In the next three months, nearly 150 new restaurants will open in Denver, which translates to a lot of food in our mouths. Some have insisted that we're biting off more than we can chew -- that the Denver restaurant landscape is becoming too saturated and that we can't sustain the onslaught. I don't agree with that, and neither does Josh Sampson, a Denver entrepreneur who's paving the way for continued culinary gentrification in the form of a sustainable, urban, outdoor market that gives amateur cooks, aspiring chefs, veteran kitchen magicians, brewers and just about anyone else interested in Denver's culinary climate the opportunity to grow, grow, grow. And prosper.
Sampson, who has family here, moved to Denver earlier this year after spending ten years in Brooklyn as a musician and restaurateur, and he recently completed a five-month stint at Commercial Urban Agriculture, a training center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that teaches its pupils about the benefits of urban farm culture, namely bringing flavor-intensive, nutritious food to citified communities through year-round local food production. In other words, opening the roadblock between urban farming and the masses, and, says, Sampson, "taking broccoli, cabbage and cucumbers, doing fun stuff with them and turning them into palate-pleasing foods."
While Sampson was living in Brooklyn, he was introduced to the Brooklyn Flea Food Market, aka the Smorgasburg, an al fresco gathering place for dozens of vendors to sell handmade food and fresh produce to the masses. The New York Times called it the "Woodstock of Eating," and starting in July, Sampson is doing something similar in Denver: He's launching TheBigWonderful, a food-centric marketplace that's a dedicated stage for cooks and chefs to showcase their best food products, all of which are designed to introduce the public to new flavors. "We're really trying to bring the food level up in Denver and show how local food can be elevated even further by turning it into something that completely blows people away," says Sampson, who partnered with Bill Vanderpeul and Nicole Jarman, who manages the Pearl Street Farmers' Market. "It's about attracting entrepreneurs, existing restaurants, people who have never done this kind of thing before and people with family recipes with a story behind them -- and it's about empowering vendors to use this as a springboard to launch new products and as many different kinds of food as you can imagine," he adds.
The market, which kicks off on Saturday, July 12, takes place at Sustainability Park, a three-acre urban garden that, says Sampson, personifies another goal of TheBigWonderful: zero waste. "As soon as we found out that we could get Sustainability Park, we jumped on it," recalls Sampson. "The gardens are all about sustainability, and to that end, all of the waste from this project will be turned into soil to grow our own microgreens," he says. The result, he points out, is a 100 percent sustainable market that also empowers the local economy.
Fifty vendors will participate in the first market, all of them local, and none of those vendors will overlap cuisines, a deliberate decision on the part of Sampson and his partners. "We want to introduce people to new tastes, and we want to do something to honor all of the food diversity in Denver, so there won't be any two vendors serving the same food," explains Sampson. "We're the food incubator -- like tech incubators where people share common space -- and we're the platform to launch any creative culinary idea that you can think of, with diversity being paramount," he adds. "If you want to do Indian curry in taco shells, come try it out at our place, and who knows? You might be an overnight sensation," declares Sampson.
Potential vendors must apply -- and be accepted -- into the market, which has the capacity to accommodate up to 100 food stalls and food trucks, and if two vendors with similar cuisines apply, the prevailing vendor, stresses Sampson, will be the one who's most dedicated to Sampson's food philosophies. "If, for example, two hot dog places apply, the person who has the best sustainable and ethical practices will get the booth," he says, noting, too, that all approved vendors must have a sales tax license and the proper paperwork from the Department of Environmental Health.
For each event, vendors pay $125 for a ten-by-ten booth, while food trucks pay $150, and the staff who run those operations keep 100 percent of their sales. Admission into TheBigWonderful is free, and while eats and drinks aren't, Sampson is encouraging vendors to price their items competitively -- and to limit their menus to just a few dishes that best represent the things they do really well.
"This is such a great way for start-ups to try their business model, and dropping $125 for instant feedback on their creations is a lot less expansive than opening a brick-and-mortar," notes Sampson, adding that vendors also have the opportunity to sign up for an entire season. "It's a win-win, low-cost situation with a high-traffic platform for people to try some things that they've never had -- and it's an opportunity for entrepreneurs to thrive," says Sampson. In addition, two to three of the new start-ups will be awarded seed money to help launch their concepts at TheBigWonderful.
Sampson is still accepting vendors for the July 12 kick-off, but here's a small taste of who's confirmed: A Taste of the Philippines, Culture Club, Sojourn, Waffle Up, Ba-Nom-a-Nom, Backyard Soda, East Coast Joe's, These Things Take Time, chef Mary Nguyen, Victory Coffee, Brazilian Acaraje, Bicycle Cafe, Aiko Pops, Urban Farmers, Original Funky Fries and Wong Way Veg.
"TheBigWonderful is so exciting for me, because it's located in my own neighborhood, and it's amazing to watch Five Points growing up and becoming the central foodie destination in Denver, especially with TheBigWonderful's help," says Kathy Gietl, owner of A Taste of the Philippines. "It means I don't have to travel far to feed the exotic street-food culture I'm helping to create. TheBigWonderful presents a great opportunity for food entrepreneurs such as myself and I'm thrilled to be a part of it," she adds.
In addition to the culinary aspect of TheBigWonderful, Sampson says that there will be morning yoga, a dog park and live music. "One location, so many different flavors and so many things to do. I think Denver is ready for this," concludes Sampson.
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The market, which is on the north side of Sustainability Park, will run every Saturday, year-round, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A significant percentage of the proceeds will benefit The Urban Farmers Collaborative as well as several other charitable organizations