Clint Wangsnes, chef of Zengo, leaving to open Chop Shop

After more than eight years as the chef of Zengo, Richard Sandoval's Asian-Latin restaurant in Riverfront Park, Clint Wangsnes is departing that kitchen to open his own. "The last eight years have been really eventful, and working with Richard and watching him grow and expand has been amazing, but I've always wanted to do my own restaurant -- I think every chef wants that -- and two and half years ago, my life changed when I had a baby daughter, and so did my whole approach to my future," says Wangsnes, who will stay at Zengo (Wangsnes also oversees the kitchen at next door La Biblioteca) until mid-April.

See also: Zengo's Clint Wangsnes on black garlic, his last meal and Denver's really bad Mexican food

"When I had my daughter," recalls Wangsnes, "I knew that I wanted to create a restaurant that was mine as a way to grow and help my family, and I realized, too, that it was really hard to find places to eat that were quick and consistently good, and that's when the idea of opening a really good fast-casual restaurant started to become a very real idea," he says.

He drafted a comprehensive business plan, and with the assistance of three partners -- Christian Anderson and Derek and Elizabeth Nelson -- inked a deal in February on a vacated storefront at 4990 East Colfax. Finding the right space, admits Wangsnes, was a lengthy process. "We looked around for over a year, and one day I was driving down Colfax and saw the "for lease" sign, and as soon as I saw the inside, I loved it, especially all the big windows," he says.

"It's just me and three partners, so it's very grassroots, and we all put our live savings into this, but I love the idea of fast-casual restaurants, plus they have the potential to be really profitable," explains Wangsnes. And Denver, he adds, is the ideal city in which to open a fast-casual spot. "Denver is an explosive market, and the fast-casual segment has done extremely well here; just look at the success of Chipotle and Smashburger," he points out.

And with any luck, Chop Shop, Wangsnes's new place, could join them. He's keeping the particulars about the menu -- which he calls a "constant evolution" -- close to his chest, but he does reveal that he'll focus on "modern American food with global influences."

The long and narrow quarters will seat close to forty inside and another twenty on the patio, and an exhibition kitchen will be the room's primary focal point. "The restaurant will revolve around an open kitchen -- we want to be as transparent as possible," notes Wangsnes. He's applied for a full liquor license -- the hearing is on March 12 -- and while he'll undoubtedly get it, Wangsnes says that that emphasis won't be on spirits, but on tap wines and beer.

Chop Shop will be open seven days a week for lunch and dinner and, says Wangsnes, he's playing around with the idea of adding brunch at some point down the line.

"I'm sad to be leaving Zengo, and I'm super-thankful for the opportunity -- Richard helped me get my feet off the ground -- but I'm really excited to get out there and showcase my own cuisine," concludes Wangsnes.

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