"I want this to be a place where Northsiders can come in and be stoked. Like, 'This is our neighborhood, not just someone coming in and changing it,'" says Cliff Blauvelt of Bodega Denver, the new "sandwich-forward" eatery he's opening next month at 2651 West 38th Avenue.
That address was formerly home to Cuban restaurant Buchi, which closed in June 2020 after twelve years in the neighborhood
. "They have a location in Leadville, so they took their general manager and chef up there," Blauvelt says of the former tenants. He plans to have a version of a Cubano on the Bodega Denver menu as an homage to Buchi.
But from there, his plans veer off into new territory for the location. "Highbrow/lowbrow," "approachable" and, most important, "fun" are the words that Blauvelt, who grew up in the area and went to Regis Jesuit High School, uses to describe what he's building at Bodega. The space is on the small side, with room for 35 seats inside as well as another 35 on the patio. A mural from Jolt, who was born and raised on the Northside and went on to found the Guerilla Garden street-art enterprise, will fill one wall, and Blauvelt plans to play a hip-hop soundtrack.
Helping develop the menu is Jesse Moore, whom Blauvelt had worked with at Secret Sauce, the restaurant group behind Ace Eat Serve and Steuben's. After ten years with that group, with duties including opening the now-closed Steuben's in Arvada, Blauvelt spent nearly two years living in Aruba. There he helped an American couple open a restaurant — and he developed an affinity for creating fun, elevated takes on sandwiches.
After returning to Denver, he worked as culinary director for Tap & Burger through the beginning of the pandemic, then decided he wanted to strike out on his own. Last year, on July 5, he signed the lease for the space on West 38th Avenue and began the (longer than expected) process of opening his own restaurant for the first time. "I've just been learning how to do it all," he says. "I've only freaked out like three or four times."
Bodega is Cliff Blauvelt's first venture as a restaurant owner.
But he's had the support of others along the way, including Secret Sauce founder Josh Wolken and COO Emily Biederman, as well as Moore, who'd been the chef de cuisine at Beast + Bottle and most recently worked at Gado Gado in Portland, Oregon.
Blauvelt, who no longer drinks alcohol, is certified through CHOW (Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness)
as a certified peer support specialist. Industry challenges like mental health, substance abuse and general well-being are top of mind for him as he builds his Bodega team. "It's become this bigger thing that I wasn't really aiming for," he says. "The idea is to build community here, build hospitality within the staff and the team, and let it spread naturally out to the guest."
As a result, he's offering a more robust benefits package than many small, independent restaurants, including health care and some more non-traditional benefits, like covering staff members' medical marijuana cards and providing ClassPasses, which will be covered by a 4 percent wellness fee. "It goes straight to the employee wellness fund," he explains.
Transparency is key to building a healthy environment for both employees and guests, he adds: "I love building people up, developing them, creating relationships. I just want to do the right thing and be known for that."
But he also wants to be known for his food. Bodega will start off with a concise menu of around fifteen items as well as some daily specials (like a classic bodega-style chopped cheese). Ideas include a fried chicken sandwich with crispy chili oil as opposed to the more popular Nashville hot style, a double cheeseburger, breakfast burritos and sandwiches (yes, there will be a BEC), grab-and-go options like a housemade protein bar, salads and healthy, veggie-forward sides. But there will also be more indulgent options, such as mix-and-match fries (curly, waffle, sweet potato...anything goes).
Around 60 percent of the menu will or can be made plant-based. "Some are more refined, some more sloppy," Blauvelt says of the offerings. Boozy and N/A options will be available on the drink menu, along with coffee and espresso in the mornings.
"The idea with Bodega is, it's where people go get their coffee, their newspaper, their gossip, a breakfast sandwich," Blauvelt says, noting that bodegas in general are "more of a community center. Sure, they're stores, but this is kind of that, reimagined."
He's not the only one reinterpreting a bodega on the Front Range right now. Fresh Thymes in Boulder recently added an offshoot dubbed Bodega
that serves coffee and is stocked with grocery items and grab- and-go meals with a focus on healthy and local options. And opening soon at 613 East 22nd Avenue in Five Points will be Little Bodega
, a more traditional version of the classic NYC concept that will serve deli sandwiches and also be a grrocer.
Blauvelt's Bodega does not have a retail component, but he ultimately wants to serve the community from morning until night. First, though, he plans to start slowly with breakfast and lunch, then add happy hour, dinner and weekend brunch.
for announcements about possible sneak-peek pop-ups before Bodega opens sometime near the end of July.