From the Heart

Untitled No. 5 by Mickalene Thomas

I love writing.

Really, I do.

However, it doesn’t pay the bills (not yet anyway).

Working in the hospitality industry lets me do both. 

What is my relationship with restaurants, anyway? For one, I grew up in one — my late Lola Sally’s bakeshop, just down the road from my Lolo’s house in Cebu. I probably learned to walk by propping myself against stainless steel tables and dining chairs. My first real job was in a casino outside of Columbia, hosting and bussing tables at 18. When I was 21, I traded blackjack for breadsticks at the Olive Garden so I could support myself in journalism school, using my friends as story ideas, adding guests to my network. And then, lucky for me, my major developed into a focus on food and wine. It was all one motion after the other, which didn’t make much sense at the time, that wrapped into a beautiful synchronicity. 

And for awhile, I did feel stagnant after my newspaper and magazine gigs, as I retreated from the dining scene to actively working in it to figure out my next move. I was over waiting tables but I was also over being in an office. I had turned into a social creature by habit. I loved being around people, learning and helping them, even if in the smallest of ways. 

I applied at different jobs – the library, the national renewable energy lab, cannabis companies – already knowing it was a “no” as I submitted my resume. I was a journalist with a restaurant background. How does that fit into human resources? 

I spent about six months like that. At a crossroads, wondering whether to bail on what I love, without even realizing that the answer was right in front of my face, a profession by accident and instinct, but held the stark truth for me the whole time. 

I remember the first time I walked into the Art, with its twinkling lights racing along the ceiling before I stepped inside. 

Before I ascended to the fourth floor, a blue neon sign catches my eye. 

“I can feel your smile,” it says. 

When I crossed the main lobby — an airy, sunlit landing with floor-to-ceiling windows and wooden floors that I twirl and kick on every day — I am greeted by the bronze sculptures of Singer and Otter. I sat on a high-top close to the terrace, as it was raining outside yet the fire pit continued to burn. I surveyed the restaurant, its own art a collectable mix of old and new, from spinning holographic mylar structures from behind the bar to the billboard-esque “Ocean View.” I knew at once that this was the place for me. 

My friend had told me about this job and the kind of money it entailed. Fine dining had its perks, especially because of the location and most especially because of its clientele. I remember the days I would slave away to make ends meet; it was all paying off now. I serve all sorts of people — politicians, musicians, movie stars — as well as tourists and locals. Being surrounded by all this magical art and finally making money was the perfect formula to let go of all the words that had been locked up inside me. How was I supposed to write stories when I desperately needed to write my own?

I started to remember. 

My childhood was quite drastic, moving from one extreme to the other, being exposed to not-so-kind people, held down by the traumas of everyone, as I struggled to write and sing and dance and play music and sports to get through it all. And after that, I dragged myself through college, knowing that this was the right step for me, achieving my lifelong goal to become a published writer. However, I had no real plan for the future. Who knew that the answer was as simple as that I wanted to travel and write? I survived it all (barely) and at 25, finally felt comfortable enough to sit down and re-evaluate who and what I was.

Five years ago, I never would have imagined that the restaurant industry would save me in such a way that I could be free and creative and happy again, as that’s all I was searching for during my education. A way to write and travel and help others the best way I could. I’m on my feet a lot, sure, but I wouldn’t trade it for all the laughs, smiles, and hugs I’ve been given in the past year. In exchange, I’ve written so much poetry and fiction and essays, and I’ve spent the past years traveling all over Colorado and beyond, that I’ve achieved a level of contentment I didn’t think I could ever get to. I know that others won’t be as lucky as me to find my career path so crystal clear in front of me, but maybe that’s what you should look at the most: What is right in front of you?

My Favorite Breakfast Spots in Denver

Denver, CO — Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. Here’s a list of my favorite restaurants to hit up in the Mile-High.

The French Press Cafe and Bakery — Five years ago, I stumbled upon the French Press when it was still part of a strip mall in Lakewood. I fell in love with their zucchini pistachio pancakes then and still order them often to this day. Everything else is delicious at this New Orleans inspired cafe such as the breakfast burrito with pork green chile or their own version of a Monte Cristo (please please please bring it back). Special shoutout to the candied bacon which is hands down the best bacon I’ve ever eaten in my entire life.

The breakfast burrito from the French Press Cafe and Bakery

Sassafras American Eatery — I’m not a huge “bennie” person but Sassafras’ “Deep South” Benedict takes me straight back to Nawlins. Pulled pork, pepper jam, and jalapeño cornbread makes this the perfect protein packed breakfast. Sassafras also has a killer bar game with its mimosa flights, spiked milkshakes, and lavender-infused cocktails. *Sigh* Can I just be there already?

The Cajun Benedict from Sassafras American Eatery

Prosper Oats — Sometimes I just want to start my day off with an açaí bowl, is that okay? I like stopping by the Prosper Oats in LoHi and building my own, topped with dates, granola, cacao nibs, and crystallized ginger. (If you don’t know what you want, Prosper Oats has plenty of other combos for you to choose from.) Other times, if I’m craving a smoothie, I’ll get the “Pearls for Eyes,” a blendy blend of kiwifruit, grapefruit, banana, and coconut milk.

Green Seed Market — And sometimes, all I want for breakfast is fresh-pressed juice, and one of my favorite spots just happens to be located in none other than the Denver Central Market. I’ve eaten probably everything here (don’t quote me on that), and I could still never get bored of this place. Juices range from charcoal lemonade to blends like “Detox” or “Immunity 2.0.” I don’t really drink it because of the fancy names, I mainly drink it because it’s actually really good.

Butcher Block Cafe — When I want a home cooked breakfast, I will drive into the mess that is RiNo and face the potholes to dine at the good old Butcher Block. I always order the #1 Breakfast Special, which comes with eggs, bacon, and French toast soaked in pancake batter (!!!) It’s serious comfort food, and I regret even letting you in on this. I take it back, it’s awful, don’t go. 😉

Araujos — Para desayuna, toma los $2 breakfast burritos y una horchata, para llevar.

Black Eye Coffee — You might get a haughty barista and glares from the work-from-homers when you come in to Black Eye, but I don’t care. You can trace their arrays of roasts back to the bean and they know how to make a mean cup of java. Don’t forget about its food menu though! I occasionally crave the homemade brioche topped with apples, bruleed goat cheese and honey. ‘Tis divine.

June 12, 2019

Syrup — I’ll admit, I’ve never been to City Park West before but I’ll go for Syrup. An expanding Denver breakfast chain, Syrup is a delicious spot perfect for brunching. I fell in love with their coconut French toast, covered in crunchy coconut flakes and coconut syrup, which tastes every bit as good as it sounds. I paired it with a tall pint of house nitro cold brew, because who doesn’t like the caffeine and sugar jitters?

Crema How on earth did I forget to add Crema to this list. Located in the heart of RiNo, Crema is another one of those breakfast spots I’d risk my life going into the neighborhood for. They serve the freshest juice, coffee, and delicious quiche that everyone should start their day off with, at least just once. P.S. If there isn’t any room to sit up front, sneak off to the back patio to get away from the hectic morning crowds OR alternatively, head to its Denver Central Market bodega.

September 21, 2019

Waste Not, Want Not

We all love those prized Palisade peaches that are so easily devoured, crate after crate, at the end of summer every year. But did you know that one out of four peaches doesn’t even make it out of the orchard? Or that after 253 miles of transporting them to Boulder County (about 10 gallons of gas per truck, round-trip), there’s no guarantee that any particular peach will even hit the shelf before it’s discarded to make room for the next day’s shipment? If the peach bruises or over-ripens in your kitchen, do you know what your options are, besides (God forbid) the trash?

Thankfully, Boulder is home to a slew of proactive efforts dedicated to save foods like the very peaches we love (and tons of other produce) to create an overall better environment and community for future generations. Jamie Harkins, sustainability coordinator for the City of Boulder, says decreasing food waste is increasing in priority for the local government. By updating the City’s Climate Commitment and Action Plan, continuing educational projects and expanding the Food Waste Awareness Week program this September, things are looking bright on Boulder’s food waste reduction horizon.

But locals are also leading the charge: Here are three Boulder County organizations and businesses helping the City reach its zero waste goals.

Boulder Food Rescue

In 2011, Hayden Dansky kick-started a food recovery program named Boulder Food Rescue, which bridges the gap between problems in Boulder’s food infrastructure and food insecurity. “There’s food waste on all levels,” Dansky says — the farm, transportation sectors, distribution systems, grocery stores and, ultimately, consumers, who contribute 60 percent of overall food wasted, according to the 2016 City of Boulder Food Waste Audit. Dansky, who is the program’s executive director, endorses the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, which pinpoints “source reduction” and “feed hungry people” as the top two prerogatives when it comes to managing a more sustainable food system. After finding out that 40 percent of food produced ends up in a landfill, Dansky began to reach out to grocery stores and restaurants to see if businesses would donate any excess produce. Grocery stores such as Sprouts, Lucky’s and Whole Foods now participate in the program, resulting in 1,200 pounds of produce that’s redistributed to low-income communities every day. These businesses benefit by reducing trash collector fees and receiving an incentivized federal tax credit, and the community benefits from the nourishment.

Looking ahead, Boulder Food Rescue plans to create a more engaging environment for the people they serve by sharing the community’s stories about food insecurity. They also plan to continue educating businesses about food donation policies and working with the City of Boulder to develop strategies to reduce even more local food waste.

Eco-Cycle

In the summer of 2015, the City of Boulder, along with the green minds behind Eco-Cycle, passed the Universal Zero Waste Ordinance that requires all restaurants, businesses and schools to reduce waste by recycling and composting. Eco-Cycle has been in the pro-environmental game since 1976 — when founders Roy Young and Pete Grogan started to collect recyclables on an old school bus — and the organization has helped create recycling facilities and conduct research programs for Boulder County ever since. Nowadays, Eco-Cycle focuses on educating the community about composting and how they can dispose of organic waste both curbside and in their own backyards. 

Communications Director Harlin Savage says businesses have many questions and obstacles to address when first learning about the logistics of composting, such as space constraints, but the long-term benefits to composting have sparked interest in working beyond these hurdles. Composted soil adds nutrients to the land, it’s more resistant to erosion and grows plentiful produce. “By diverting waste, it prevents methane gas’ heat trapping power,” Savage adds, a toxic emission that is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. 

In the next 11 years, Eco-Cycle envisions Boulder achieving their zero-waste milestone and continuing intensive compost research within the county.

The Stone Cup

The Town of Lyons has committed to becoming a zero-waste community and The Stone Cup’s owner Mindy Tallent is fully on board. While it’s a costly practice for the restaurant and a continual process of educating customers, Tallent says it’s worth it because the country’s astronomical food waste needs to be addressed. Within her shop, Tallent uses ceramic ware and stainless steel silverware for dine-in guests and compostable to-go containers. Customers are encouraged to bring in their own mugs. She also use an in-house composting and recycling program through Eco-Cycle.

The Stone Cup hopes the current government will address climate change and pass legislation that causes change in manufacturing, production and purchasing so it will be more affordable to be environmentally responsible. “Our hope is that folks become more educated about how our environment is impacted by our decisions and actions,” Tallent says. “As business owners, we will continue to do what we can in educating [others] and leading by example.” 

Written for Boulder Weekly. Original article here.

Fast Fashion: An Inside Look on Sweatshop Labor

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Ramsdell of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative at the CU Denver Business School.

Last Tuesday, I went to the CU Denver Business School to attend a discussion about fast fashion and sweatshop labor. Our panelists were Benjamin Powell, an economics professor at Texas Tech and author of “Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy,” and Joris Oldenziel, a Fire and Building Safety director of the Accord in Bangladesh. The conversation spurred some disagreements, but in the end is all about improving the conditions for sweatshop workers.

What is a sweatshop? By definition, it’s an industrial textile factory that:

  • pays workers low wages for long unpredictable hours
  • mistreats their workers (verbal abuse)
  • has unhealthy or oppressive work environments (no meal or bathroom breaks)
  • violates the few labor laws the country has

On top of this list is the physical impact of unregulated factory practices. Joris says in Bangladesh, the second largest producer of garments in the world, there is a lax building code and factories would build up, constructing a floor on top of an existing floor, to make more room for workers. Factories would also knock foundation walls out to expand their space, more or less resulting in a death trap for these workers.

In 2013, the workers in Rana Plaza refused to enter because they felt the building was unsound. However they were forced to re-enter or else lose their jobs. In the end, 1100 people died, many more were injured. Among the rubble, the garments that were pulled out seemed very familiar: Walmart, H&M, Calvin Klein, to name a few. Other factory incidents were documented at Spectrum, Garib + Garib, That’s It, and Tazreen in Bangladesh.

In response, The Accord was created on May 15, 2013. The Accord is a legally binding agreement to hold brands, retailers, unions, and factories all accountable to prevent accidents like this in the future. It requires safety inspections of at least 1600 factories in Bangladesh, conducts reports for transparency purposes, works with brands to make sure changes are financially feasible, and allows workers to refuse to work. There are 200 brands involved, such as United Colors of Benetton, PVH, Target, American Eagle, and NGOs. Fifty percent of the brands involved manufacture RMGs (ready made garments that consumers buy).  

Joris says the fire and electrical factory inspections have greatly reduced the number of factory incidents. Some problems within the factories were wall and foundation cracks, blocked exits and aisles (which was the reason for the Tazreen collapse), electrical wiring, no management of garment weight, and collapsible gates. The Accord has also implemented informational employee meetings with booklets in their language on safety and details about the Accord. Since 2013, Joris says there’s been 2,000 factory inspections, 25,000 follow-ups, 150,000 hazards eliminated, and 91 percent of remediation.

The Accord would like to transition its role to the government, but there are conflicts of interest as the government of Bangladesh is against it. (Their government officials are also factory owners… imagine that.) Joris says they appealed to court earlier this month (February 18), so there is more to follow on the Accord in the future.

Ben Powell of Texas Tech provided a logical voice to the conversation and brought up how to improve the condition of sweatshops: through wage determination and total compensation. If these factories are indeed improving working conditions, which would be a more attractive option for workers, competing businesses who aren’t in The Accord could easily take workers with a higher wage.

“Don’t jeopardize the least bad alternative in comparison to other options,” says Ben. “You have to give them more or better work options or it will push them into worse alternatives.” Bangladesh, overall, will have to create high standards for work environments, better wages, and more developed labor laws that will prevent garment workers from leaving their job for the next “not as bad” opportunity.

Joris added that brands have to be held accountable as well, not just the government or factories, and have the responsibility to make sure that it is a standard to regulate these factories.

The discussion was so eye-opening to me as our business is constantly learning about how to be a sustainable fashion collective. As much as I am for USA-made apparel, I do fully support the ethical decisions being made to create safer work environments and better wages for factories overseas. There is a market and high demand for ethically created clothing. I think about the workers, people who are just trying to make a living and support a family, who work so hard just so we can wear the hottest new fashion styles. They deserve to go to work without fearing for their lives. I hope by educating my audience about all the nuances of fast fashion, we can all be more conscious consumers in the future.

A Growing List of Ways to Be Sustainable

1. Shop from local businesses. It reduces carbon emissions from transportation used and it funnels money into the immediate economy.

2. Make friends with a farmer. Buy local meat and produce.

3. Swap out your fake fabrics for breathable ones such as cotton, linen, or bamboo. You are literally wearing plastic on your skin.

4. Decrease your intake of red meat to every other day to eventually once in awhile. High amounts of beef and pork lead to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

5. Turn your damn lights and water off when you’re not using it.

6. Before throwing something away, give it new life by reselling, repurposing, or donating it.

7. Recycle all plastic* and paper. (Not all plastic is recyclable. Check the package and wash it before tossing in the bin.)

8. Stop using straws!!!

9. Buy yourself a fancy water bottle.

10. The fast fashion industry must be stopped: don’t buy cheap clothes that wear out quickly and invest in quality USA made fashion.