The sizzle of udon noodles in the pan rises along with the aroma of soy and ginger, filling the air with the promise of fresh-made food. But this isn't a Japanese restaurant; it's the newest of three Choice Market convenience stores, this one now pumping gas (or charging electric vehicles), peddling chips and soda and, yes, serving a menu of fast-casual eats made to order, all at 2200 East Colfax Avenue.
Mike Fogarty founded Choice Market in 2017 with the goal of transforming the convenience-store experience so that customers could get fresh, healthy food and locally made products at all hours of the day. The first Choice Market opened at 1770 Broadway as a 24-hour store with a short menu of housemade food and grab-and-go items (including a good selection of vegan and vegetarian options), along with snack foods, groceries and necessities like toilet paper. "You're not convenient if you're not open," Fogarty explains of the initial 24/7 concept. Eventually, though, the market changed its hours to 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily, since the late-night demand died off after the bars let out and night owls had grabbed food as they headed home.
A second Choice Market opened at 1015 Osage Street in 2019, but with a slightly different mission. It's a partnership with the Denver Housing Authority headquarters and the Youth Employment Academy, and is intended to give the Mariposa community an inexpensive and accessible shopping option. As a result, the product line is more in keeping with the neighborhood's needs. (The kitchen in that market is currently closed because of the COVID pandemic, however.)
The third Choice Market, which takes over the space formerly occupied by Grand China (the roofline gives away the building's origins), continues the evolution of Fogarty's vision: It's a small-scale but full-service market where customers can pick up six-packs of craft beer, enjoy a fried chicken sandwich (battered and fried to order), stock up on groceries for dinner and gas up the car. "What could be four separate transactions at four separate locations is now one," Fogarty points out.
The idea of convenience is nothing new, but Fogarty is taking it to new levels. "We put a significant investment — multiple six figures — into tech," he points out. While the store is still in soft-opening mode, transactions won't feel much different than at any other convenience store, but come the late-August grand opening (an exact date hasn't been chosen), self-service checkout stations and mobile apps will be up and running, allowing customers to shop and pay with speed and ease. A fleet of electric vehicles (including electric bicycles) will deliver purchases to those shopping from home or work, and on request, recipes will add everything to your shopping and checkout list to make, say, fettuccine Alfredo.
The setup seems tailor-made for new rules and regulations inspired by the pandemic; touchless transactions are the norm, plexiglass separates customers from the kitchen and checkout counter, and delivery service gives an added option for those who can't venture out in public or feel unsafe doing so. But much of this has been part of Fogarty's plan all along, and the evolution will continue, he says. There's already a fourth Choice Market in the works at Eighth Avenue and Bannock Street that will utilize what Fogarty calls "frictionless shopping," in which cameras and shelf sensors track purchases using AI technology, so that you can load up a shopping bag and simply approve the tally with a click or gesture before leaving the store — no human interaction needed.
That's a little scary for some shoppers, but the wide selection of local products will go far toward putting folks at ease. At the new Colfax market, for instance, cans of Bruz beers fill a shelf inside the beverage cooler; Bruz has a taproom just on the other side of the alley, so its beers can't get any more local. Fogarty also plans to add take-and-bake pizzas made by DC Pie Co. across the street and ice cream from Smith + Canon just a few doors down. Meats come from River Bear American Meats (founded by Denver chef Justin Brunson), the produce is all organic, and the shelves are stocked with recognizable Colorado brands: The Real Dill pickles, Pasta Jay's pasta sauce, fresh City Bakery bread, Method Coffee, Teatulia tea, PB Love peanut butter and Elevation salami, to name a few. Fresh salad greens, dressings, pesto and chimichurri come from Gotham Greens, a massive indoor farm that just opened next to Stanley Marketplace in Aurora.
Fogarty points out that the kitchen's offerings are updated regularly to incorporate seasonal produce, allowing him to stock the fruit and vegetable section with plenty of variety, since whatever's not sold to customers can be used in the grain bowls, salads, sandwiches and other dishes sold at the market, effectively creating a zero-waste business.
As Fogarty sums up the concept: "We're a natural grocery store with a fast-casual restaurant in a convenience-store setting — with gas!" But despite the natural and organic focus, a quick look around the shelves reveals Coke products, cans of Pringles chips, and a few other national brands that are all but essential for any corner store. One thing you won't find, though, is cigarettes; while it was a difficult decision to forgo them, Fogarty says that tobacco just didn't fit within the overall company vision.
Choice Market is far from the typical glorified gas station with floors sticky from spilled slushies and the air smelling of old hot dog grease. This bright and gleaming store is built for right now and for the future, with high quality and easy shopping on demand from just about any location. How convenient!
Choice Market is currently open from 6 a.m. to midnight, but after the grand opening, hours will be extended until 3 a.m. daily.
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