“I have the feeling we’ll be announcing something very, very huge in the next month,” Dan Landes told us in late April, when WaterCourse Foods, the restaurant he founded seventeen years ago, celebrated its first anniversary as an all-vegan eatery, after a long run as the city's leading vegetarian restaurant. And huge it is: Landes is selling WaterCourse. But he’ll keep it in the extended restaurant family: WaterCourse is being purchased by Lauren Roberts, currently the general manager at City, O’ City, his second restaurant, and her mother; the staff was told late last week and the deal will be signed Thursday.
While Landes will no longer be involved in the day-to-day operations, he’s keeping a little piece of WaterCourse. “Her plan and vision are amazing,” he says of Roberts, a committed vegan, while "I'm not committed to anything."
But that's far from true. Landes throws himself into anything he tries, whether it's opening a vegetarian restaurant, writing a novel or running a hostel in Mexico. As a vegetarian restaurant, WaterCourse was "way ahead of the curve" when it opened it in 1998, Landes says. Back then it was in the space on East 13th Avenue now occupied by City, O'City; it moved to East 17th eight years ago. And since WaterCourse went vegan in April 2014, “we’re now five years ahead of the curve,” he notes. “I’m selling something that the battery is fully charged. It's as strong as it's ever been.”
He's not getting out of the restaurant business altogether, though. Landes is going to keep WaterCourse Bakery, which supplies both WaterCourse and City, O' City, right next door. And he's going to pour more energy into City, O’ City, which has become as much of a community cultural center as a restaurant since it opened. Back then, the space above the eatery was a squat; Landes renovated it to house not just the Deer Pile performance venue but also Kindness Yoga and his publishing efforts. He’s at work on his second novel — sort of Winnie the Pooh meets Cannery Row, he says — and runs Suspect Press, which just put out its sixth issue with "a team of writers that really found our voices."
And then, of course, there's Osa Mariposa, the vegetarian hostel in Mexico that Landes got into in 2009; today it's the "busiest hotel in Puerto Escondido," he says.
With so much on his plate, it became clear to Landes that Roberts had the vision, talent and organizational skills to take on WaterCourse — and her mother, Jennifer Byers, has a background in corporate America that will help propel the restaurant to the next level. "They see something in WaterCourse," he says. "I know they believe strongly in the brand, and where the vegan world is going to be ten years from now...the next generation."
And as it changes hands, it's a good time to look at the distance WaterCourse — and Denver itself — has traveled. "So many businesses come and go in this city, and they make an impact," Landes notes. "A lot of people visiting came to WaterCourse, and said, 'I could like in a city like that, with progressive restaurants.' They may have an idea of Denver, and then they have vegan food here that's better than in their bigger cities."
Beyond the role that WaterCourse has played in Denver's dining scene, there's the role it's played as a connector. People who've worked at WaterCourse have started bands, created art. Landes was an early fan of Ravi Zuppa, whose work decorates the restaurant (Landes is taking the art with him); today Zuppa is an international star. And the many cultural connections continue at City, O' City.
“City, O’ City and WaterCourse are very distinct, with two very different vibes," he adds. "Just like my children.” And speaking of children, Landes’s son, Charlie, was born a month after WaterCourse opened; he’s just graduated high school. Next week, Landes will take him and his younger brother on a six-week trip to Europe — with one less restaurant back in Denver to worry about.
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WaterCourse isn’t the only longtime Denver restaurant that’s changing hands. Last Thursday, Blair Taylor announced that he’d sold Barolo Grill, the elegant Italian eatery he opened more than two decades ago, to longtime employee Ryan Fletter, who got his first job at Barolo the day after he turned twenty. The sale was announced on Fletter’s 41st birthday — and Taylor just happened to be 41 when he started Barolo.