It’s the end of an era: work and class, co-owner Tony Maciag retires

Tony Maciag and Dana Rodriguez are an odd couple on the Denver dining scene.

Hailing from the Detroit area, Maciag is a self-proclaimed introvert known for his gruff (or, as Rodriguez describes it, “grumpy”) demeanor. He started working in restaurants more than three decades ago to challenge himself before realizing he was “pretty good at it,” he says. He moved to Denver in 1992, working front of house at places like Trinity Grille and Mel’s along the way.

Rodriguez is an energetic and brash firecracker who moved to Denver from Mexico in the 1990s and, under mentor chef Jennifer Jasinski, worked his way up from the dishwasher to Panzano to groom cook to sous chef and beyond. Now the owner of three restaurants — Work & Class, Super Mega Bien and Cantina Loca — she’s also the executive chef behind the reboot of Casa Bonita.

Both have a penchant for profanity, one of the many bonds that unite this unlikely pair of friends and business partners. But on January 30, Maciag retires and officially leaves Work & Class, the popular restaurant the duo opened at 2500 Larimer Street nine years ago.

Rodriguez and Maciag met at Panzano in 1998, when he was hired as a bartender shortly after she started working there. “We were talking when I was in the kitchen or after work, and at one point we just thought, ‘One day it would be fun to have a good restaurant that just didn’t have that bullshit.’ “, recalls Maciag. . “With no disrespect to a fine dining restaurant, but it was kind of like, this whole thing, what does it do? Is it a better experience? Or is the food just better at because of all this?”

Over the years, their paths continued to cross as Rodriguez rose through the ranks of restaurant group Crafted Concepts, the company Jasinski started with Beth Gruitch; Maciag was the opening general manager of the now-closed Euclid Hall when Crafted Concepts opened it in 2010.

“After I left Euclid — I was probably 42 or 43 at the time — I was like, either I have to leave the company or I have to own it,” Maciag says. He had a rough idea of ​​the concept he wanted to create, and that involved bringing in a chef as a partner, someone who would be as invested in the restaurant as he was. “That’s why Dana is the partner,” he notes. “I chose her.

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Tony Maciag salutes his favorite regular, Pickles.

Molly Martin

Together, the two began detailing the details of their new venture. “It was a reductive process,” says Maciag. “A lot of things were scratching things that I didn’t want to do.”

Like terrines, for example. “We were just tasting things, and Dana made a terrine and it was delicious,” Maciag recalls. “But then it felt like that’s not what it was going to be.”

“They’re not working class people,” Rodriguez adds.

What Maciag wanted to do was serve truly delicious food and drink in a format that was very flexible, quick to execute, and able to handle the growing prevalence of diners with different dietary needs. “It’s basically meat and sides in dog bowls,” he says. “I remember when we started, Dana was like, ‘I don’t want my food coming out like this.’ And we had a battle about it.”

But even when they do fight, there’s a bottom line the two agree on: “It’s got to feel good and suit us,” Maciag notes. This approach extends from food and how it is prepared, to operations and how employees are treated, making decisions like choosing to close one day a week (which was not the norm at the era) and take a break every year for Christmas.

Their main motivation in creating Work & Class was: “How can we make a difference? explains Rodriguez. “Even though it’s just a restaurant. It was the bond between us. We wanted to make a difference.”

The restaurant’s approach of serving meats by weight, à la carte sides and pre-prepared cocktails was combined with another important element: the house rules, which hang near the stand of the host. They contain wisdom such as “Wait times are estimates, not prophecies”, “No table hibernation. (Others must eat too)” and “No reservations unless you’re Jimmy Hoffa”.

“Good serve is a two-way street, and it always has been,” Maciag says. “People getting bad service wherever they go, it probably has a lot to do with them too. … ‘Help me help you’ was the idea behind [the rules]. It’s a move away from the old way, where it was all smoke and mirrors in a restaurant.”

And so on January 29, 2014, the restaurant that had its own rules and didn’t take reservations opened with no idea how many people might come to dine. “It was scary,” admits Rodriguez.

“But it went really quickly from, ‘Is anybody going to show up?’ to ‘Are we going to be able to handle this?’ “, adds Maciag.

Work & Class’ approach was an immediate success in the era of chef-led gastronomy. “I feel like we were part of solving that problem,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not McDonald’s, it’s not Chipotle, but it’s not a high-end restaurant. It’s right in the middle.”

Backed by a service model that operates like a NASCAR pit crew—quickly, accurately, and as a team—the restaurant housed in a small shipping container in a RiNo that was still quite gritty, with many warehouses, gave Denver’s dining scene delivers energy straight through the veins. And it didn’t stop.

But after making sure Work & Class survived COVID, Maciag was ready for a change. “I want to be in better physical and mental health,” he says of his decision to retire.

“We always want that for our employees,” adds Rodriguez. “We’re still taking care of everyone, and we’re the last people we watch. Now it’s like, ah, fuck, we’re old. … It’s time to make at least a few small changes.”

Maciag plans to spend a year or more traveling and isn’t quite sure what lies ahead beyond that, or where he will end up living. “I also don’t know if I’m going to lose my mind about not having a thousand people to talk to every night,” he says.

“I think he’ll be back in June, like, ‘Hey, can I get a part-time job?'” Rodriguez jokes.

But even as it prepares to say goodbye, Work & Class continues to wow the crowds night after night, despite the dozens of other restaurants that have sprung up in RiNo. “It always amazes me. Eighty percent of the people who come here every night have never been here before,” Maciag notes.

While he loves new customers, he’s not exactly thrilled with today’s RiNo and how it appeals to people who are primarily concerned with being in the hottest neighborhood. “There aren’t many things that hurt me more than when someone walks in and says, ‘What’s this place called? ‘” Maciag said. “Like, you don’t even know why you’re here? Are you just here because you can be there, or because there just so happens to be a seat? Ugh, I hate this. At the same time, I go blow you go, and you will remember it.”

It’s not just RiNo where Maciag has seen a change. “Look at the downtown cores of any city in the country. There’s no one in the offices, they’re not such desirable places, there’s not as much traffic, but yet the rents keep coming. to increase,” he said. “It’s extremely problematic for anyone opening a restaurant. The further from the city center, the better.”

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Mac and cheese has been a staple of Work & Class since day one.

Molly Martin

“If we had the opportunity to open another restaurant around here, we probably wouldn’t, because we know where it’s going,” adds Rodriguez. “You work so hard to get nothing at the end of the day; you just become a paycheck factory.” Despite this, Work & Class is going nowhere. Its solid reputation, relatively low rent and small number of employees compared to the volume of business it generates make it sustainable, even in today’s difficult environment.

And so Rodriguez and Tabatha Knop – who had never worked in a restaurant before joining the opening team of Work & Class and becoming partners in 2016 – are determined to carry on, with Maciag’s original vision guiding the way. . While there won’t be any big changes to the food or drink menus, there will definitely be changes. “The customer service, the sarcastic way Tony did it, and the way Tony always engages with all the tables, that’s going to go away with Tony, so we have to teach [our staff] how do you keep that so it’s always the same place,” Rodriguez says.

“I have tons of anxiety about the whole thing, obviously,” admits Maciag. “But at some point, you gotta be like, I gave you everything I got, and now it’s yours. So go ahead and crush it, and just remember what’s important.”

One thing that is clearly important to both is each other. “Thank you for putting up with me. Thank you for letting me be me,” the normally stoic Maciag shares with Rodriguez, a hint of tears in his eyes.

“You’ll cry ?” she teased, before adding, “We’re so good together, baby. … I’ll never find a partner like Tony in my life. I think it’s because we both come from below and that we’ve worked very hard to get where we are. But I’ll never find someone I can trust. Even if he had the chance to fuck me, he wouldn’t.

Although he doesn’t know if he will return to Mile High, Maciag is grateful for the town he has called home. “I’m absolutely a better person for what I’ve been through and the people I’ve interacted with for over 25 years in Denver,” he says. “It’s amazing, and I wish I could shake hands with everyone that, even if it was once, I had a meaningful interaction with at my restaurant. Those are the things I remember.”

After a long pause and a deep breath, he offers this parting advice, which can be applied inside and outside the four walls of Work & Class: “Be thoughtful. Make good decisions. And organize a party every night.”

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