Champions of the Roaring Fork Valley’s culinary scene have expanded to the Front Range, but it brings its own challenges and unique rewards. Aspen is a gourmet island with diverse clientele, while Denver is a booming city with an impressive foodie scene. So, what can the Denver market offer to an established Aspen business?
When looking to expand, restaurateurs ask themselves, “Can the business be duplicated?” and “Will the new space experience the same success?” Michael Goldberg, co-managing partner of the Colorado Matsuhisa restaurant group, feels that Nobu Matsuhisa has the same purpose and clientele in both the Aspen and Denver locations—fitting when considering that the Nobu name has become a national institution. Aside from catering to the visiting customer base of Denver’s Cherry Creek, the location is signature to the Nobu franchise.
On the other hand, when Mark Fischer, executive chef and owner of Phat Thai, in Carbondale, and The Pullman, in Glenwood Springs, brought Phat Thai to Denver, the difference in clientele was dramatic. As Fischer describes, he never felt the connection with midcity customers that he did in Carbondale, and says, “the velocity of change there is bewildering. They enjoy the same problems and challenges as those faced in the valley, primarily finding and keeping good talent.” Three years after opening Phat Thai in Denver, he tried rebranding it in the style of The Pullman because the Denver space was too large to support a niche cuisine. After a total of five years and a sudden increase in rent prices, the restaurant wasn’t sustainable, and he closed his Denver doors.
Keith Herbert, CEO and founder of ink! coffee, is a pioneer in the Aspen-to-Denver movement. Herbert started in 1994 as a 6-foot steel cart in Snowmass; one year later he opened up his coffee shop on Durant Avenue in Aspen and then expanded to Denver in 2000. Today, he has 15 locations in Denver. Most are familiar with his company’s mantra: “Born in Aspen, raised in Denver.” Kitschiness aside, this phrase speaks to many truths. A business can thrive in Aspen if done right; in Denver, a business can grow and expand. “Aspen is a great place to start off because of the density in the winter and summer, which is similar to that of a city. Good product equals success. In Denver, you can open multiple locations in little enclaves,” he says. In Aspen, his location is a destination for tourists who flock to its local flavor. “Do not assume that because you are busy and successful in Aspen that it will translate to Denver. People in Denver may not appreciate a successful Aspen product.”
Jing, owned by Charlie Huang Restaurant Group, opened its first Little Ollie’s in 1992 and expanded to Denver in 1997, later reopening as Jing in both cities. Operators Frank and Kate Lu believe the most important part of their success is quality food. However, that has proven to not be enough. Jing caters to the Aspen client by serving up more options for the well-traveled tourist with specific dining needs, which is why Jing’s Aspen location is its first to offer a raw bar.
An Aspen product cannot translate in Denver without a few major adjustments for the space, menu and clientele. Most importantly, Fischer precautions, “assuming they’re intending to maintain a presence, learn to love I-70.”