Chef News

Ken Wolf and Jeff Osaka on Denver Central Market and the Rise of RiNo

When developer Ken Wolf first cooked up his plan for Denver Central Market, he envisioned a neighborhood linchpin, a place where RiNo residents could buy meat, cheese and produce without getting in their cars and driving to a grocery store. He pulled in Jeff Osaka, with whom he’d worked since the chef had rented space from Wolf for Twelve, to assemble the roster of vendors, and together they filled the grand hall with entrepreneurs who sold groceries, take-home prepared foods and dishes that patrons could eat on the spot, perhaps supplementing them with a glass of wine or a cocktail from the bar.

When Wolf and Osaka opened the doors to their market a few weeks ago, the space was immediately thronged by crowds that have yet to abate. And those aren’t just people from the neighborhood coming in — they’re from all over Denver, the suburbs and beyond. We recently chatted with Wolf and Osaka about the need that motivated the market, why RiNo’s rise is different from that of other neighborhoods in Denver, and why casual restaurants have proliferated at the expense of finer dining.
Westword: You guys have been in the neighborhood a long time — Ken, you live here and own property; Jeff, Twelve opened here when there was almost nothing else around. But this project has the potential to be fairly transformative, even in an area that’s already vastly transformed. What did you envision when you set out to do this project?

Ken Wolf: I wanted something that was first and foremost a gourmet market. I didn’t want a food hall. I wanted a gourmet market where people could do their gourmet shopping and get great raw products or prepared food, but also a venue where you could eat lunch or dinner. I didn’t want it to look like a food-court concept. With Jeff’s help, I came up with the different gourmet grocery departments and laid out the space. Jeff helped me locate the eleven vendors that are currently there. The building was important to me, also. I wanted it to look like it had been there for a while. I didn’t want it to look contemporary; I didn’t want it to be a concrete floor with raw steel, which is the look in a lot of urban areas. That’s why we went with a tiled floor and old light fixtures: We wanted to respect the building.

Jeff, how did you take that vision and put together the group of vendors?

Jeff Osaka: Ken lives in the ’hood, and there was nowhere for him to go. So this market was created out of necessity, and we really wanted to create that feeling of a market. A lot of places serve food, but we wanted people to be able to shop here. That’s what turned into what you see today. I started asking people if they were interested. A lot of people said no, but some people who said no eventually said yes. We have a fish market, a butcher, a bakery. Justin Brunson wanted to do a Joe Beef sandwich shop, but we wanted to emphasize the market concept, so he opened Culture.

Wolf: I wanted it to be a gourmet market as much as an eatery, so when you walk in, the first things you see are a fish market and a meat market to emphasize that it isn’t just a place where you can eat.

Tell me how this neighborhood has evolved over the course of your time in it.

Wolf: I’ve lived here since 2003, and the first building I bought was in 1991. I had a chocolate company, and I bought the building to house my chocolate factory. The area then wasn’t bad, but it was all warehouse and all industrial. There were no retail or restaurants. But it was a functioning warehouse area; there were no abandoned buildings. The place where I live, in Curtis Park, is probably the oldest redeveloped loft project in Denver. The neighborhood has now changed from the standpoint of the residences and property — there are restaurants, yoga studios and a dental office. I’ve been trying to develop a core for this new neighborhood. In places like Highland, you have neighborhoods that were run down back in the ’80s and became gentrified. Here, we’re creating a neighborhood. We’re creating in this core not just bars and restaurants, but other services — clothing stores and hair salons.

Osaka: I knew nothing about the Ballpark neighborhood when I opened Twelve. I found the restaurant space on Craigslist. I answered the ad and met Ken, who owns that building. Kokopelli’s was there before me, and everyone wanted another bar; I came with a restaurant. Ken liked what he heard and ended up leasing it to me. Twelve was there for six years, and I watched as just on the other side of Broadway, things changed. After Work & Class came in, everything was different. You can get tacos, ramen, sushi and pizza at Cart-Driver. Il Posto is coming in and bringing Italian. For selfish reasons, I want this neighborhood to thrive: I have two businesses here.
What does RiNo’s development say about Denver at large?

Wolf: Most major cities have a RiNo district. The RiNo district, and how it is developing, is representative of what should be happening if Denver is going to be up there as a major arts and foods city.

Osaka: Denver was always a youthful city, and highly educated. People are coming in for lifestyle; we have more green space than most cities across the country.

What impact does that have on the restaurant industry?

Osaka: Younger people are a little more carefree, with more disposable income; they’re enjoying the moment, and a lot of that is dining out. So the casual level is on the rise because of that. You see people like Troy Guard going from fine dining to tacos and burritos. People have a short attention span. But also, there are a lot of transplants here. I only have one guy who works for me now that’s from Denver. People are more traveled. So they have different expectations: They want things that are not here that are the norm elsewhere.

A short attention span seems to bode well for a market concept.

Osaka: Yeah, you come with a group of friends, and one says, “I don’t want pizza, I want chicken.” And you can get that, as opposed to being stuck in a restaurant where you only have the options that are on that menu.

You expected Central Market to serve a local need, but this crowd is way bigger than a local crowd. How have people responded to this?

Wolf: The e-mails and text messages I’ve gotten come from all over the metropolitan area. I know people who live in Denver Country Club, and this is their new place to go on the weekends. People like RiNo because it’s hip — but until recently, it was a bunch of bars. Now there’s a sushi restaurant, a karaoke bar, First Draft, Central Market — these are one-of-a-kind places. So this is not only for the people who live here; it’s bringing a whole variety of people into the neighborhood.

Osaka: Five years ago, you didn’t even walk down here, but now it’s hot property. The day kind of evolves here. There are creative businesses around here, with graphic artists and art studios. Not everyone is taking lunch at twelve, so people come in at three or eight. Our core hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We didn’t think anyone would buy fish at 8 a.m., but we’ve had people come in who have oysters for breakfast on the weekend. It’s surprising where people are coming from. I met a couple in from Castle Rock who came here specifically to check out the market. This is a big trend around the country.

Denver Central Market is located at 2669 Larimer Street,
Hours for Market: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; Izzio Bakery: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; Curio Bar: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Watch for a Facebook Live interview at Denver Central Market at 4 p.m. Thursday, November 3.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk