Food News

From Denver Zoo Busboy to Owner, Chef Francisco Quintana Launches New Venture

After twenty years in the industry, Quintana is running his own business for the first time.
After twenty years in the industry, Quintana is running his own business for the first time. Courtesy of Francisco Quintana
Francisco Quintana signs his emails with a Jacques Pepin quote: “Great cooking favors the prepared hands.” It’s a cleaned-up version of an old kitchen saying about planning and a lesson Quintana has learned during his twenty-year career. “If you’re scrambling, it’s going to come through in your food,” he says. “Nobody’s perfect. But we have to hit almost a level of perfection day in and day out.”

Quintana knows a lot about preparation; he was once the regional chef for at least eighteen Lucky Strike locations. But his roots are in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, and his career is a story of hard work, passion and mentorship. Now he's stepping into a new role: owner. Quintana recently launched Bet on Me, LLC which includes three ghost kitchen concepts.

“I started at the Denver Zoo, mainly because I was fourteen and I needed that first job experience,” Quintana says. His cousin was the manager of the Hungry Elephant, and Quintana started working there as a busboy. But he quickly progressed to the main cafeteria, and by the time he was sixteen or seventeen had moved into the kitchen.

There he met Kevin McNicholas, the founder of KM Concessions, which ran the Hungry Elephant and several other cafeterias. McNicholas had built his business from the ground up. “He gave me an idea of who I wanted to become,” Quintana continues.

McNicholas would often step in to help in the kitchen, and when Quintana first went to college to study criminal justice, he supported him and helped pay for his books.

“I grew up in the Five Points neighborhood, and because of where I grew up and what I went through in my childhood, being in that environment, I wanted to either become a police officer or a resource officer who would help kids like me,” Quintana explains.

“At that time, the success rate of kids going on to college wasn’t very high,” he continues, but one of his aunts was insistent that he try. “I went to Metro for a year, but by the second semester, I was carrying my clogs and my pants more often than I was books. [Chef Jayson Reynolds] pulled me aside and helped make me a chef. He said, ‘You have to decide what you want to do.’”
Quintana incorporates ingredients from local purveyors with whom he’s built connections over the years. - COURTESY OF FRANCISCO QUINTANA
Quintana incorporates ingredients from local purveyors with whom he’s built connections over the years.
Courtesy of Francisco Quintana
So Quintana focused on his work at Lucky Strike — a bowling alley, bar and restaurant chain. He was hired there as a sous chef at age nineteen and became the executive chef two years later. “I was really thrown into the mix. I had to earn my status quick,” he notes. “The difficulty was working with older guys who had the [culinary] education...getting them to believe in me.”

Soon, Quintana was traveling for Lucky Strike’s corporate branch, learning its menus in Los Angeles and executing them at restaurants around the country. For him, it was not only a moment to perfect his skills, but a way to observe how other chefs ran their kitchens. He’d take note of the organization's techniques and sustainable alternatives such as reusing vegetable peelings to create soup stock.

He was promoted to West Coast corporate regional chef in 2018 and began writing menus for twenty Lucky Strike locations across Hawaii, Washington, Arizona and California, in addition to managing the Denver store.

But then he had what he calls “a life event” in his early thirties. He was going through a divorce, and he started to develop health issues. “I remember working on the line that day, and I looked at one of my cooks and said, ‘I’m going to get some antibiotics,’” Quintana recalls. “Turns out I was in the hospital for a couple days. If I hadn’t gone when I did, I probably would have died.” He had diverticulitis and needed 23 inches of his intestine repaired, as well as bladder surgery.

Shortly after his surgery, friends at Appaloosa Grill extended an offer for him to take on the executive chef position there, which he immediately accepted. "It allowed me to be a daddy,” he notes. “I could fulfill my requirements and still be there for my kids, and in this industry, that’s tough.” It also provided an opportunity for unlimited creativity in the kitchen.

“It was always a dream job, and so we were riding a real good high, and then COVID came along and we dipped down to nothing,” Quintana say. “I lived three different lives at Appaloosa.” The first life was “Do what you love,” the second “Strap up your boots and survive,” he says. The third was recovery, which started around Thanksgiving 2020, when the business was able to start bringing employees back.

It was around that time that Quintana's girlfriend, Monica Ruiz, really prompted him to think about working for himself. “As parents, you tell your kids, ‘You can do anything you put your mind to,'” he says. “That was one of the driving points to finally say okay.”
Elote, Mexican street corn made with mayonnaise and spices, is one dish on the menu at Linda Hermosa. - COURTESY OF FRANCISCO QUINTANA
Elote, Mexican street corn made with mayonnaise and spices, is one dish on the menu at Linda Hermosa.
Courtesy of Francisco Quintana
Together Quintana, his sister Korena Leon and Ruiz started making Sunday meals out of their apartment kitchen. It was hard for Quintana to go from a gourmet setup to cooking on a coil stove, but demand grew, and they went from serving five families to sixty-plus orders in about five weeks, he says.

In July, they moved the operation to a ghost kitchen, and Quintana fleshed out the menus for each of his three concepts under the business name Bet on Me LLC.

30Forth Kitchen serves New American food including oxtail barbacoa mac and cheese and a wild-mushroom po'boy. The name represents 34th Avenue, where Quintana grew up, and symbolizes the intention of a new beginning. Linda Hermosa sells Latin American food. It’s a mixture of traditions Quintana was taught as a second-generation Mexican American with New Mexican ancestry and specialties from Ruiz’s home of Queretaro, Mexico, and offers dishes like chicken pozole, carnitas tacos and birria huitlacoche with grilled squash. Somos Vegetarians also specializes in Latin American food, but with a strict focus on vegetarian and vegan entrees, such as a jackfruit tinga tostada. Quintana also offers catering services.

In all his dishes, Quintana tries to incorporate ingredients from local purveyors with whom he’s built connections over the years. “Quality food and quality ingredients,” he explains, just like the meals he says his grandma would cook using vegetables from her garden.

And he wants to infuse a spirit of giving in his food and business, too. He’s already been able to mentor kids from dishwashing positions to managers and chefs. During his childhood in Five Points, he remembers getting Thanksgiving meals from Daddy Bruce and how much that meant. “I want to give Thanksgiving baskets to those in need,” he says. “My desire is to help.”

30Forth Kitchen, Linda Hermosa and Somos Vegetarians are available for pick-up and delivery on Grubhub and UberEats. For catering inquiries, email [email protected].
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.
Claire Duncombe is a journalist, photographer, multimedia storyteller and musician. She is a recent graduate of CU Denver, and a proud Philadelphia native.
Contact: Claire Duncombe