Op-Ed: Denver Needs to Make a Commitment to a Sustainable Local Restaurant Industry

Federales, a bar from a Chicago-based group, debuted in RiNo in August.
Federales, a bar from a Chicago-based group, debuted in RiNo in August. Molly Martin
For the past few years, Denver has seen what I would call a troubling trend of concepts from other cities with huge financial backing moving in and setting up shop. Yes, it’s cool to visit a concept from L.A. that is trending on Twitter or a ubiquitous margarita bar from Chicago that is covered in big-screen TVs, but it begs the question: What kind of culinary community do we want Denver to be?

Growing up in the Boston restaurant industry, there was one standout pejorative often leveled against restaurateurs with out-of-state roots trying to open in the city: carpetbagger.

If someone from California, Miami or, God forbid, New York tried to open there, residents took it as a personal affront. The attitude was that Boston has its own culture and community, so why does it need you? Are the city’s chefs and bartenders not good enough? Are you trying to say there is some gap in the foodscape that cannot be filled by local talent?

If you want to see this in action, look no further than the 2018 meeting that took place when a Starbucks tried to move into Boston’s North End, an Italian neighborhood with more than one hundred years of its own culinary history. The coffee giant had proposed a development project, a “piazza” anchored by a Starbucks, that would “celebrate Boston’s Italian cultural heritage.” In the hours-long meeting, business owners, including many from establishments that have been in the owners’ families for generations, stood up to tell Starbucks where they could shove their Frappuccinos (the video gets really good around the 39:45 mark).

While some of this is born of the general provincial nature of Boston, it comes from a deep sense of identity and a drive to preserve and invest in who we are and what we stand for. Boston, like Denver, is also home to many transplants in the form of the approximately 250,000 college students who relocate every school year, and the many who choose to stick around afterwards.

The biggest difference, however, is that while Boston welcomes newcomers (in our own abrasively hospitable style), the community makes it very clear that if you are going to move into our home, you need to be respectful of what we have built here. This isn’t just an up-and-coming market that you can buy your way into; we’ve been here for almost 300 years making the city what it is.

Granted Denver is a much, much “younger” city than Boston in terms of its development, but given the last ten or so years of explosive growth, now is the perfect time to start having discussions about who we want to be and where we want to go. Do we want to be an open field for large, national hospitality groups to have free rein? Are we okay being a refuge for chefs with controversial pasts to settle after they’ve been chased out of wherever they’re from? What are our community standards and what are we willing to do to maintain them?

I think the most important thing we can do in Denver is to make a commitment to a sustainable local restaurant industry in the same way we’ve made commitments to sustainable local supply chains. The shift toward supporting local agriculture and the like didn't just happen. We all invested in a movement we believed in by making an effort to buy local and sustainable, even if it was inconvenient or cost a little more. Chefs and restaurants made investments by building menus specifically designed to not only support, but highlight local producers. “Farm-to-table” became a selling point for restaurants, and guests felt good about themselves for supporting ideals they believed in. In the same way we were able to consciously shift the market toward sustainable local food efforts, we need to effect the same market shift toward a more sustainable local restaurant industry.
click to enlarge Plans for Apple Blossom include a terrace. - HYATT CENTRIC DOWNTOWN DENVER)
Plans for Apple Blossom include a terrace.
Hyatt Centric Downtown Denver)

Apple Blossom, for instance, the up-and-coming project from Paul and Aileen Reilly of Coperta and the recently closed Beast + Bottle (RIP to a king) that will be opening this fall at 1776 Champa Street in the Hyatt Centric Downtown Denver, is exactly the kind of thing we need more of, where local chefs with local roots and a strong sense of community are given a larger platform to continue their mission.

Another big part of the process is building institutional support for local business to lower the bar for entry for our talented chefs and restaurateurs. One of the things that has allowed Boston to preserve its cultural landscape is the presence of very strong neighborhood associations that have a lot of power in deciding who gets to move in. Imagine if we had such a group in, say, RiNo, who could act as gatekeepers and steer development projects toward locals rather than just selling off pieces of the neighborhood to the highest bidder.

Public-private partnerships specifically designed to target local businesses and help them develop are also key. One great example is the Arvada Resiliency Taskforce, which is helping support and invest in local businesses as they recover from the pandemic. But we need to build organizations that exist outside of emergency relief efforts, too.

We are at a point where we have a unique opportunity to shape our industry today and what it will be in the coming decades, and the question we all must ask ourselves is how we rise to meet that moment.

Westword occasionally publishes op-eds and essays on matters of interest to the community; they reflect the opinions of the authors, not Westword. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to [email protected], where you can also comment on this piece.
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.
Ben Whelan has been living and cooking in Denver since 2014 and is an alum of Mizuna, Fruition and multiple concepts in the Culinary Creative group. He is currently the chef de cuisine at Lunchboxx in the Denver Central Market.