Software to sandwiches: Rick Koerner stacks the deck at Stack Subs

The story is a familiar one in the restaurant business: a corporate employee from outside the food world -- maybe a sales rep or a project manager or a VP of operations -- is forced by circumstances to make a life-changing decision and determines to follow a dream. The usual impetus is downsizing or restructuring (corporate-speak for getting canned), leaving no choice but to jump back into the soul-killing world of continuous business expansion and contraction or to make your own path, uncertain as it may be. For Rick Koerner, owner of Stack Subs, the decision may have been a little easier because it was based on love: love for his family, for Colorado, and for sandwiches.

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As a software-industry veteran, Koerner had lived and worked on both coasts, traveling frequently to the states in between as part of his job, eating sandwiches as a kind of mission. His co-workers would kid him about his sandwich devotion, tell him that he was in the wrong business and that he should open his own sub shop. Finally back in his home state of Colorado, he thought he had found an acceptable situation: working remotely for a company in Virginia while he and his family enjoyed the quality of living here in Denver.

After only four years, though, the suits back east asked, "Who's that joker in Colorado? We need him here in Virginia." But moving again was something that didn't appeal to Koerner, something he didn't want to put his wife and kids through again. Plus, he couldn't get sandwiches out of his mind: The idea of owning his own restaurant, no matter how tongue-in-cheek at the time, had stuck with him. With encouragement from his wife, he quit his job and started building a business plan for what would soon become his first Stack Subs, on Lakewood's bustling Union Boulevard Corridor.

There were early signs that he had made the right decision. The first person he told outside of his family was another father at his kid's daycare -- a father who also happened to run his own business building out new Subway locations and who offered to help once the plan got off the ground. The second person he told was coincidentally looking for investment opportunities and offered financial backing. Despite skepticism from landlords more likely to rent to established chains than local start-ups, and loan officers all too familiar with business plans promising "high quality and low prices," the money and the location Koerner wanted came together. A short three and a half years from that life-changing decision, sitting in his second sandwich joint, which just opened this month in Belmar, Koerner's only regret is his current lack of sleep. A little bleary-eyed but still full of energy and passion, he talks mostly about sandwiches. Even with five other sandwich restaurants competing for customers, he says lunch business is booming at the original Stack, fueled in part by the massive Denver Federal Center (with over 5,000 employees) and other offices on Union between Alameda and Sixth Avenue -- but also by what he attributes to a good value. Keep reading for more on Stack Subs. "Sandwiches are either expensive or cheap and low-quality," he says of metro Denver. Seeing a need in the market for quality subs at a reasonable price, Koerner's first goal as a restaurant owner was to meet that need. "It all starts with the bread," he says of his sandwiches, explaining that he spent months experimenting with various products until he hit upon a roll from a bakery in Chicago. A little protective of his find, he says only that he thinks he might be the only Colorado buyer of the brand, which he brings in par-baked so that the finished sub comes out of the oven with a "crisp crunch and a warm, soft interior -- like fresh-baked bread." Other breads include locally baked wheat, a pretzel roll, and gluten-free bread from Udi's.

Koerner is also proud of the prominently displayed meat slicer and the old-school mixers his employees use to make milkshakes from scratch, equipment that shows a commitment to quality, he explains. The other part of the equation is where Koerner got the name for his shop: He explains that ingredients for each sandwich are carefully stacked so that each bite yields a little bit of everything -- ingredients that include housemade spicy cream cheese and carefully sourced meats. His personal favorite is the Italian, stacked with Genoa salami, mortadella, pepperoni, hot capicola and provolone.

Despite a love for sandwiches (in particular, a chicken parmesan from W.G. Grinders in Columbus, Ohio) developed while "looking for healthy, fast alternatives as a business traveler," Koerner says he didn't grow up dreaming about lunch. Both of his parents were teachers, meaning that money was tight and meals were almost always of the home-cooked variety. Special occasions meant a trip to the Sizzler, where his dad (then a math and computer science teacher at Arapahoe High School) would smuggle in a bottle of beer.

These days, cooking at home -- when time allows -- remains important to Koerner; his wife and business partner, Ann, loves to shop for and cook with Thai ingredients. Dinners out are still a rare treat for the family, but he lists D'Corazon Mexican Restaurant in Lakewood among his favorites, as well as P.F. Chang's as a guilty pleasure and Del Frisco's as a special-occasion splurge for the best steaks he's ever had.

Growth is a definite plan; Koerner says small food-service operators really need several locations to make a reasonable living. Downtown is in his sights, but he's also a believer in being prepared to jump on unlikely opportunities. Right now, he's busy running his two locations and trying to figure out how to adapt his plan to Belmar. Without the business-lunch surge, this second Stack relies more on slow but steady business from shoppers and shop owners, with a busier dinner and a late post-movie crowd from the theater down the street; he's thinking about extending hours later into the night to take advantage of that customer base. In the meantime, he says, he has a great group of employees and a contingent of regular customers.

Koerner hopes to land new customers at this weekend's grand-opening celebration with some food giveaways on August 2 and 3. "Our biggest challenge is to get people to come try us," he says. "Once they do, they generally become a loyal customer." Lakewood has been very supportive of Stack, with youth sports teams hosting fundraisers at the restaurants and friends and neighbors coming in to chat and eat lunch. After the corporate world, the best part of owning the sub shops is just being a part of the community, he says -- knowing your neighbors and talking to them about their lives, a connection he felt was missing in his previous life.

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