WaterCourse Foods has experienced many big changes since opening seventeen years ago — moving from 13th Avenue to East 17th Avenue among them — but this year marks the biggest, if least noticeable to casual observers. Shortly after the restaurant celebrated one year as a fully vegan establishment in April, founder and owner Dan Landes announced that he would be selling the veggie mecca to Lauren Roberts, former GM at City, O' City (the other vegetarian eatery owned by Landes), and her mother, Jennifer Byers. With nearly two months under their belts, we checked in with the new owners to see how things are going and what changes to expect.
This was an exciting investment for Roberts and Byers. They had been collaborating on different ideas for some sort of vegan establishment for a few years, so the opportunity to take over a place with such a strong foundation was something that Roberts pointed out is a huge leg up. She's excited to help the restaurant achieve its full capacity and get more involved in the community. As the general manager of City O’ City for a year and a half, she sees many similarities, but it’s still a different equation that she’s learning.
This is Byers's first venture into the restaurant world, and while she compares the experience so far to trying to drink water from a fire hose blasting in her face, she's taking the initial learning curve with a positive attitude and really diving in head first. The two have found their niche within the co-ownership; Byers handles the accounting, human resources and the strategy and growth of the business, while Roberts spends more time on the floor and with the staff.
As far as the staff goes, minimal changes were made. Some members of Landes's management team moved over to City, O' City (which Landes still owns), but the mother-daughter team was happy to retain the great staff that was already in place, making it easier to focus on a few other changes, including new paint, art and other aesthetic touch-ups in the dining room and some minor construction to be completed in the fall.
Roberts stresses that the restaurant has a really good thing going, and she wants to keep the ball rolling. “The reason that Dan sold me the restaurant is because we both really like the restaurant and we want to keep it what it is," she notes. "So he felt good about making me the offer.”
This means that no menu overhaul will be taking place anytime soon, just a few enhancements here and there. Most of the list will remain familiar to WaterCourse fans, bur there are also new salads and a few more soy-free options. Roberts says her current favorites are the orange beef bowl (made with seitan) and the appetizer arepas stuffed with jackfruit barbacoa, while her mother praises the shakes, especially the peanut butter chocolate crunch.
When it comes to making an all-vegan restaurant more approachable to non-vegans, Roberts says using the term “plant-based” instead of vegan helps — as does continuing to offer food that appeals to vegetarians, vegans or those just trying to cut back occasionally on their meat intake.
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So what’s in store for Landes now that he’s passed on the torch? He remains a minority owner of WaterCourse and may do a little consulting, but he'll turn his focus to other ventures: City, O’ City, WaterCourse Bakery, his Deer Pile comedy venue — and even a little writing (he's already the author of one book).
Team Roberts/Byers is excited to have such a big role in something they really believe in, and it’s evident in every way. Their energy, both individually and as a pair, is infectious. Despite big (cruelty-free) shoes to fill, the two are up to the challenge of a new era for Denver's most familiar plant-based dining destinations.