When Choppers Custom Salads closed earlier this year, it wasn’t because business was bad: Sales were good, and so was the food. But founder Patrick O’Neill was turning his attention toward a new project — the Avanti Food & Beverage development in Lower Highland — and so he decided not to renew the lease on the Choppers at 1765 Blake Street. The move proved fortuitous for Spencer Beckley, who had been scouting downtown sites for a place to open a pizza franchise. Beckley recognized the potential in the vacated Choppers site, so he cut a deal with O’Neill and brought in friend and chef Matt Sullivan to add some depth to the menu of salads that had been the Choppers specialty.
For his part, Sullivan knows the value of a slice of the restaurant business that’s often overlooked: places where businesspeople can get good, quick lunches. Choppers and other fast-casual eateries that cater to these customers may not be glamorous, but they’re needed. “If people eat well and are happy, then I’m happy,” Sullivan explains. “I don’t want to do anything too fancy, but something where I can still deliver a quality product.”
Sullivan got his first restaurant job at fourteen, at Mount Vernon Country Club in Golden, where he grew up. His culinary career has spanned everything from golf-course clubhouses to the catering business to the California food-truck scene, with many stops in between. But even as a teenager in a country-club kitchen, he realized he was in the right profession. “They started me out washing dishes, peeling shrimp, peeling potatoes,” he recalls, “but they couldn’t scare me away.” Instead, Mount Vernon management noticed that he was one of the kitchen’s more level-headed employees and gave Sullivan more and more responsibility. Before he had even graduated from high school, he was managing the Overlook Grill at the club.
After that, Sullivan worked for Three Tomatoes Catering for five years, half of them as executive chef; among other duties, he oversaw the Three Tomatoes Grille steakhouse at Fossil Trace Golf Club. As executive chef, he was responsible for several pairing dinners, including a Herradura tequila dinner that helped shape how he approached professional cooking. “Creating a menu, designing food that fit my goals — that enlightened me and motivated me to do more,” he explains.
Since Sullivan never attended culinary school, his mentors have been the cooks who’ve taken the time to share their knowledge with him on the job. “The chefs who have influenced me most are the ones behind the scenes, in the kitchens,” he says.
After many years of working in and around Golden, the Colorado native moved to San Francisco and got involved in that city’s food-truck scene, running a specialty taco truck. One of the truck’s main stops was the Off the Grid food-truck rally, a weekly event that drew an average of 10,000 customers and thirty trucks, carts and tents every Friday night. Sullivan worked several other jobs while in the Bay Area and learned about the quick-service restaurant industry there; he cites Blue Barn (a gourmet salad eatery with three locations) and Pluto’s (a similar concept with nine locations) as being particularly influential to his thinking. “I like the fast-casual industry,” he says. “Being in San Francisco really enforced that.”
Eventually, though, San Francisco proved too expensive — and Colorado was calling him back. “I missed the mountains, missed my home town,” he says. His childhood had included dog sledding with his dad, who participated in competitive sledding around the region and maintained a kennel of fifteen to twenty Alaskan malamutes and huskies. “I never got super-competitive with it, but I did participate in races with my dad,” Sullivan recalls. He’d also become an avid cyclist while in Colorado, and returning meant that he could not only pick up where he’d left off, but also use a bicycle as his primary means of transportation. “I like mountain biking and road biking,” he explains, “but especially road biking. Around Longmont, there’s nothing like putting your head down and grinding out a hundred miles.”
Sullivan met Beckley while working in Longmont at Basil Flats, a fast-casual flatbread-pizza-and-sandwich concept from the former chief operating officer of Noodles & Company. The two shared similar goals when it came to fast-casual dining, and Beckley brought Sullivan on almost from the beginning of his new venture. By the time it reopens next month, Sullivan will have pared back the list of a dozen chef’s specials from the original Choppers menu, and will have added housemade soups and sandwiches. He’s picked up a love for bold flavors, whether it’s a hit of garam masala in a soup or a smear of cranberries on a sandwich. “A really nice selection of ingredients” at Bay Area restaurants “helped shape my goal as to what we can deliver,” he says. To that end, he’s been in touch with farms he knows in Longmont and some Denver-area farmers’ markets to source produce. In addition, he’s hoping to offer a wider variety of options for customers, in hours as well as menu items. Although the original
Choppers was only open for lunch, Beckley and Sullivan plan to open early and serve coffee and breakfast sandwiches. And while business downtown can be tough on weekends, Sullivan is looking at more hours during Rockies games. A beer-and-wine liquor license could also be part of the Choppers plan, to take advantage of happy-hour business and Saturday traffic.
But the focus will always be on good food, using the tools that Sullivan has picked up since his potato-peeling days. Having learned his trade on the job, he enjoys training new cooks. “Some of them don’t even know how to hold a knife,” he says, “and I get to teach them how to cook for themselves.” Teaching isn’t something he takes lightly, especially because he’s witnessed colleagues fall by the wayside. “A lot of my bosses were smoking pot out back — and there’s always alcohol,” he points out. “They definitely look up to you and what you do. You have to let them do what they do, but also be mindful of what you do in front of them.”
It’s all part of doing business. And while fast-casual may not be the most glamorous segment of the restaurant business, “I will care for it as my own,” Sullivan promises.