Benny Kaplan, former chef of Shazz Cafe, will open Wafflich tomorrow on Tennyson Street
When Shazz Cafe opened in Highland in late 2008, people couldn't stop giggling at the name, but no one was laughing at the food, a hyper-local shrine to sustainable greenmarket ingredients that chef/owner Benny Kaplan transformed into innovative culinary emblems that proved that he could meddle with purity while preserving integrity.
But for all of Kaplan's creative sensibilities, Shazz struggled and last August, he abruptly shuttered it. "Despite a loyal base of followers, we didn't have enough people coming in to keep the doors open,"he says. "The location was a little obscure and, ultimately, we just couldn't keep it full enough, so we closed."
The experience soured him, and Kaplan insisted that he'd never have his own restaurant again. "I swore up and down that I'd never open another restaurant -- that I'd either go head chef in someone else's restaurant or travel, but opening my own restaurant, like I did at Shazz, wasn't something I was interested in doing again."
It took just under a year, but Kaplan is now eating his words: Tomorrow, he'll unveil Wafflich, a sandwich and ice cream joint in a pee-wee sized space at 4166 Tennyson Street.
"Even though I said never again, I ended up talking to a friend of mine in Detroit about opening a bagel shop in Denver -- I make awesome bagels -- but the early baking hours and expensive start-up hours deterred me, but all that talk brought me around to waffles," explains Kaplan, noting that a "wafflich" is "like a panino, made with bread, that's pressed in a waffle-maker."
And the concept had been swirling in his brain for years. "Six months after Shazz opened, I was at home and couldn't sleep, so I stayed up all night and wrote a whole business plan for Wafflich," he remembers. "It was a simple concept that didn't require a kitchen, and I thought I could get it started relatively easily and inexpensively."
In December of last year, he put his business plan into practice and inked a lease on the Tennyson Street space -- a former medical marijuana dispensary. "I was looking all over the city -- in Uptown, on South Pearl Street -- for the right space at the right price, and this is the one that popped," he says, adding that business owners in the 'hood also "expressed a need for inexpensive, quick eats."
The space, which seats fifteen, plays off a school theme, the idea of which, says Kaplan, originated with his designer. "Our tagline is new-school sandwiches, which my designer came up with, and the space mimics that fun school environment that brings out the kid in all of us," notes Kaplan, who found some old lockers on Craigslist, which he painted tangerine and installed around the perimeter of the counter. And the reclaimed tables he bought at auction are reminiscent of school-lunch tables, while the stools, he says, are "similar to what we used to sit on during science class while we were doing lab work."
And his chalkboard menu, which pimps several variations of "waffliches," is simple, like arithmetic, when it comes to ingredients. "I'm using all organic meats and cheeses, along with bread from Rudi's Bakery in Boulder, but these are simple sandwiches made with just a few great ingredients -- they can't be overstuffed -- and we're serving dipping sauces on the side instead of putting them on the sandwiches, otherwise they turn soggy and we want to preserve the crispness of the bread," says Kaplan.
In addition, he'll make floats using Sweet Action ice cream and natural sodas from Rocky Mountain Soda Company, both of which are local. "Ice cream seemed like a perfect complement to what we're doing here, and I love floats -- they remind me of my childhood -- and in a month or so, we're going to be the first test store that pours Rocky Mountain sodas from a fountain," he says, noting that up until now, Rocky Mountain sodas have only been available in bottles.
"This is all a huge departure from what I was doing at Shazz," admits Kaplan, "but my passion is doing good food, and I'll continue to do that here. This makes me happy, and it's fun and lighthearted, plus I created it."
And the goal, he reveals, is to eventually open more. "This is a concept that I want to recreate in Colorado, and maybe even nationally -- that's my dream -- but right now, my main focus is getting this store up and running, and then I'll think about possibly expanding across the country, potentially into college towns, which I think would be a great market for this."
Wafflich will open tomorrow at 11 a.m., and on Friday, Kaplan will host a grand opening celebration beginning at 7 p.m. "I hear there might be roller-skating break dancers," he tells me. And definitely waffliches.
For more info, call 303-306-8650.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.