Interview: Chef Josh Niernberg

Interview: Chef Josh Niernberg - Valentich Goods

We're excited to kick off our interview series with Chef Josh Niernberg, owner of Bin 707, Tacoparty, and Dinnerparty in Grand Junction, Colorado. We talk about Josh's transition from competitive snowboarder to chef, growing a sustainable restaurant empire on the Western Slope, and fixing our broken food system.

You were a pro snowboarder before becoming a chef and I also read that you studied industrial design. Can you tell me a little about your journey? When did you discover food and wine and realize that was what you wanted to do? What was that transition like?  

I started cooking in High School. I was also a competitive snowboarder at the time. Through my 20’s, I focused on sustaining a living solely as a snowboarder. I competed in snowboard-cross and was nationally ranked pretty high although was never able to make it over the hump of supporting myself solely from competition winnings and sponsorships. During this time, I remained cooking in kitchens at night. I cooked throughout Denver, Steamboat, Summit county and Lake Tahoe. After spending a year cooking in Tahoe and returning to Denver, I moved from the BOH to the FOH at Restaurant Kevin Taylor and spent the following several years studying wine, service, spirits and managed high end restaurants in Denver. I returned to school at age 30 to study graphic design and half way through my senior year, my wife Jodi and I moved to the Grand Valley in mid ‘07. I was never able to graduate, but when the recession hit, we saw a unique opportunity to take our collective experience in the industry, combine it with the idea of rapid prototyping, marketing and manufacturing that is Industrial Design, and use that as a basis to build Bin 707 Foodbar into, not only a restaurant, but a unique concept utilizing our native resources as the foundation for each dish.

Chef Josh Niernberg cooking at Bin 707

It seems like for a chef there are two trajectories: a. Go to culinary school and learn technique, which is costly or b. Work hard in kitchens and learn through experience. I think it’s not always clear what the best route is. Do you have any words of advice for someone just starting out?

I think we have seen such huge progress in the last ten years. For the first time in a long time, there are new techniques being developed at a rate far quicker than at anytime before. Culinary school is a great foundation to get a kickstart into multiple techniques that are hard to develop by working at a single restaurant, but moving from job to job every six months isn't ideal nor good for one's reputation.  With that said, spending money on culinary school allows for greater focus over a shorter period, while gaining real world experience creates a more well rounded cook/chef, but takes much longer to learn the same information. In both cases, none of us ever stop learning and everyone's individual course is unique. I don't resent not going to culinary school, but in a way, my industrial design education has functioned AS culinary school for me. So - to each their own!

Native Blue Corn Taco at Tacoparty
You decided to establish yourself as a chef and restaurateur in Grand Junction, which isn’t exactly known for its restaurant scene. But, it seems like it really worked for you. What brought you to GJ? What are the pros and cons to living, working, and growing your business on the Western Slope?

My wife is from GJ and her family is here. We had an opportunity to come for a few years and help with some family business. We planned to be here for no more than 2 years. As I mentioned, just after we arrived, the recession hit and hit GJ hard. The nature of the Denver restaurant scene has always been a quick turnaround and when we began talking about doing our own place, Denver just wasn't ranking very high when balancing our pros and cons on where to open something. I saw an opportunity for us to use the local distillery, brewery and of course the many wineries, along with the access we'd have to farmers, ranchers and artisans to build a menu with a positive economic impact on our community while simultaneously functioning as our marketing program. In 2009 the term “Farm to Table” did not exist and local sourcing was far from cool. On the contrary, not unlike now, Italian restaurants imported their tomatoes, French restaurants imported their cheese, Steak houses were serving Argentinian free range beef. NOBODY was serving Colorado Products. 

In a way, I kind of owe Ben Parsons (owner of urban winery Infinite Monkey Theorem) with credit for the concept. While I was the wine buyer and General Manager for Sketch in Cherry Creek North, I began buying Ben’s wines out of the back of the truck he was driving to deliver them from Durango. He was making wine for Sutcliff at the time, and self distributing it out of his truck. It occurred to me then, (‘04 or so), that we had a broken system if it was easier to get a bottle of Australian Cab Sauv than it was to get Colorado Cab Sauv. I had always tried to support Ben and used that experience to shape our sourcing model from then on.

Chef Josh Niernberg Plating Food

Could you tell me about Bin 707, Tacoparty, and Dinnerparty? How did these concepts evolve and how do you juggle all of them?

Bin 707 Foodbar is “Seasonal Colorado Cuisine”. We serve lunch and dinner seven days a week, source Local 1st, Colorado 2nd and Domestic 3rd. We focus on trying to continually define “Colorado Cuisine” in a super approachable and affordable full service setting. We started in 2009 and moved to our current location in 2011. We have 70 seats inside and another 50 on the patio and employ a staff of about 50. We don't take reservations and seat first come first serve.

A few years in, our popularity had grown to the point of having an hour plus wait for a table seven days a week. Our local customer base was being displaced by tourist and destination diners. We saw the need to open a quick service restaurant close by to continue to offer the option of a quick bite with the same ethos we had built Bin upon.

We found a building about two blocks away that had been vacant for 10+ years. It was larger than we needed, but had a unique layout with the restrooms being exactly in the middle of the building, a great west facing facade with an unobstructed view of the Colorado National Monument, and it was directly across the street from a city owned parking lot. We bought the building with the plan of building out two full restaurants with a shared restroom corridor, but we only had one concept. 

Tacoparty is, like Bin, a way to explore colorado cuisine, this time as a contemporary “Southwestern” inspired quick service taco shop. For instance, our tacos are built upon a tortilla made from an indigenous Blue Corn grown outside of Durango which is shipped to GJ, turned into nixtamal pressed into tortillas. We use Palisade produce (including dried Chiles), Colorado and regionally sourced proteins, and draw flavor inspiration from the Bin menu.

Dinnerparty is a place holder. It has been functioning for the last few years as a special event space. A turn key restaurant which we use to host wine dinners, beer dinners, liquor education seminars, pharmaceutical dinners, etc… Again, we use the same sourcing ethos and, in doing so, both Bin and Tacoparty have received spots on the Good Food 100 list. 

I personally am really proud that a quick service taco shop, in a town of 50,000 and a community of 150,000 is able to create change within the food system with positive long term and sustainable impact! 

 An array of food at Tacoparty in Grand Junction

You run both businesses with the help of your wife, Jodi. Could you explain the division of labor and how it is to work so closely together?

Jodi and I met in a restaurant working together. When we moved here, she had the opportunity to start her own commercial real estate and property management business. We built our company together and have been able to grow through her vision and expertise in the real estate field. She continued to work behind the bar all the way into her eight month of pregnancy and has been able to help raise our two boys and work from home since.

From Instagram, it appears you have a good work-life balance, but we all know IG feeds can be deceiving. :) Would you agree? How do you manage it all? What’s a typical day like for you?

Quality of life in Grand junction is pretty great. It’s hard to even compare GJ and the front range in that regard. With that said, we designed our restaurants just as much as we created them. From the beginning, by design, was a restaurant that functioned with emphasis on quality of life for all employees - including us. Our model was to create jobs, to train our employees and empower them. We run a WAY higher than average labor cost in order to have enough staff to keep every employee under 45 hours a week. We can do so as the property values here are far lower. We have the same food and liquor costs as restaurants do anywhere, but our average lease cost per square foot is lower so our labor costs can be higher. We could get by with less staff and probably make way more money than we do, but we are sustainable in this model and it works for us.

The staff of Bin 707 with Chef Josh Niernberg

With that said, I personally probably worked 15 weeks last year over 70 hours. That works out to almost an extra 11 work weeks at 40hr/wk. Or a 63 week calendar year. I push hard to get time off, and my motivation for pushing hard is to keep the restaurants prospering and to keep our employees making better than average wages for both city and state averages. 

In all honesty though… Bin was a success right out of the gate. I had only ever marketed Bin by marketing GJ. It was never about me, just what we are doing and where we are doing it. It wasn’t until we kind of struggled getting Tacoparty going than I knew I had to use my name, title and experience as “chef” to market and promote the restaurants. I joined the Colorado FIVE and I cooked at 35 special events both on and offsite. I doubled down to make it work. 2018 was the busiest year I’ve ever had. 2019 my goal is to not ever have to do 2018 again!

Opening a restaurant is one of the hardest and riskiest things you could do. Any advice for a budding restaurateur? 

 The only way I know how to open a restaurant is to completely immerse myself into every position and role, then teach someone to replace me in that role. From there, I encourage that individual to further evolve that role. From my industrial design background and my history in the industry, I understand that consistency is key. It has taken me a long time to learn that consistency isn't how well I can do something repeatedly, rather it’s how well the person I taught is able to teach the person they are teaching.  If the product can remain consistent through several iterations, it's successful and so are we.

Know your concept, know why it will work, know what to expect as challenges and roll with the punches if you don't. Someone told me recently, the one thing all successful entrepreneurs have in common is when a road block comes up, they blast straight through it.

What’s next for you? Anything exciting on the horizon?  

We have three concepts in motion at the moment. The first opening in early 2020 in the Dinnerparty location!

Anything else you’d like to add? 

I encourage ANYONE interested in opening their own place to look outside the box. As a matter of fact, get out of the box and go the other way! GJ would love to have some more restaurants. I'm sure lots of other small communities would also!


Chef Josh Niernberg at a wine dinner in Grand Junction with the Denver FIVE

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