Lawsuits behind him, Alon Shaya has started building his Israeli food empire, betting what worked in New Orleans will work in Denver and elsewhere.
— Micheline Maynard
What a difference (almost) a year makes.
Last September, award-winning chef Alon Shaya was fired by the Besh Restaurant Group after months of internal power struggles followed by revelations Shaya made to the New Orleans Times-Picayune about sexual harassment in Besh’s restaurants, including ones Shaya managed (Shaya’s restaurants operated under the separate Shaya Restaurant Group banner, a subset of BRG). He subsequently lost a legal battle for the rights to his own name on the place that won a James Beard Award in 2016 as the country’s best new restaurant.
Now, he’s the proprietor of two new restaurants, Saba in New Orleans, and Safta in Denver, serving his upscale Israeli dishes, which feature locally available products. The names mean “grandfather” and “grandmother” in Hebrew.
That Shaya would open again in New Orleans is no surprise. He’s cooked there for nearly 15 years, helping with relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and launched three restaurants for the former Besh restaurant group. But his Denver restaurant raised some eyebrows, in part because of the distance. Many New Orleans chefs have multiple restaurants in the city, including Donald Link, Emeril Lagasse, and Nina Compton, but only a few have ventured farther out, with mixed success.
Shaya had Denver on his radar for years. He and his wife Emily “have spent a lot of time in Colorado over the years. We’ve always left there thinking how beautiful it is and how much we love it and how happy we are when we are there,” he said.
Shaya found himself in Denver four times in four months in 2017, including a visit to judge an episode of “Top Chef” in its 15th season. While there, he was approached about opening a restaurant in The Source, a new development in the River North Art District that includes a hotel and market hall. He and his wife now own a second home in Denver.
“This was all in the works before I got fired,” he said.
A Fresh Start
Upon his dismissal, Shaya quickly formed the Pomegranate Hospitality Group, whose core staff worked with him at the original Shaya restaurant. The Denver dream became a reality out of necessity. “We had to make some moves and get some restaurants up and running,” he said
Starting fresh coincided with another goal: creating a supportive restaurant culture. Shaya says he was inspired to do so by a North Carolina road trip with Ari Weinzweig, the co-founder of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Weinweig has written and spoken frequently about the idea of servant leadership, in which bosses try to meet the needs of employees and customers, not dominate the enterprise.
“He helped me realize we had to invest in our happiness before we invested in something,” Shaya said. “Without that, everything can fall apart. I’ve seen people who aren’t happy lose it all. Not because they aren’t talented. It’s because they don’t have values that they stand behind. Making hummus is easy. Everything else is hard.”
Before hiring restaurant staff, Shaya and his executive team brainstormed 10 core values they wanted the restaurants to embrace, including accountability, respect, and communication. “It was extremely detailed and complex,” he said.
At New Orleans restaurant Saba, which opened in May, about a third of employees previously worked with Shaya. But the new Denver restaurant, which opened in August, was a ground-up venture with a nearly all-new staff. To lay the groundwork for his group’s expansion to a new city, Shaya held a number of pre-opening training sessions to outline the core values, with photos and video posted across the Pomegranate and Safta social media accounts.
“I wouldn’t classify one as easier than the other,” Shaya said. “Doing a build up is easier than a new design, but taking over something existing teaches you something, too.”
Visibility in a New Market
Shaya’s reputation undoubtedly won him an initial round of publicity upon Safta’s opening. He also gets additional visibility from his location within the Source Hotel and Market. Israeli food is hot across the U.S. from Philadelphia to Detroit to Los Angeles, and with Denver being filled with health-conscious foodies, his initial reception seems strong. Plus, there’s the name-recognition factor: his national reputation also makes Safta a place for food-focused travelers to check out in the hot Denver market.
With his two restaurants open, Shaya can get back to promoting his cookbook, Shaya: An Odyssey in Food, My Journey Back To Israel. Published last fall during the thick of his legal troubles, he cut short his book tour to focus on his business ventures. “You have to make the most of the cards dealt to you,” he said.