It's funny, because mainstream acceptance was the last thing that Cheba Hut founder Scott Jennings was looking for. Although his eateries, with their pun-filled menus of sub sandwiches, have done more to help de-stigmatize cannabis than most "pioneers" who like the smell of their own edible farts, Jennings misses the rebellious side of cannabis. Still, that rebel mentality will forever stay embodied in his food, which we're starting to see in more towns around the country.
We recently caught up with Jennings to learn more about the beginning of Cheba Hut, his menu favorites and more.
Westword: You founded Cheba Hut in Arizona over twenty years ago. How big of a risk did you feel you were taking by centering a restaurant theme around cannabis culture?
Scott Jennings: Back in ’98, it was a huge risk. I believe at that time in Arizona, any amount was a felony, and you had to go to a diversion class or some bullshit like that. A lot of my friends were dealing with some terrible laws that messed up their lives. Fake news is not a new thing.
As far as the theme goes, everyone told me, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” I think the over/under for our survival was a year. I had something to prove. Stoners are intelligent, hardworking people, and we know great-tasting food. Furthermore, I was just out of college and believed very strongly — still do — in freedom of speech. According to the First Amendment, I can call my sandwich shop whatever I want. It wasn't a gimmick; it was a statement!
Have you seen the culture around cannabis change since then?
Yes, to some degree. I have never been a fan of going mainstream, and I think a lot of people have embraced it just for profit. Some of the same people who were previously against it are now for it after seeing the profit involved, and not the common sense and freedom of choice, which should be the reason.
Still, the positives definitely make the bandwagon douchebags more tolerable. For example, the laws are much better. Sentences are being commuted, and stuff like that is awesome. A lot of people have spent some serious time in prison, and outdated laws have ruined a lot of lives — and continue to today. Remember that when you’re puffin’.
I’m proud to live in Colorado. We are so far ahead of everyone else, and I truly believe it’s a much safer alternative to alcohol. The culture around us is the same — just much, much better weed!
After one store in Denver, Cheba Hut has opened three more in recent years. Other than legal cannabis, what makes this city so hungry for your sandwiches?
Denver has a lot of great brands, and the people in Denver are sophisticated consumers. We provide a great value and take our food, customers and culture very seriously. Everyone is chasing trends, taking the easy road by passing cost to the customers, putting in kiosks and raising prices. No, thanks. We love our customers. We are going after the landlords and suppliers and doubling down on our food quality, people and experience. We believe eating out shouldn’t be an inconvenience or a vending-machine transaction. It should be an experience.
The Grape Ape: jalapeño cream cheese, meatballs, grape jelly, pineapple, red onion and barbecue sauce, topped with cheddar cheese, bacon, parmesan and oregano — that was a hell of a session. It sounds gross, but it’s very tasty…and is actually still on some of our stores’ secret stashes. Each store has their own secret stash, or menu creation. We encourage them to have their own sessions, and have seen some crazy combinations.
Has cannabis consumption ever influenced what you put on the menu?
There is nothing better then smoking a blunt before heading into the test kitchen. But to be honest, not everyone on our team smokes weed, which is great, because someone has to take notes.
While we're on that topic, what is your favorite sandwich on the menu?
That’s a tough one. It’s like music: It depends what mood you’re in. I always go with nugs [4" sandwich option], so I can get more than one.
When I want the meat sweats, my go-to is the 5-0 (you can’t go wrong with all of the pig). If I’m in a chicken mood, my go-to is the Acapulco Gold (chicken, barbecue sauce and Swiss cheese). For a veggie mood, it’s the Magic Mushroom (portobello, pineapple and teriyaki sauce).
What's the most underrated?
The Italian. It’s the OG. I come from an Italian background, so we use prosciutto instead of capicola and put Italian dressing, parmesan and oregano on everything.
How do you feel about other businesses (the Carl's Jr. CBD burger, for example) trying to cash in on cannabis now that it's becoming more mainstream?
There are a lot of fakers and bandwagon douchebags out there chasing trends to increase profits, but Cheba Hut is the original gangster. We have been rolling for 21 years, and plan on being around for a very, very long time.