More than 200 new restaurants debuted around the Denver area in 2013, and dozens more are preparing to open this year, according to a Denver Post poll of industry experts.
From lunch-friendly offerings like Patxi’s Uptown on East 17th Avenue to the upscale Tex-Mex theme of The Matador in the Highland neighborhood, Denverites have plenty of new choices for food and drink — and more on the way.
“There are more confirmed, announced or projected than I’ve seen in 23 years in this business,” said John Imbergamo, whose marketing group represents such heavy hitters as Rioja, Bistro Vendome, Elway’s and Racines.
But there’s a catch: The fierce competition inevitably will cannibalize the customers at many existing restaurants — especially in an industry that saw flat sales for much of 2013.
Nationally, consumers made 1.73 billion fewer restaurant visits in the 12-month period ending May 2013 than they did in the same period in 2009 — about a 3 percent decline, according to trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News.
“I’m hesitant to say that it’s close to the bubble stage, but we know that the (Denver) market is not growing anywhere near the rate of the supply,” Imbergamo said.
“Something’s got to give. And it’s probably not going to be the new restaurants, because we tend to be a town that loves to try the hot and hip and cool thing.”
Some, such as Fruition owner Alex Seidel’s Mercantile Dining and Provision or Jennifer Jasinski’s Stoic & Genuine fish restaurant, are looking to capitalize on growing national reputations (in Jasinski’s case, her “Top Chef” appearances and recent Best Chef Southwest award from the James Beard Foundation). Both are scheduled to open this summer in the revamped Union Station downtown.
Others, like the 10,000-square-foot Ruth’s Chris Steak House opening Jan. 27 at 15th and California streets, are national brands hoping to attract Denver’s growing tourist, convention and urban residential market.
There’s an upside: In the next five years, the downtown residential population is projected to grow by 18 percent to nearly 66,000 residents. The area includes the central business district and the 1½-mile radius of “core” neighborhoods, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership.
“What we’re seeing are almost two different audiences these new restaurants are trying to satisfy,” said Brian Phetteplace, senior economic development manager for the DDP, the 59-year-old nonprofit that represents and promotes downtown.
“There’s the fast-casual, quick-serve segment that’s looking to access the spending power of the downtown office worker and the students,” he said. “On the other side are the more chef-driven restaurants for foodies, which are responding to the locals because they are the ones who have helped create the culinary destination that is downtown.”
Phetteplace said the new Modmarket (on the 16th Street Mall at Champa Street, open in February) and Grimaldi’s Pizzeria (opening in March at the Denver Pavilions) are examples of the casual, family-friendly market.
The Kitchen, which expanded from Boulder to open its second location in LoDo last year, will typify the higher-end market as it opens its Kitchen Next Door, a 4,400-square-foot space focusing on microbrews, at the redeveloped Union Station in July.
“They’re expecting 100,000 trips per day through Union Station by the time the light rail, Amtrak, buses and heavy rail all come online, most of it by this year,” said Chris Frampton, managing partner of Union Station master developer East West Partners. “And soon there’s going to be about 3 million total square feet of new office space downtown without any restaurants to cater to it.”
Denver’s economic health is tied to the success of its dining scene. In 2012, 48 percent of downtown’s retail sales tax, or about $18 million, came from restaurants — up from $16.4 million in 2011.
Statewide, Colorado is expected to exceed $10 billion of food sales for the first time in 2014, which amounts to about 2 million meals per day. Nationally, restaurant spending also is expected to increase 4 percent this year to $707.7 billion, according to a report by Nation’s Restaurant News, with data from Technomic Inc.
“We’re one of the states that has consistently seen year-over-year growth in that field, and that’s because we’ve had population increases and disposable-income increases, as well as increases in employment,” Colorado Restaurant Association CEO Pete Meersman said. “We’re a competitive market, but we’ve also had so many great startups here, some of whom have turned into national chains.”
Beyond Colorado-bred chains like Chipotle, Smashburger, Quiznos, Noodles & Company and Mad Greens, restaurateurs look to Denver because the city exemplifies how to thrive in a changing market — especially given that it weathered the Great Recession better than most.
“A lot of people were sitting on the sidelines waiting for the economy to improve,” said Meersman, whose organization counts 1,800 member companies running 5,000 different restaurants — or about half of the state’s eateries. “If you’re looking to either expand or base your operations here, this is the time.”
Regardless of when the new foodie gold rush goes bust, restaurateurs would be wise to know what they’re up against, according to Imbergamo.
“Think about Vesta Dipping Grill. That place is 16 years old, and it’s still considered hip and kind of edgy,” he said. “Other people are going to have to figure that piece out in order to stay relevant. And new people have the advantage of being new and having all that energy.”
Down Blake Street from Vesta, The Ninth Door co-owner Bill Kennedy knows those challenges firsthand.
“It’s a constant worry,” Kennedy said. The Ninth Door recently opened a new Capitol Hill location, in the Beauvallon at Lincoln Street and Ninth Avenue.
“We try to update, refurbish and keep our quality up, and we’ve had to advertise a little bit more,” he said. “But the weak operators will go out of business, and the strong will stay.” – Article written by John Wenzel at Denverpost.com
Here at Thrive we love going out and trying new places around the city. Looks like 2014 is shaping up to be a fun year for us all!