The Village Cork closed at the end of June after sixteen years on Old South Pearl Street; "I'm just pooped," owner Lisa Lapp explained. But before she closed the doors to take some much-needed time off from the restaurant business, Lapp made a call to the one person she could envision taking over the neighborhood spot.
That person was chef Alex Seidel, founder of Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provision, who just happened to be formulating a new restaurant idea with business partners Adam Schlegel, co-founder of Snooze, and Randy Layman, who'd managed the bar at Steuben's and Ace Eat Serve (among other establishments) and recently acted as sales director for Leopold Bros.
After spending nearly two years in Australia with his wife (a native of the country), Schlegel had become obsessed with the fire-roasted rotisserie chicken, called "chook" in Australian slang, that he found in so many corner shops and bars there. At the same time, Seidel had been looking at reasons why small-scale poultry farming in Colorado was so expensive.
"This has been his brainchild, and he's been talking about chicken for quite a while," Seidel says of Schlegel. Seidel, too, was intrigued, interested in finding an affordable solution for families who want quality chicken from sustainable sources. "We've even struggled at Mercantile and Fruition to keep good poultry," he adds.
So the two came up with the concept for Chook (rhymes with "cook"), a fast-casual rotisserie chicken restaurant that will open in the former Village Cork space at 1300 South Pearl Street near the end of the year. "How can a family of three or four walk away for under $40 and be full and feel good about what they're putting in their body?" Seidel asks. Chook is his answer.
While prices haven't been entirely set, he and Schlegel agree that a whole bird and four sides (with options like mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes or broccoli salad) should ring in at about $40, with a quarter of a chicken and a side priced at $12, and a pulled-chicken sandwich (on a "Pacific roll" made by Füdmill, Seidel's wholesale bakery) with a side coming in at $11.
Since opening Fruition in 2007, Seidel has worked to build up Colorado's food system to get more locally grown food onto plates. He also owns Fruition Farm and Fruition Farm Creamery, which provide produce and artisan cheese for his restaurants and beyond. Schlegel and Seidel want to put the same kind of support and effort into local poultry farming, although they're not yet ready to become chicken farmers themselves.
Seidel points out that small Colorado farmers can't take advantage of economies of scale to keep processing prices low once the chickens are sent for slaughter, but he thinks continuing to support those farms will help in the long run. So instead of paying lower prices for inferior chicken, Chook will rely on strategy to keep down prices for quality bird at the cash register. "It's based on the service model, menu engineering, efficient food prep and having the team to execute," Seidel explain. Equality between front and back of house and paying everyone a living wage are also important, Schlegel adds.
And that's where Layman comes in. "I'm the one that's lucky enough to be here running this place every day," he says. "I'll be looking at the big pictures of food sourcing and how we treat our employees."
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He'll also apply the idea of affordability to his bar program, which will include draft beer and wine as well as a creative solution to less expensive cocktails. In Australia, he points out, beer is served in pints as well as in ten-ounce "pots." Chook will have pots of beer, too, and the name gave him the idea to serve pre-batched cocktails in a different kind of pot. He sourced French yogurt jars that will serve as cocktail containers he's calling "happy pots," complete with sealed lids. Customers can peel the lids and drink directly from the jar or pour the drink into a glass of ice. For wine, Schlegel says he's found an inexpensive source in Italy, so he'll have red, white and rose varieties from the Barolo region that will be poured on tap and that customers can take home in bottles.
Expect similar creativity when it comes to the chicken. Seidel says that brining chicken is the best way to ensure consistent flavor and moisture when cooking large quantities, but notes that brining adds additional costs to production. So he streamlined the process used at his other restaurants to cut back on the prep time and number of ingredients while still achieving a flavorful result. He also worked with Savory Spice owner Mike Johnston to come up with Chook Chicken Salt, a seasoning made with dried chicken skin, chanterelle mushrooms, tomato powder and other spices; the seasoning will be used on Chook's roasted potatoes as a way to boost flavor without deep-frying (since there will be no fryers in the restaurant). The salt will also be sold at Savory Spice shops and online beginning October 4. And because there are usually leftovers with roast chicken, the chef is designing a take-home kit with stock, veggies, grains and a recipe for "booyah stew," a favorite in the Great Lakes region where he grew up.
When Chook opens, Seidel, Shlegel and Layman expect the restaurant to be a family-friendly place with enough room for about forty customers inside, with a setup built for easy takeout. (Seidel is even considering curbside takeout so customers with kids in tow don't have to get out of the car.) Their commitment to the neighborhood extends beyond serving chicken, though; there will also be a "community chest" where guests will be able to use tokens to vote for a charity of the month (nearby schools and non-profit organizations), and Chook will donate 1 percent of its sales every month, dividing the proceeds among the winners that month.
With Schlegel already accustomed to branching out with new outposts of Snooze (the next one will open in Charlotte, North Carolina) and the team's desire to positively influence Colorado's chicken-farming economy the way Chipotle and Niman Ranch did with pork, Chook could well grow beyond a single shop in Platt Park — in which case chicken farming could become part of the equation.