Nobody wants to talk about old Denver. You look like a crybaby lamenting the loss of something that wasn’t strong enough to survive. Object permanence is not limited to a game of peek-a-boo. “What once was” is a boring conversation that we’ve grown tired of. Old Denver disappeared along with cheap rent and ample warehouse space with no bureaucratic interference; old Denver wasn’t developed enough to withstand the influx of folks who wanted to put their own stamp on the city, bring in their own hometown comforts. Moving on.
My family had season tickets to the Broncos in the south stands when they played at the old Mile High Stadium. The south stands were notoriously rowdy and violent. My grandfather, Dr. Charley Smyth, would arrive at every game in a coat and tie. The bedlam would part as we made our way to our seats behind the goalposts. Respect. I was always more interested in the crowd than the game. I once witnessed a woman vomit into the hair of a woman sitting in front of her and a San Diego Charger fan get punched so hard in the mouth that I had to step over his teeth on my way to get a hot dog.
Recently, a client gave me tickets to a Broncos game. I drank a Horsefeather, ate some ceviche and watched the crowd as they watched replays on the LED scoreboard. At halftime I wandered to the south stands. The scene was pleasant. Do I really miss the vomit and violence? Or is there something else that I’m missing? Perhaps I miss the danger of the city that was not yet a luxury brand.
The kitchens I worked at in my youth were dangerous. This is when kitchens were staffed with guys on work release and recent arrivals from south of the border. Now ruddy-faced kids who are $40,000 in debt to a culinary school are cutting onions waaaaay too slowly, wondering why they aren’t chefs yet. Sure, they can chiffonade basil, but can they stand in the heat for eight hours straight as tickets sprout from the printer like the Lernean Hydra? Finish one and three more take its place.
Muddy’s was an all-night coffeehouse that had moved from Highland to 22nd and California streets, to a spot now across the street from that new apartment designed with a “build ’em cheap, the more you reap” aesthetic, kitty-corner from the Mercury Cafe. God bless Marilyn and the Merc. My kitchen shift at Muddy’s was from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Around 2 a.m., the jazz musicians from El Chapultepec would come by and jam. Weed wasn’t legal then, and it didn’t matter; everyone was high. One night a guest popped his head into the kitchen and asked if the green chile was vegan. It was 1992; I didn’t know what vegan was. He explained that it was food that contained no animal products. We used butter for the roux, but I told him I’d use a different fat for the next batch. He came back, liked it and told his like-minded friends.
City Spirit, in the 1400 block of Blake Street, was a gathering place for all kinds of eccentric weirdos who wanted vegan/vegetarian food. When I worked there, I continued to build flavorful food sans meat. It was 1994, and the kitchen was filled with microwaves. Nothing I’ve done in kitchens was more dangerous than standing in front of microwaves ten hours a day.
By 1998 it didn’t take a genius to identify that the demand for vegetarian food was greater than the supply.
What’s an all-American boy to do? Sign a five-year lease on a recently closed, long-neglected Chinese restaurant on 13th Avenue and Sherman Street, come up with a name (WaterCourse Foods popped into my mind, as I was reading a ton of Alan Watts), put together some recipes, hire a few able bodies and hang an open sign. Capitalism 101. (If you haven’t risked everything to open a business and are tempted to leave a nasty comment, keep it to yourself. Your opinions are lightweight and wholly unnecessary.)
In ’98, it cost $30,000 to open WaterCourse. No permits, no problem. Today, $30,000 will get you a crop-dusting from a passing developer and a scale drawing of what you can’t afford. Even if you add another zero, you’re still far short of what it takes to open a restaurant in this town. Herein lies the problem of luxury Denver: It’s too risky to open interesting concepts. People who have the pockets to fund projects have those deep pockets because they are risk-averse. They back safe ideas, concepts that are working in other locales, thereby diluting our uniqueness. (This is not true of my partners at the Campus Lounge; they backed up the idea of turning a sports bar into a conversation-based bar. I appreciate their support and am sorry we couldn’t make it happen.)
In ’98, it cost $30,000 to open WaterCourse. No permits, no problem. Today, $30,000 will get you a crop-dusting from a passing developer and a scale drawing of what you can’t afford.
Back in 1998, 3 percent of the population in the U.S. identified as vegetarian/vegan. Of that 3 percent, 95 percent resided near Berkeley and the other 5 percent lived in yurts. Is opening a restaurant that caters to 3 percent of the population a good business model? Apparently, yes. Twenty years later, I’ve sold three of my vegetarian/vegan businesses and I’m moving to Mexico to run Osa Mariposa, the vegetarian hostel we’ve owned since 2009 in Oaxaca.
When I tell people I’m moving my family to Mexico, I invariably hear: “Isn’t Mexico dangerous?” Gah! Where the fuck do you think you live? A dude busted out a high-rise window and opened fire on a group of country music fans in Vegas! Many, many dudes have broken into schools and murdered or maimed innocent children! On an average day in America, 96 people are killed by guns. Is Mexico dangerous?!?!?! Yes, but so is the United States, especially if you’re black, an immigrant or school-aged.
There is nothing less sexy than a bitter white guy, and I’m becoming just that. I need to check my head before I become that which I should despise. You get no pity parties from the dugout when you arrive at the game on third base. The people with whom I share a common lineage and historic privilege (read: white American males) are losing their collective minds, which is leading to great social and environmental atrocities. It’s as though the warden is slowly unraveling and the prisoners are paying the price. I want to heal. To understand the current power structure and its illnesses, I need to understand myself. Inside of me, I am many, many me’s. I am Trump. I am Sanders. I am Mueller and the Trolls. I am the hero and the villain. In business, I have had to utilize all available me’s to survive: sometimes the better me, sometimes the lesser me. Those in leadership tend to relate; those who haven’t led tend to judge.
At my core, I am the fruit born of the seeds planted by puritan hands in the fertile soil right between the legs. I am ashamed.
As a space maker, I spent the last twenty years creating environments where people could work out their humanity while eating and drinking. My goal was to momentarily soothe the collective conscious, to offer up an affordable restoration treatment. Through these efforts, a great many wonderful and not-so-wonderful things happened. We built successful restaurants without meat or TVs. We employed a lot of people; we fed a lot of people. We made many, many people happy; we pissed off quite a few as well.
The two most valuable lessons I learned in the crucible of modern business ownership that I will take with me are these:
Assume positive intent
Transparency is efficiency
Living by these codes will also keep me out of politics.
To conclude, I’d love to shout out to all the women who made/make my world a better place.
To my mom: You have believed in me wholly, and that is the greatest gift. To Michelle: Our love ignited stars that still burn bright. To Jennifer Byers and Lauren Roberts: I am humbled by that which you have accomplished and that which is to come. I hope you reach the bells and ring them loud; the foundation is sturdy. BUILD ON! To Sarah Lyons: We learned to ride the teeter-totter with our inhales and exhales alone. To Kaela Martin: You are f’ing brilliant. Enough said. To Erin Skahan: Your life is an art form, an inspiration. Wherever you go, beauty follows. To Brittany Martinez: Every movement is like dance, every word a gem, the van awaits. To Audrey and Nara: Let’s go on a most excellent adventure!
P.S.: If you have something to say, say it to my face. I’ll be at Pablo’s Coffee at 630 East Sixth Avenue from 9 to 11 a.m. on Monday, May 14.
If you can't be at Pablo's on the 14th, Westword will be there for you, doing a Facebook Live with Dan Landes. So save your questions!