Dave Query is a busy man. With four different restaurant concepts — Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, West End Tavern, Centro Mexican Kitchen and The Post Chicken and Beer — and more than a dozen locations in Colorado (and one in Kansas City), Query doesn’t get much time to relax. And he’s perfectly OK with that.
Query, a self-described workaholic at age 58, founded his Big Red F restaurant group 27 years ago and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down yet. We sat down with Query to learn more about his approach to hospitality and the restaurant business.
What was the COVID-19 pandemic like for your restaurants? What pivots did you make and why?
It was crazy. It’s hard to ever plan for something like that. One of our big focuses was tackling pay inequity during that time and making a switch to something we had talked about for a long time, but the pandemic gave us the opportunity to finally tackle that pay inequity between the front and back of the house. So when we reopened, we moved into a tip-sharing model and created top-of-market wages for every position. Colorado’s minimum wage is now $12.32 an hour and with our tip-sharing model, the lowest-paid employee we have now makes $22 an hour. We’ve got dishwashers making $22 to $24 an hour, and cooks making upwards of $28 to $30 an hour. And it’s been great. It’s really helped to close the gap between the front and back of house, which was already a huge inequity and for some employees, who are working two and three jobs, this was a great opportunity for us to really figure that out and stop that.
You almost had to have a reboot. It’s hard to make a change just out of the blue, so coming out of COVID-19, everything was up for grabs at that point and so it wasn’t as hard to make a change because we had just lived through the craziest thing of our lives, why not do something else crazy?
What’s your overarching vision for Big Red F restaurants in terms of expansion and future plans?
We’re trying to take advantage of some opportunities coming out of the pandemic and we have plans to grow the Post Chicken and Beer joints, so we opened one in Estes Park and we’re opening one in Fort Collins. We also launched Big Red F Catering and Provisions, and we bought a food truck — we named her Queenie. She’s running around now as people are changing their catering and their partying habits. We’re trying to alter our ability to offer food in a way that lends itself to more of the outdoor and alternative event and party spaces, and certainly having a truck helps us to be a little more nimble in that pursuit.
We’ve got one restaurant that’s out of state in Kansas City and that’s hard to do really well, so we’ll pick and choose when we do that again. But we just love Colorado and the Front Range. We looked at places in the mountains and on the Western Slope, but nothing has ever really stuck. We’re just going to keep trying to do things that are relevant and enjoyed by as many people as possible.
What motivates you to come to work every day? What excites you about your job?
It’s just fun. I’ve had a lot of people who have been with the company for a long time, so I have a commitment to them to make things work and create opportunities for them, whatever that looks like. It’s fun. The restaurant business is very challenging and very rewarding and very exciting and kick-you-in-the-butt and knock-the-wind-outta-your sails and all that. You can’t drop your guard, especially in pandemic times. It’s been quite exciting — both exhilarating and terrifying — during these last 20 months figuring out how to go about doing things and what the right moves are.
As you approach 60, do you have any retirement plans in the works?
When you read my obituary it will say, ‘Dave has given his notice and is retiring soon, if not already.’ But no, I have no desire not to work. I like to work. I get a lot of reward out of work. I am not the kind of person that’s like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to retire.’ I certainly like to take time off and travel and enjoy vacations with kids and my wife and family. I love recreating, but I love working.
What is your approach or philosophy to collaborating with/mentoring other chefs and restaurateurs? Why?
I always help people write business plans and help them raise money and help them find locations, negotiate leases. It’s what I would expect people to do for my kids if they reached out and had a business challenge. That’s what makes community is you support people and more businesses. The more thriving businesses, the more thriving business is. So always trying to help people.
I had a lot of good help when I was coming up and I’m a big believer in that pay-it-forward philosophy. When somebody calls and says, ‘Hey, I need some advice,’ I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m honored that you would think that anything I have to say is worth listening to.’ We’ve had restaurant owners come hang out with us in our offices and spend a day learning all that we do. We put a lot of people through mini-bootcamps, sometimes a day, sometimes two or three days.
We’re not saving lives, this isn’t something patented scientific process we’re doing. It’s pretty cut and dry, but sometimes it’s helpful for people to hear the repetitive response to their questions. Maybe it’s different coming from somebody sitting in the trenches with them, doing it.
What are the biggest restaurant trends or challenges you foresee in the near- and long term?
Certainly COVID-19 forced people inside, which required them to dine in their homes, so carryout and takeaway food has become a big part of everybody’s lives — just trying to figure that out. We’re trying to work with the current supply chain issues and I think they’re going to get worse. We’re all just poised for another closure, another dining room modification, another mask mandate. The last 20 months have been a whole new level of what makes a trend and where it’s going. It’s all too up in the air. We’re just going to take it one day at a time, one shift at a time, one guest at a time.
What do you wish people knew about dining out right now?
I just wish people would lean into kindness. It’s really challenging being in any service business right now. Everyone is tired, including the guest. It’s just frustrating right now. It is what it is, here we all are and here we all go. Everybody you meet is going through something you have no idea about. We’re all dealing with it. I wish that people would make sure to put themselves in the shoes of other people.
What’s your favorite dish to order at any Big Red F restaurant?
That would be like saying who’s my favorite child. I like all of our restaurants. I try to eat off the menus as much as possible to give good and creative feedback. If I was just stuck with one item that I could eat, I sure do love breakfast at Centro — it’s really delicious. I love sitting and eating a big plate of oysters at Jax, there’s never a bad time happening there. I like them all. I dig everything we’re making right now.