One of Denver's most intriguing new concepts is getting ready to offer up beef-cheek pastrami, housemade sausages, coffee-rubbed pork shoulder and smoked chicken bao buns. The kitchen cooking these mouthwatering bites is located at 810 Vallejo Street, but don't bother driving there to grab a meal; you'll find only a warren of warehouses and dead-end streets beneath the elevated lanes and ramps of Interstate 25.
Smokin' Ace, a venture created by restaurant veterans Emily and Joshua Elliott, is set to debut on January 28. But it's not really a restaurant; it's a ghost kitchen with food available for delivery only. Their project is one of the first to open inside CloudKitchens, a nationwide commercial kitchen company recently launched by Uber co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick.
The Elliotts moved to Denver from New York City five years ago and have worked in some of Denver's top eateries. Joshua started out with restaurateur Troy Guard's TAG Restaurant Group, working at Guard and Grace downtown and opening FNG in West Highland with Guard in 2017. Emily has done time at Acorn and Beast + Bottle, as well as three years at the Pig & the Sprout. "I'm a back-of-house to front-of house convert," she explains. "I switched to the dark side."
That switch has proved helpful in launching Smokin' Ace, since, like any restaurant, it still needs accounting, customer relations and operations systems to run smoothly, and those are all things that Emily learned as a manager.
Joshua's passion still lies in the kitchen, however — specifically with cured and smoked meats. "Twenty-one years ago, I got to spend time with three Italian master butchers, and it changed everything for me," he recalls. From that exposure breaking down whole pigs and turning every cut into sausages and other types of charcuterie, the chef first mastered fresh sausage and then turned his attention to dry-cured products. While at Guard and Grace and FNG, he was able to put many of his creations on the restaurants' menus.
But now his expertise is taking a humbler form: the good ol' American hot dog. Not that making hot dogs from scratch is easy. "It requires paying attention to pH, salinity and temperature," Joshua says, not to mention knowing the right way to grind and emulsify the meat to get the right texture. And the meat he uses is more than the scraps and off-cuts that most of us think of when imagining sausage production; he's buying higher-end cuts like short rib and pork shoulder for his links. The hot dogs are all beef, but he's also making a Monterey Jack and poblano bratwurst, and a suadero sausage with beef belly and pork.
Then there's the beef-cheek pastrami, cured and smoked until it's pink and tender, and used in a sandwich called the Transplant, which Emily says is similar to a Reuben, since it comes with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and a house sauce similar to Thousand Island dressing, but with jalapeño relish instead of the standard pickle relish.
Although they love the realities of restaurants, the couple decided to open a ghost kitchen partly because it has a low entry price compared to a physical eatery. After both being laid off because of the pandemic, they'd started planning a food truck, but the CloudKitchens opportunity came along in September, and it proved too good to pass up. Now in his forties, Josh says he also thought restaurant owners would be hesitant to hire him, especially during the pandemic, since experience comes with a higher price tag. "This was a way to stay relevant without scrapping a quarter-century of experience," he notes.
Going with a delivery-only model felt a little strange at first, Emily admits, especially since restaurants are often subjected to high service fees from third-party delivery companies. But since CloudKitchens was designed with delivery as the sole focus, she was able to build service fees into Smokin' Ace's business plan and menu pricing. While she knows that several delivery companies charge up to 30 percent in fees, most of them offer low introductory rates or waived fees for the first month, and Denver's temporary 15 percent fee cap is still in place for now — so that will give Smokin' Ace a chance to get off the ground. Ultimately, they hope to do much of their business with ChowNow, which operates on a subscription basis instead of a fee-based system, so the costs are much more predictable; ChowNow also built Smokin' Ace's website.
With third-party companies handling the delivery and CloudKitchens providing the real estate (as well as expediters who act as intermediaries between chefs and drivers), starting a new food business has been a safe and streamlined process for the Elliotts. Joshua has three employees on his kitchen staff, and says that he and Emily might need to hire operations support, too, since right now Emily is doing everything herself. "It's about 90 percent the same as running a restaurant," he notes, even if there's no direct contact with customers. That means he can't immediately gauge the satisfaction of diners, nor judge when a rush might hit based on dining room activity.
Other than those wild cards, though, it's all aces.
Smokin' Ace begins taking orders on Thursday, January 28, on its website, smokinacecolorado.com, and will be open for business from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
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