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Stirring the Pot: Are There Too Many Restaurants in Denver?

Restaurant density is part of what makes LoDo a draw, but is the entire city becoming oversaturated?EXPAND
Restaurant density is part of what makes LoDo a draw, but is the entire city becoming oversaturated?
Kenneth Hamblin III

Does Denver have too many restaurants? The rumbling sentiment, born from frustrations in a challenging industry, seems to be yes. But is the discontent merely a symptom of what I've come to call Restaurant Saturation Derangement Syndrome?

I believe that more options create competition that raises the collective bar. As Denver grows, so does its food scene, spanning the spectrum of offerings from greasy-spoon joints to white-linen establishments. However, doomsday titles like "There Is No Room for Any More Restaurants" in Restaurant Business Online and "Thanks to Wall Street, There May Be Too Many Restaurants" in the New York Times show that keen industry experts disagree.

In Denver I hear the passionate pleas of hardworking, independent operators seeking, simply put, a break. For many, this perpetual wave of new proprietors staking their claim is akin to seeing your favorite powder stash or fishing hole go from your own private retreat in an obscure location to a destination for the masses. When it was just yours it was idyllic, but once revealed, fighting the crowds feels exhausting and unforgiving.

Kevin Grossi, chef/owner of The Regional in Fort Collins, is one such operator. It’s just him and his little space, opened in October 2018, battling it out with chains and franchises that have discovered the joys of setting up shop in Colorado with its booming economy and influx of newcomers. Grossi began his concept at Avanti Food & Beverage in 2016, where short-term leases encourage a brand incubation environment. The chef explains that the low overhead and affordable rent introduce more concepts into the local economy than are sustainable, especially once their time is up and they make the move to brick-and-mortar locations of their own.

Chef Jamey Fader thinks operating at the highest level is a good approach to staying open.
Chef Jamey Fader thinks operating at the highest level is a good approach to staying open.
Jacqueline Collins

Too many options dilute the dining community as well as the talent pool, making it even tougher to succeed in a business where margins are slim. In a saturated market, make a bad first impression, Grossi notes, and there's no room for recovery or to slowly build a customer base, because guests are already moving on to the next new spot. With so many choices available, a restaurant owner's first experience with a diner could be their last, even when execution of food, drink and service are solid.

So what’s the fix? I recently heard from a veteran Denver chef who wants local government to intercede by limiting business and liquor licenses. “Denver simply has too many choices (there is such a thing)," he wrote. "'Concepts' and 'themes' are not the answer. ... The solution is to let about a third of them close and keep them closed. No regulation is making this industry in Denver volatile and dangerous for owners and very aggravating for diners. This over-saturation of restaurants is actually hurting other establishments. There needs to be a law passed in Denver that would only allow for so many businesses like this, for the sake of everyone."

I feel their pain, but I can’t shake the perspective that if you do it well and do it better than everyone else, you’ll see sustained success for as long as you operate at the highest level. Restaurants like Jax Fish House, Barolo Grill, Vesta and Sushi Den have been doing just this for decades. As have El Taco de Mexico, New Saigon and countless other iconic local hotspots. Add to that list Beast + Bottle, Fruition, Rioja, Mizuna, Luca, Lola, TAG and a host of other historically relevant eateries, and you have the makings of a culinary community with a foundation rooted in quality concepts. How many Denver restaurants with ten years or more under their belts can you rattle off? My list is ongoing. That’s what I’m talking about.

Our current scene could be what critical mass looks like in the restaurant industry, but I think it's more likely that putting weight on the system will facilitate innovation. What do you think?

Send your comments — or other questions about the restaurant world — to cafe@westword.com, or fire away in the comments section.

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