Food and Drink Resources opens Innovation Center test kitchen in Denver

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Denver is considered a headquarters for fast-casual dining, with chains like Chipotle, Noodles and Co., Garbanzo and Tokyo Joe's all calling Colorado home. That's one of the reasons Denver-based Food and Drink Resources decided to open its new Innovation Center in Centennial. The center not only gives FDR the space and ability to bring in national chains and work with them to develop and test new menu items and specials -- but the partners also help it could help push the Mile High City's thriving restaurant scene to the next level.

See also: USA Today picks Denver's top ten foodie spots -- but eat fast!

The Innovation Center is the latest undertaking by FDR, a food-service consulting company that works with clients ranging from fast-food to fine-dining endeavors; its roster includes names like Dave & Buster's, Starbucks and California Pizza Kitchen. Lifelong friends Richard Keys and Scott Randalph founded FDR in 2009 as a way to mesh their passion for gastronomy and their business acumen by providing a wide variety of services for national restaurant chains, ranging from menu and product development to brand management.

The pair met Zach Calkins while they were working with Quiznos: Calkins was senior vice president of Global Culinary Innovation for the Denver-based chain, developing new menu items and working to improve product sourcing and ordering speed. The three got along instantly, Calkins says, and he became the third FDR partner in 2013 when Randalph and Keys decided they needed help with their growing workload. Because all three have backgrounds in both fine dining and the nitty-gritty business of restaurant management, Calkins believes that FDR has the unique ability to identify up-and-coming trends in the food world and put them in front of the big-name chains.

Now the trio has opened the Innovation Center, which provides a space to bring together all of FDR's services. According to Calkins, the Center was designed, developed and built to "fill a gap" -- all of the different processes that go into developing new products or processes for a restaurant were too spread out. Before the partners opened the Innovation Center, FDR previously outsourced the preparation of proposed menu items to a test kitchen in Houston.

With the Innovation Center, FDR has a state-of-the-art kitchen right beside focus-group facilities, allowing real-time feedback and scoring on products in development. Chefs and executives from national restaurant groups come to the center to not only use the kitchen facilities, but also work with focus groups recruited in the area.

Metro Denver has a history of being a popular test area for different food products; for example, T.G.I. Friday's tested a new menu here in 2010, and Starbucks, Mars Chocolate and Chick-Fil-A have all also used the Denver market to try out products.

The Innovation Center is designed to build on this reputation. Not only do Coloradans love eating out, Calkins explains, but they have the expendable income to do so. Combine that with palates encompassing the wide-ranging tastes of Americans, thanks in part to Denver's large number of transplants from both coasts and the Midwest, and you have the ideal location for a place like the Innovation Center. "National brands can test in this marketplace," Calkins says. "And if it's going to work here, it's going to work countrywide."

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