Looking back, Josh Epps has memories lined in gold. “I look at these golden, these good old days, and they were,” the owner of Jelly Cafe says, reflecting on the breakfast and lunch cafe’s upcoming tenth anniversary on January 1. “Before [COVID-19], it would feel like a party. A song like 'Sweet Caroline' would come on, and the whole restaurant would sing along,” he adds.
Epps's nostalgia is for a community of customers and employees who have spent years becoming a sort of extended family in a way that most restaurant owners hope for. When Jelly opened at 600 East 13th Avenue on the first day of 2011, it was one of the first in a trend of hip Denver eateries with breakfast and brunch as a theme; the idea proved popular, and Epps opened the second Jelly, at 1700 East Evans Avenue, in 2012. The past year has been rather sterile in comparison — and hard, Epps says, though he knows this time is temporary.
Part of Epps’s gold-tinted perspective has its roots in his previous occupation as a jeweler. He was a goldsmith for years in San Francisco, and continued the work after moving to Denver. When the company grew and changed, Epps decided to put his passion for eating and food to good use. “Everyone thinks they can run a restaurant, and so did I,” he says. So Epps and his wife at the time, Christina Smith, embarked on a trip from San Diego to San Francisco, sampling the breakfast scene from diner to cafe to restaurant.
“We ate way too many eggs and pancakes,” he remarks, but they returned with a vision for a retro cafe that had just enough nostalgia to appeal to a wide demographic. Epps used his own old and well-loved C-3PO's cereal box as the centerpiece for Jelly's vintage cereal box decor, part of its light, kitschy, Saturday-morning vibe — and everything else seemed to fall in line. The owner originally came across the Capitol Hill location that would become Jelly on a dark December day after several other places fell through. “You know when the sun shines through the clouds? It was doing that,” he explains. Epps also lucked out with a great chef — David Payne, who helped solidify the menu, which still ranges from creative breakfast combinations to hearty lunch options.
“It was a really scary time back then, too,” he explains. They were opening on the heels of the Great Recession, and he was hearing statistics such as how nine out of ten restaurants don’t make it through their first year. “But we bounced out of it in such a huge way,” he continues, and that’s a perspective he maintains. “People are starving for this to be over,” he adds.
Jelly's two breakfast joints wouldn’t be in the place they are now without their regulars, including those who have continued to order takeout and eat on the patios long past Denver's standard outdoor dining season. Some Jelly patrons have come in almost every day since day one, Epps explains, "and that’s what we pride ourselves on — our connection.”
In lieu of a big in-person celebration this year, Epps has been exchanging photos and memories with old employees and customers and posting them on social media. Along with the photos come memories of relationships that bloomed into marriages and babies, and countless other stories. This New Year’s Day will be nothing like Jelly’s grand opening ten years ago, with a line out the door, or even its five-year celebration, which was crammed with people and bands playing music. The cafe will simply be open with food and booze to go. But that’s a solid-gold milestone worth celebrating at the end of a difficult year.
Visit Jelly's website for menus and ordering; for details, call 303-831-6301 for the Capitol Hill restaurant or 720-596-4108 for the University location.