| Mar 8, 2023

How the Chef Behind ‘Edible Beats’ is Leading the Way on Sustainability

Rather than covering up their heritage, Justin Cucci gave a second life to buildings such as a former brothel by transforming them into testaments of ethical restaurant practices.

For Justin Cucci, founder of the sustainable restaurant group Edible Beats, running restaurants appeared destined from the start. His grandparents owned Ye Waverly Inn from 1956 until they sold it in 1994 and he worked there from the age of eight until he was 27. Cucci told ColoradoBiz Magazine that he felt lucky there was no Food Network show to “taint” the grit, hardship, and dysfunction of the restaurant business that he grew to love. “I grew up with no false hope that a certain charismatically dimpled, ginger chef — as well as Mexican food culture thief, and exploiter of Americans’ weakness for all things sweet — could run a restaurant on those qualities alone,” he said.

After opening two restaurants in Key West, Cucci moved permanently to Denver in 2008. He saw Denver as a beautiful metropolis surrounded by nature, inspiring him to take a holistic view. He wasn’t sure if anyone was interested in a sustainable restaurant in 2008 — he was from New York City, where he felt like everything we desire magically appears when we want it and disappears when we are no longer interested. 

Cucci’s philosophy comes into sharp focus when he talks about “how spoiled” we are as Americans. It’s the one issue he is never asked about. “We’ve been a major piece of why the rest of the world doesn’t have the food and water access that we do. We get cheap clothing, cheap food, we get everything cheap even if it’s at someone else’s expense,” Cucci told me. “We need to be aware that everything we do to enrich our lives has an effect that takes away from everyone else’s … it’s important for sustainability, especially in the food system.” 

Sustainability and Responsible Sourcing

Part of Edible Beat’s sustainability mission includes repurposing buildings, such as a mortuary and a former brothel, to house their restaurants, as well as sourcing locally as much as possible. In the spirit of reciprocity, Cucci also wanted to give back to his employees and Edible Beats is now 100% employee-owned. 

Cucci says there are lots of myths about sustainable practices and it’s good to hold restaurants accountable by asking questions such as if they source their spirits locally or use recycled materials for their toilet paper. In his eyes, if a restaurant offers water bottles, they aren’t sustainable. Edible Beats is 100% wind-powered, its menus are veggie-forward, and all ingredients are sourced responsibly. Its other practices include:

  • Using humane, certified, non-GMO, pasture-raised, vegetarian-fed animal proteins.
  • Using Marine Stewardship Council-certified seafood (listed as Monterey Bay Seafood Watch’s “Best Choice Green”). 
  • Running an organic garden that spans 6,000 square feet and accounts for 20% of its herbs and veggies.
  • Sourcing locally from Colorado farmers and artisans, accounting for more than 50% of ingredients.
  • Working with local partners such as Callicrate Beef (which avoids stressing its animals, and uses no growth agents or antibiotics), Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch (“Colorado’s first and only edible-insect food company”), and The Butterfly Pavilion (which maintains its beehive and garden). 


Honoring the Buildings

Cucci says when he decided to start a new restaurant, he needed to connect with the building if he was to choose it for repurposing. “I had a strong mental, physical, spiritual connection to either the architecture or its context in the neighborhood in its previous life,” he says. “What is so important to me is to be able to tell the story that we needed to tell … I always wanted to honor the building. Not cover up its history.”

For the building housing Edible Beat’s Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, that history includes a previous incarnation as a sex shop, brothel, and peep show. Cucci also turned a former candy store into Vital Root, and an ex- gas station into Root Down. The restauranteur says he wanted to expose a building’s history and use its native “ingredients.” 

“Those ingredients could be the existing floors. In every one of these buildings, as much as we could, we used the existing floor,” he says. “If it was concrete slab, we used it; or if it was concrete brick, we used it. If the ceiling was made of crappy popcorn plaster, we used it.” 

Cucci knew he didn’t want to hit his customers over the head with a theme (think caskets inside of Edible Beat’s Linger, a repurposed mortuary) but to at least hint at the building’s history — instead of replacing the materials with whatever was trending at all the new hip restaurants, such as hardwood floors or drop ceilings. 

Putting Employees First 

Edible Beats is the first employee-owned restaurant group in Denver. Around 2017, Cucci began to put together a plan for Edible Beats’ succession. What would happen when Cucci was no longer owner/chef? He didn’t feel comfortable selling to a third party or even to a high-value employee. So he looked into Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) that would allow employees to own the whole company through shares accumulated in a trust. Cucci would, however, remain CEO

Only about 1% of 6,000 ESPOPs in the US are categorized as food service and accommodation. “I was like, wow, here’s an opportunity for the restaurant group to sort of have a legacy beyond myself,” Cucci told FSR Magazine.

“But at the same time, I can still be involved and it also was an opportunity to, I think, shake up an industry that usually just spits people out.”

Becoming an ESOP took more than $400,000 to set up, and will take another $75,000 to $100,000 for maintenance. However, Denver is offering up to $100,000 in tax credits for employee-owned companies. 

The Long Haul of Success

Although aspiring restaurateurs may be inspired to follow the Edible Beats lead, Cucci reminds them that making restaurants employee-owned and sustainable takes a lot of hard work. He asks future chefs if they are willing to work more than 70 hours a week and endure not paying themselves, the bank, or their family for years. 

“No industry embodies the mantra, ‘Success is stumbling from one failure to the next without the loss of enthusiasm,’ better than the restaurant business,” Cucci says. “Finally, be prepared to watch most of the world spend their days looking forward to rare moments when everything goes right, while you spend your time maximizing the moments that go wrong. Do that and you’re an honorary restaurateur. Do that and spend each day wishing you were better, instead of wishing things were easier, and you might, just maybe, be in that 40% of restaurants [that make it].”

Lauren Gombas
Lauren Gombas

Opinion Contributor,

Lauren Gombas is a writer from Colorado who enjoys exploring new ideas and whose creative experience ranges from podcasting and blog writing to public art. view profile


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