Rumors have been flying across Denver chef circles that Jensen Cummings, the executive chef of Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar, was ditching his gig behind the line to open a new restaurant -- a rumor that's only half true.
"I'm not leaving Row 14, but I am opening a new, fast-casual meatball joint this summer," says Cummings, who hasn't nailed down a space, although he's scouring neighborhoods near the University of Denver. "We have the money, we have the people, but we want to be smart and patient, so we're not going to force the space or get too antsy -- but we know that this is the area where we'd like to open the first of many."
The quick-service concept, explains Cummings, is a collaboration between himself, Johnny Coast, the director of operations for Lotus Concepts and Alex Comisar, the former opening GM of TAG, all of whom, says Cummings, are meatball addicts. "We're three kids from different walks of life who all share a fascination for meatballs, and we all have stories about growing up and eating meatballs -- it's an iconic vessel of food -- and there's no meatball joint in Denver," says Cummings, who lives near DU.
"I love the DU area, Alex went to DU, and there a lot of businesses and residences within walking distance, lots of car traffic and lots of students, which is why we're concentrating on that neighborhood," notes Cummings, who will start with one before expanding, first locally, then nationally. "The goal is to open the first store, make it successful, then open stores in Boulder and Fort Collins and eventually expand across the country," he says. "This is a concept that we want to produce again and again."
And while Cummings and his sidekicks haven't settled on a name for the meatball emporium, they've been working on the concept for more than a year, and Cummings has been testing recipes for months. "I'm going to have seven, maybe eight, meatballs that are static on the menu, including harissa lamb meatballs, an adobo chicken, a quinoa-and-black-bean meatball and a sweet Italian pork version," he tells me. "And a lot of what we're doing will be geared around building your own -- pick your 'balls,' pick a sauce or a bread, pick your cheese and toppings."
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Cummings emphasizes, too, that all of the balls will be gluten-free. "Gluten-free pizza is the fasting-growing food product in America right now, and while gluten-free meatballs are hard to do, we're going to get them right, making them egg-rich and meaty." Cummings will also offer gluten-free pastas and bread. "The sourcing of our products is going to be really important," he stresses. "While this may be a quick-service operation, it's also going to be chef-driven, thoughtful, approachable and playful -- that's our mantra."
And, says Cummings, it'll be the kind of fast-casual spot that won't force guests to stand around awkwardly while waiting for their grinder to go. "We'll have thirty to forty seats, but the grab-and-go component is really important for people who want to order on the run, so we'll have a waiting area where people can actually sit, and there will be a good flow and ease to the space, because that's just as important as the food," insists Cummings.
"It's gonna be a cool place with a hip, urban and playful vibe," he adds. "It'll have swag, but it'll also be sensible. And while we want the cool kids, we also want Ma and Pa to come in for balls and a beer."