in your favorite restaurant is pretty much miserable. They work on the weekends, weekdays, federal holidays and their birthday. Oh and did we mention they get paid pennies? Front of house workers get paid less than minimum wage and hope that their tips make up the difference, and behind the scenes employees like cooks and dishwashers are usually getting even less.

So why do so many people work these jobs? Traditionally, the simple answer is because they have to. But in Denver, where the cannabis market is exploding, good help in the restaurant industry is becoming harder and harder to find.  

“No one is talking about it,” Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder and the soon-to-open Tavernetta in Denver, told Bloomberg News. “But Colorado’s restaurant labor market is in Defcon 5 right now, because of weed facilities.”

Grow houses, extraction facilities and dispensaries have nicer work conditions, better pay, and sometimes even health benefits - something almost unheard of in the restaurant world. Compare that to working in a hot kitchen or dealing with demanding guests until 1 or 2 in the morning and even restaurant owners can see how easy the employee’s decision is.

“There’s a very small work pool as it is.” Bryan Dayton, who co-owns three popular restaurants in the Denver/Boulder area, told Bloomberg. “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.”

On the cooking side of things, that stressful life of coursing endless tickets and doing prep work can be replaced with a high paying gig at an infused-edible company.

“Cooks take trimming jobs and make $20 an hour, but it’s not just that.” Jennifer Jasinski, who owns three Denver restaurants, 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.”

Reports from the past year have questioned whether Colorado’s pot industry will hurt the state’s huge craft beer and liquor industry, but if you ask the city’s restaurateurs, there’s no doubt. Dayton told Bloomberg that his restaurants’ booze sales are down 2%, or about $100,000 - something he attributes to diners getting stoned before they eat.

Still, not everything is awful for Denver’s restaurant industry. Everyone’s gotta eat, and for a city where cannabis is the toast of the town and money is flowing freely, they’re eating a lot.

Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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