First-Time Restaurant Owners Talk About What It Takes

Spencer White and Alex Figura launched Dio Mio in RiNo less than a year ago.
Spencer White and Alex Figura launched Dio Mio in RiNo less than a year ago. Holly Hursely

Page 2 of 2

click to enlarge
Elise Wiggins opened her first restaurant, Cattivella, this past summer.
Jennifer Koskinen
Elise Wiggins
10195 East 29th Drive
Before Elise Wiggins opened Cattivella at 10195 East 29th Avenue in April, the chef had spent twelve years as the face of Panzano — a post that not only cemented a legion of fans, but also set her up to run her own business. “With Kimpton Hotels, you’re an independent operator,” she says of the hotel group that owns the Hotel Monaco, which houses Panzano. “The company was smart about weeding out middlemen. You do your accounting, your budgeting, your payroll — you do everything. I felt really confident going into this, having opened so many restaurants. But let me tell you, I’ve learned so much. This business — it’s a clock with a million moving parts. They’re so interconnected; if one part is skewed, it clogs the system. You can’t just get by without that part.”

Her first lesson came before her restaurant even opened: The general manager she’d planned to work with took a new job two months before launch, throwing a wrench into her training plans. “I had to really learn to shuffle,” she says. “I learned that I need to make sure that I am really responsible for both sides, to be prepared to have absolutely no one helping me.”

She was still feeling the effects of that personnel change four months after opening, when Westword’s Gretchen Kurtz reviewed Cattivella and called out the missteps in service. “It was a needed sting,” Wiggins says. “I couldn’t be in two places at the same time. Now the dust has settled, and I’ve weeded through the staff to get strong core staff, so I jumped into the front of the house. Recently, our scores shot back up with regard to service.”

Wiggins lives in Stapleton, so she knew the neighborhood would respond well to the food; she hasn’t had to tweak the menu much to please the crowds that come nightly. And she knew she’d be dealing with mostly young families, so she made her restaurant approachable and casual to cater to them. But what did surprise her was the pace of service. “The place dies off at 8:30, even on Friday or Saturday,” she says. “Everyone comes in the first two hours. We get pounded, then everyone goes home.” She decided to close earlier as a result.
Wiggins took her time opening her own place, preferring to wait until she could self-finance. But now that she’s taken the plunge, she can’t imagine returning to the alternative. “I live and die by my decisions,” she says. “I can’t tell you how amazing that feels.”

click to enlarge
Regan and Louie Colburn started Ohana as a walk-up lunch window before moving to their current location.
Laura Shunk
Louie Colburn
Ohana Island Kitchen
2563 15th Street
If you’re going to open a restaurant, “everyone you know is going to tell you how it should be done,” says Louie Colburn, who owns Ohana Island Kitchen with his wife, Regan. “You have to sort through it and lean toward advice from people who have been there — especially people who have managed people.”

The Colburns opened their sunny poke shop at 2563 15th Street last November, expanding from the takeout window they’d operated just around the corner at the back of the Truffle Table. And, just like that setup, Ohana quickly had more business than the couple could handle. They wanted to expand into dinner service, but it was hard to hire: This past summer, they parted ways with a manager who wasn’t meeting expectations, and they had to revert to lunch-only hours as a result. “I’m having difficulty expanding business and maintaining nighttime hours because of difficulty with recruiting and maintaining employees,” says Louie. “It’s very challenging to foster loyalty.”

The pair is now focused on employees who take work seriously and have strong standards — people who will cover shifts and come to work on time, even if they have no culinary experience. But still they struggle to find talent. “The workforce has so many options right now,” says Louie. “As first-time small-business owners, we don’t have the upper hand hiring employees.” And until they alleviate that pressure point, they’ll have trouble growing, he says.

One marker of Ohana’s success that Louie didn’t anticipate: copycats. Poke exploded soon after the restaurant opened, and a couple of those new operations are suspiciously similar to the Colburns’, either in name or menu — or both. “You have to choose to focus on yourself,” says Louie. “Any deviation of your energy takes away from your work.”

In the face of such challenges, it’s good to have a wellspring of genuine enthusiasm from which to draw, he says: “I realized the motivation to start something can’t be based on a trend. Having something genuine behind it really sets things into action.”

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk