Colorado's fast-expanding, fast-improving, fast-casual world

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A few days ago, I was a food nomad. Mindlessly searching for sustenance, I wandered along Colorado Boulevard looking for something cheap yet nourishing -- with nourishing almost immediately eliminating most fast-food joints. But not all. The spots that really piqued my 'buds were places like Qdoba, Noodles and Company, Smashburger, Spicy Pickle and Chipotle.

After finding enough sustenance to make logical thought possible again, it dawned on me that all these places had two things in common: They are fast-casual establishments, and they all got their start in Colorado. Fast-casual restaurants are like grownup fast-food places, with slightly higher check averages, nicer decor and fresher, higher quality food. And Colorado's entries in the field all seem to be doing so well.

I wondered why. Faster than you can say "get-on-your-Mac-and-start-mailing-these-companies," I got on my Mac and started e-mailing these companies.

While I waited for replies, I hopped over to my favorite website that identifies the trends and stories of the fast-casual food world, Fast Casual. Glancing at its "Top 100 Movers and Shakers of 2008," I was surprised to find not just Chipotle, Qdoba, Noodles and Company, Smashburger and Spicy Pickle on the list, but five more outfits that I hadn't known were based in Colorado: Bimbamboo, a single-unit restaurant in Boulder; Tokyo Joe's; Quiznos;  Mad Greens and Einstein Brothers! Since there are over 600 fast-casual chains in the country, Colorado's strength on this list -- we accounted for more than 10 percent -- was nothing to shake your spicy pickle at! 

Noodles and Company ranked number 80, Mad Greens 70, Quiznos 66, Bimbamboo 44, Spicy Pickle 32, Tokyo Joe's 31, Smashburger 29, Einsteins 10, Chipotle 7 and Qdoba 4. (By the way, Chipotle and Qdoba were numbers 1 and 3 in 2007.) While I was marveling at Colorado's score, I began to hear back from some of the local fast-casual chains about why so many success stories start here.

Joe Hodas, the former Frontier official who now handles PR for Smashburger (which was started by Richard Schaden, also the power behind Quiznos), offered this: "I think it has a lot to do with our geographic proximity being in the middle of the country (same reason we have a top five airport even though we aren't a top five city by size). You also have a very 'healthy' community and the fast-casual business is about combining healthier or more wholesome food with speed and convenience."

Chris Arnold, spokesman for Chipotle, gave me a much simpler response: Founder Steve Ells "grew up in nearby Boulder, Colorado. This was his home."

According to Jill Preston, Aaron Kennedy, the founder of Noodles and Company, "moved to Colorado as he was first conceptualizing the restaurant, so it was natural for him to open his first restaurant where he lived. But more than that, Aaron believed that Coloradans would be open to the idea of a globally inspired noodle restaurant that focused on fresh quality food and ingredients."

Spicy Pickle CEO Marc Geman gave the best response: "Why Denver? I honestly don't know. It's got something to with young restaurant people coming to Denver, either for quality of life or something. It just happened."

And it keeps happening. Quick Service Restaurant Magazine has Chipotle and Qdoba breaking the top fifty in national sales for any quick service (aka fast food) restaurant -- and this category includes McDonald's, Subway, Burger King and so on. And new fast-casual concepts keep emerging here, including Tocabe (which I wouldn't be surprised to see on the Top 100 in a few years).

Although all the companies I talked to have ambitious plans for growth in 2009, I hope they remember their roots. Because when I'm looking for a burrito larger than my car, "the perfect burger" or a place where I can get meatballs on pad thai, I would love to find it at a Colorado-born spot.

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