All 325-plus Edible Beats employees will share in the long-term worth of the company. 

It takes a creative visionary to turn a former mortuary, a gas station, and a brothel all into restaurants, and Manhattan native Justin Cucci has done just that. Following a childhood spent growing up at the renowned Waverly Inn, which his grandparents owned and where he learned to walk, Cucci decided to move west to Denver to develop his own authentic culinary voice. He’s built his eclectic eatery collection in the city over the years, which now includes six restaurants—Linger, El Five, Vital Root, Ophelia’s, Root Down, and Root Down DIA—all under his Edible Beats Restaurants umbrella. 

Cucci has become known for his locally sourced dishes and farm-to-table dining in Denver. Now, the chef is extending that sustainable mindset beyond the kitchen to the culture and financial structure of Edible Beats. Joining only a small handful of restaurants in the U.S., Cucci recently implemented a pioneering, self-funded, 100 percent employee stock ownership plan. Rarely seen in the restaurant industry, all 325-plus Edible Beats employees will share in the long-term growth and financial worth of the company, which Cucci calls “the quintessential win-win.” 

FSR sat down with Cucci to explore how his upbringing has influenced his culinary journey, his creative process of transforming unconventional spaces into restaurants, and how his employee ownership initiative came to fruition, plus the impact Cucci hopes it will have.

Justin Cucci, chef/owner of Edible Beats

To start off, could you briefly walk me through your background and share how your upbringing has influenced your journey?

Growing up in Greenwich Village, New York City, during the vibrant ‘70s and ‘80s was a unique experience for me. My parents were deeply involved in our family business, the Waverly Inn, where they dedicated most of their time and energy. Consequently, I found myself immersed in the world of restaurants from a young age, almost by default. Despite being just a kid, my days were filled with the hustle and bustle of restaurant life. I practically lived at the Waverly Inn, dining there regularly, spending my afternoons exploring every nook and cranny of the premises—including its intriguing basement and connected apartment—and eagerly awaiting my parents’ departure from work. This upbringing, though unconventional, provided me with an invaluable education in the inner workings of a successful restaurant. I was fortunate to witness firsthand the artistry of hospitality and culinary excellence, laying the foundation for my own journey in the industry.

You have quite the unique upstart story—turning a former mortuary, gas station, and brothel all into restaurants under Edible Beats. How do you approach the creative process of converting such unconventional spaces? What inspires you about these kinds of spaces/where does that creative vision come from? 

For me, it starts with connecting the history and stories these spaces hold. Each location—whether it’s a former mortuary, gas station, or brothel—comes with its own unique history and character, which I find incredibly inspiring. I try to approach these transformations by embracing the quirks and elements that make each space distinct, and then weaving them into the design and concept of the restaurant.

What inspires me most about these spaces is their ability to evoke curiosity and wonder by breathing new life into places with storied pasts, creating atmospheres where people can gather, connect, and create new memories. It stems from juxtaposing the old and new—honoring history while injecting fresh, contemporary elements that surprise and delight our guests. By respecting the original architecture, paying attention to details, and adding artistic touches, we strive to create visually stunning spaces rich with a sense of place and purpose.

Root Down utilizes reclaimed and recycled materials in its design.

Tell me more about each of your six restaurant concepts—how do they differ, and what ties them all together? 

Our whole restaurant group is known as Edible Beats, which is the umbrella company that manages all of our concepts- we have 8 LLCs that together form our brand.

Root Down was established in 2008 within the renovated confines of a 1950’s gas station, and epitomizes a steadfast commitment to the farm-to-table philosophy. Celebrating culinary diversity with a plant-based emphasis, our mission extends beyond mere sustenance to forging genuine connections with our guests through authentic hospitality. Root Down’s ethos is exemplified not only in our menu but also in our conscientious approach to design, where reclaimed and recycled materials breathe new life into our space. We’ve embraced a philosophy of responsible sourcing, cultivating relationships with local farms and artisans, and prioritizing sustainable practices at every turn. Root Down strives to be a steward of green initiatives, embodying a holistic dedication to both culinary excellence and environmental consciousness.

Linger is located in a former mortuary, exemplifying chef/owner Justin Cucci’s eye for reclaiming and repurposing eclectic spaces.

Linger opened in 2010, and is housed in a repurposed mid-century mortuary formerly known as Olingers. Celebrating global street food, Linger pays homage to iconic dishes from street vendors and food stalls worldwide. The restaurant exudes a fun, social atmosphere within an architecturally stunning building, featuring a 4,000-square-foot rooftop deck with panoramic views of the city and the Highlands neighborhood. Like Root Down, Linger upholds the same principles in sourcing ingredients and delivering exceptional hospitality.

Root Down DIA

Root Down DIA opened in 2012 in the DIA (Denver International Airport) at terminal C. It was an incredible opportunity to bring food & hospitality to the airport that was traditionally reserved for fine-dining restaurants. We fostered the same commitment to design, sourcing, food, and green practices. We kept the integrity of our scratch cooking, while being a nexus for dietary restrictions, food allergies, vegan, and gluten-free choices. 

Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox

Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox opened in 2015, and emerged from the transformation of a former Adult Bookstore, Peep Show and Brothel. Fueled by a blend of risk and passion, our vision was to craft a space that seamlessly merged elements of a music venue, restaurant, and bar while paying homage to its colorful past. We aimed to celebrate the building’s history with a sex-positive design aesthetic. Our food was a lean into Southern & Low Country cuisine that marries well with a live music venue experience. We have a 500-capacity room, and have had artists grace the stage such as: Parliament Funkadelic, David Grisman, Phil Lesh, Pharcyde, The Meters, and a host of other bands, solidifying its status as a premier destination for both music lovers and food enthusiasts alike. 

Vital Root

Vital Root opened in 2016 in a former Nut & Candy store on the Tennyson business corridor in the Berkeley neighborhood. Our vision was to create a fast-casual concept where food could be served in less than 15 minutes at a more accessible price point than our other restaurants. We maintained the artisanal cooking and high-quality ingredients of our sister establishments, delivering an Edible Beats experience that’s quicker and simpler. Vital Root’s menu offers a diverse array of flavors and textures, catering to various dietary preferences and needs. As a certified gluten-free establishment, we strive to accommodate any dietary restrictions or preferences.

Opened in 2017, El Five is perched on the fifth floor of one of the tallest buildings in the Highlands, offering breathtaking panoramic views of Denver’s skyline and the Rocky Mountains. This stunning backdrop perfectly complements our vibrant, eclectic menu of Mediterranean tapas and meze, highlighting the rich, diverse flavors of Spain, North Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean. The atmosphere at El Five is both sophisticated and lively, making it an ideal destination for those seeking a dynamic and memorable dining experience.

BeatBox Farms opened in 2023 which sits in the back of our Vital Root restaurant, and is our passion play for urban farming. Housed in a repurposed shipping container, this innovative urban farming initiative is dedicated to providing our restaurants access to organic, local, healthy produce that we grow. We utilize cutting-edge hydroponic and vertical farming techniques to maximize space and efficiency, allowing us to grow a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruits year-round. Our mission is to provide our chefs with local, sustainably grown produce, reduce the environmental impact of food transportation, and foster a connection for our guests and the food they consume. 

Common Threads

  • Sourcing: All restaurants prioritize ethically sourced, high-quality ingredients.
  • Sustainability: A strong commitment to environmental sustainability runs through each concept.
  • Hospitality: Exceptional service and a welcoming atmosphere are hallmarks of the Edible Beats experience.
  • Creativity: Innovative, globally inspired menus that offer unique dining experiences.
  • Community: Each restaurant is deeply connected to its local neighborhood and contributes to the community’s vibrant dining culture.

You’ve implemented a 100 percent Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) for your 325+ Edible Beats employees. Can you walk us through the decision-making process that led to this initiative?

I always felt that Edible Beats has been about creating worth before wealth—prioritizing significant value, merit, and excellence over pure financial gain. The goal focused on offering meaningful, connected experiences for our guests and culture, which would naturally lead to Edible Beats’ financial wellness. I’ve always felt gratitude for the success we’ve been able to capture and believe that the employees and leaders that have been on this journey are clearly responsible for that success. I saw the ESOP as an innovative way to reward their hard work and foster a sense of ownership and pride in our collective success. This decision involved careful consideration of long-term financial stability, potential impacts on employee morale and retention, and alignment with our mission to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace. Ultimately, the ESOP not only benefits our employees financially but also cultivates stronger loyalty, collaboration, and shared purpose within our organization. Being an ESOP reflects our commitment to building a sustainable and socially responsible business for the future.

“As for the future of ESOPs in the restaurant industry, I do see them becoming more common as owners recognize the benefits of shared ownership and the positive impact it can have on employee morale, retention, and overall business success.”

—Justin Cucci

How has the ESOP impacted your employees and the overall culture within your restaurants?

The ESOP has ignited a powerful sense of ownership, commitment, and pride among our team members, directly tying their success to that of the company. This newfound ownership has led to heightened engagement, motivation, and dedication to delivering exceptional service and quality to our guests. While we’re still early in our journey, one of our primary aims is to cultivate a more collaborative and inclusive workplace culture, united by a shared mission of building a thriving, sustainable business that benefits all ESOP members. This initiative offers our employees a valuable financial opportunity, enabling them to build wealth and secure their futures through company ownership. 

Overall, the ESOP has been a transformative force, not only enhancing the financial well-being of our employees but also enriching the overall culture and success of our restaurants. It underscores our unwavering commitment to fostering an environment where every individual has the chance to flourish and prosper.

What do you believe are the long-term benefits of the ESOP for both your employees and the restaurant industry at large?

The ESOP presents our employees with a unique opportunity to cultivate wealth and secure their futures through company ownership. Encouraging employee retention and engagement, the ESOP fosters heightened levels of productivity, innovation, and customer satisfaction within our restaurants. This not only cultivates a more content workforce but also enhances workplace culture and elevates restaurant performance. Concurrently, it equips us to navigate the significant challenges currently facing the industry by aligning the interests of employees with those of the company and its stakeholders. In essence, ESOPs represent a potent mechanism for driving positive change and fostering a more sustainable and socially responsible future for the restaurant industry.

Do you see ESOPs becoming more common in the restaurant industry, and what advice would you give to other restaurateurs considering this model?

Becoming an ESOP can be a challenging yet incredibly rewarding journey, especially in the restaurant industry where the dynamics are complex. While it may be one of the toughest environments to implement, the potential impact can be game changing. It’s essential for business owners to prioritize the “win-win” ethos inherent to an ESOP, viewing it as an opportunity to deeply engage employees and align their interests with the growth of the business.

As for the future of ESOPs in the restaurant industry, I do see them becoming more common as owners recognize the benefits of shared ownership and the positive impact it can have on employee morale, retention, and overall business success. My advice to restaurateurs considering this model is to carefully assess their company culture, financial stability, and long-term goals before embarking on the ESOP journey. Seek guidance from experts who understand the intricacies of ESOP implementation and ensure clear communication with employees throughout the process. Remember, it’s not just about transferring ownership—it’s about fostering a culture of shared responsibility, empowerment, and mutual success.

How do you balance the demands of running multiple successful restaurants while maintaining a commitment to sustainability and employee well-being?

It starts with a deep-rooted belief that sustainability and employee well-being are not just lofty ideals, but essential pillars of our business. We prioritize sourcing locally and ethically, reducing waste wherever possible, and fostering a workplace culture that values and supports our team members. It’s about finding innovative ways to operate efficiently while never compromising on our values. By staying true to our mission and continually seeking ways to improve, we’re able to navigate the complexities of running multiple restaurants while ensuring that sustainability and employee well-being remain central to our operations.

What’s next for you and Edible Beats?

Right now, the focus is on running Edible Beats as both a successful business, and as a growing ESOP. We still have work to do, in order to adapt to the changing industry post-covid, but we still have a passionate approach to innovating craveable food and connected hospitality. The boundaries we are now trying to push are growing our share price, so that our employees can truly benefit from the ESOP, and we can collectively share in the wealth and worth of all the hard work of our teams. 

*This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Feature, Labor & Employees, Restaurant Design