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Josh Schmitz's Handsome Boys Hospitality Is Growing Fast

Josh Schmitz's Handsome Boys Hospitality is growing fast.
Josh Schmitz's Handsome Boys Hospitality is growing fast. Molly Martin
"My dream, or my vision, is to be one of the biggest hospitality groups in the world, and to be a company that everyone wants to work for," says Josh Schmitz. That's a big goal for a man who, prior to the pandemic, owned and operated just one concept in Denver — the bar/coffeehouse/clothing store/barbershop Bellwether, at 5126 East Colfax Avenue, which he's since transformed into Slashers, a horror-themed bar.

But soon Schmitz will be running seven concepts in Denver, most of them in or near Larimer Square, and he's not stopping there. Based on numbers alone, Schmitz has swiftly become a person to watch in Denver's post-pandemic restaurant and bar scene. How did he move from one multi-hyphenated concept to having the largest collection of street-front square footage on Denver's most iconic block?

"A lot of people call me an entrepreneur — I can't even spell that word," Schmitz says, smiling. "But where I got that spirit is from my dad. I learned that you can actually make a living helping people. If you provide value, you can make a living."

Schmitz's father is a non-denominational pastor — "He calls himself a recovering Catholic," Schmitz notes — and his mother worked for Frontier Airlines. He grew up in the Denver area, and, after graduating from Wheat Ridge High School, played professional rugby in Samoa, traveling around the South Pacific to places like Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. "I missed my family when I was overseas," Schmitz says, "so I had a full-ride scholarship to Cal Berkeley for rugby...but I called my dad and was like, 'What's the closest school to home that will give me a full ride?'"

His father recommended the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. "I was there for about two weeks," Schmitz recalls, "and realized, I'm joining the military — like, wait a minute, this is no joke!" His next-closest option: the University of Wyoming, in a state he'd never been to. Although the spare surroundings of Wyoming were a big change, the easy two-hour drive home made it appealing. So Schmitz went to Laramie, where he played rugby and majored in sociology (which he chose after asking the counselor for the easiest option) and religion.

"Sociology is just group thought," he explains, "which is the science of marketing." The degree he chose as an easy path to playing rugby near home turned out to offer valuable lessons he's used throughout his post-college career, which included working for Denver nightclub mogul Francois Safieddine's Lotus Entertainment and launching his own clothing line, Ruckus Apparel, in 2009.

Schmitz grew Ruckus into a streetwear fashion force that even broke into several big-box stores. But in 2013, he made the decision to pull out of those deals, a choice that others in the fashion industry thought would be "the death of Ruckus," he admits. But he found the big-box model unprofitable and not sustainable, and wanted to open his own shop. "At that time, boutiques were dying," he says. "So the ones that aren't dying, what are they doing, and how can we do it different?"
click to enlarge Schmitz recently reopened Horror Bar as Slashers. - MOLLY MARTIN
Schmitz recently reopened Horror Bar as Slashers.
Molly Martin
His answer: adding booze to the mix. So he found a spot on Colfax, got a liquor license, and the result was Bellwether, "a retail shop that grew into something much bigger," Schmitz says. It opened in 2015 with Queen City Collective providing coffee and roasting beans in the back. "I'm just too competitive," he admits, "so if we're going to offer whiskey and coffee, we should have the best whiskey program and the best coffee program." Queen City soon expanded to locations in Baker and Five Points.

While running Bellwether and Ruckus, in 2018 Schmitz went back to school — in a way — helping to teach marketing classes at the University of Colorado Boulder under professor Kelly Tryba. "I tell my students, 'If you actually want to do marketing, don't get a marketing degree,'" he says, noting that learning out of a textbook about the ROI of billboards is not the path to making an impact in the modern world.

When COVID hit, Bellwether had nine employees, and Schmitz was in the early stages of the next phase of his plan: securing a space at Larimer Square. The historic block is "near and dear" to Schmitz, he says, since it's where he started working in hospitality — but he hadn't spent time there in a decade.

"It's aged out," he explains, "so they intentionally brought me in to bring in a younger crowd and a more energetic crowd." Initially, five young entrepreneurs were on board to introduce new businesses on the historic block, but after the pandemic led to a statewide shutdown of bars and restaurants in March 2020, two dropped out. Schmitz immediately decided to take on the additional two spaces. "I said, 'I'll figure it out, give me everything,'" he recalls.

But with the Larimer Square projects in development, he found himself short of time to commit to Bellwether. As a way of keeping that concept operating and supporting local artists during the pandemic, he began throwing art shows in the garage behind Bellwether's back patio. At one of those events, he met Nate Szklarski, a tattoo artist who'd moved to Denver from Minnesota, and the two struck up a friendship; Schmitz agreed to let Szklarski host a pop-up of his own last November.

By then, Schmitz had been able to rehire his entire staff at Bellwether — only to have Governor Jared Polis announce a second restaurant shutdown beginning November 20. "I didn't want to look at my employees and let them go for the second time in a year, so what can we do?" he remembers thinking.

Although Bellwether had to close, Schmitz had a vacant patio space at Larimer Square, which he decided to use for a Christmas tree lot where his employees could work. After some chainsaw training, the lot was launched in partnership with the Family Christmas Tree lot in north Denver. A friendly rivalry between the two evergreen dealers was born, with Schmitz's Larimer spot dubbed the "handsome boys" lot.

The name stuck, and Schmitz's burgeoning hospitality group officially became Handsome Boys Hospitality, which he runs with business partners Nick Brown and Brandon Jount (who owns Wynkoop Financial) and head of operations Mat Haberman.

Back at Bellwether, the horror-themed pop-ups that Szklarski was running proved popular — so popular that Schmitz decided to let Szklarski transform Bellwether into Horror Bar permanently. By April, people eager to catch horror movie screenings and craft cocktails at the buzzy bar that celebrated all things strange were lining up on Colfax.
click to enlarge Hidden Gems is one of four Handsome Boys spaces on Larimer Square. - MOLLY MARTIN
Hidden Gems is one of four Handsome Boys spaces on Larimer Square.
Molly Martin
That same month, the first of Schmitz's Larimer square ventures opened: Hidden Gems, at 1411 Larimer Street. The Wizard of Oz-themed ice cream shop is painted floor to ceiling with trippy designs by artist Wes Bruce, the person behind the nest-like Adventure Forest installation at the Children's Museum of Denver. In May, Schmitz added Drunken Bakery next door. With tables and chairs hung upside down from the ceiling and stacks of books falling up the walls, the bakery is a topsy-turvy treat that specializes in macarons, cake pops and cupcakes.

Ghost Coffee Saloon, at 1413 Larimer, was set to complete the trio, but just four days before its planned May 7 grand opening, a fire put a halt to the launch. "We've been stuck in litigation with insurance and a bunch of stuff on that, which has been gnarly," Schmitz admits; he hopes the shop will get a second chance at an opening soon.

The fire was a bump in plans that were otherwise rolling along smoothly for Handsome Boys, but then a different kind of horror struck the Horror Bar. The front of the former Bellwether building was tagged with the words "Nate Rapist" after online allegations accusing Szklarski of sexual harassment and predatory behavior came to light.

"They were crushing it," Schmitz says of Horror Bar, "and then all the allegations came out. Unfortunately, whether they're true or not, we just can't be in a place where our building is being defaced." He recognized that the horror theme was a hit, but also realized that Szklarski could no longer be a part of the place and that the situation had to be taken seriously.

Ultimately, Schmitz severed all business ties with Szklarski, and in three weeks transformed Horror Bar into Slashers, which opened August 13 with a revamped look; an entirely new AV system, including immersive lighting and a high-end sound system; double the seating and number of televisions; and four times the number of wells, increasing the bar's capacity to serve guests.

With Slashers open, Schmitz has turned his attention to three more projects currently in progress. At the former home of Rebel Restaurant at 3763 Wynkoop Street, Handsome Boys Hospitality is planning to open RiNo Country Club, a ’70s Masters-themed bar and restaurant with a nine-hole mini-golf course. The plan is to have that concept open on a special-events permit for the Westword Music Showcase September 17 and 18, and to then open permanently in the winter.

Back over by Larimer Square, Handsome Boys has leased the former 24K nightclub space at 1416 Market Street, one of the clubs where Schmitz worked during his time with Lotus Entertainment. It will soon be home to Con Safos, with tacos, tequila, mezcal and a party atmosphere.
click to enlarge A mini golf course will be going into the parking lot at RiNo Country Club. - MOLLY MARTIN
A mini golf course will be going into the parking lot at RiNo Country Club.
Molly Martin
Then there's the latest Handsome Boys concept: The group has taken over the Crimson Room space at 1403 Larimer. During the month of October, it will become Spirits, a Halloween-themed bar that, if Slashers is any indication, will go all-in on the spooky theme for the month. Then it will close for several weeks and reopen on November 27 as North Pole Underground, "a fully themed Christmas bar" that will run through New Year's. After that, Schmitz plans to transform the spot permanently into a vodka-focused martini bar called Garden of Eden.

Schmitz recognizes that the Handsome Boys agenda is ambitious, but he thinks Denver's dining scene could use a new hospitality group. "I love Frank Bonanno [Bonanno Concepts], I love Troy Guard [TAG Restaurant Group], I love Juan Padró [Culinary Creative]. But they've been doing that for like ten to fifteen years," he notes. "We're more adaptable, we're younger, so we're able to see the changes that people are wanting."

Those changes include the Handsome Boys compensation model, in which its eighty-plus employees start at $15 an hour with a shared tip pool across the board. "For me, job opportunity, job growth — I want my barbacks to know they can be bartenders," Schmitz says. "I want my bartenders to know they can be GMs and my GMs to know they can be eventual owners. That's what we want to continue to do and develop."

Schmitz also wants to outrun the out-of-state groups opening bars and restaurants that lack admiration and understanding of "old Denver," he says. "I think a lot of people from [New York and Chicago] are like, 'Denver is new and emerging, so we can take our most successful concept and put it there,'" he explains. "The reality is, we don't need it. We have the capability to build our own. We don't need more Federales. We need more Matchboxes, we need more Lakeview Lounges, we need more Squires. That's where I want to drink."

His vision is clear: "We're not here to be the new kids on the block. We're here to take the block over."
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin