Udi Bar-on on selling his brand for $125 million and how you can win the name game

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

UPDATE: Udi's has chosen not one, but three names -- Etai's, Izzio, and Silvi's -- which is will split between its bakery, restaurant, and catering businesses.

"The support for all three finalists prompted us to alter our plans to take one new company name," explains Etai, CEO of the Baron Group. Instead, he says, "We were inspired to zig when we originally planned to zag, so we adopted all three fan favorites: Izzio, Etai's and Silvi's, and we chose those three finalists based on relevance to the brand and the family's heritage."

Udi Bar-on Udi's

This is part one of my conversation with Udi Bar-on, founder of Udi's. Tune it tomorrow to read part two of our interview.

In 1994, when Udi Bar-on, who today lays claim to eleven eponymous local restaurants and cafes, a catering company and Colorado's largest artisan bakery, first opened a long-gone dessert shop in the former Northglenn Mall, no one could have predicted that an unexpected leap into gluten-free bakery products would have made him a millionaire. But in 2012, that's exactly what happened: Bar-on, his son, Etai, and daughter Robin, the chef of all the Udi's restaurants and cafes, sold Udi's Foods to Smart Balance -- now Boulder Brands -- for $125 million. And while the iconic Udi's name is one of the most recognizable brands in the Colorado culinary community, one of the stipulations of the mammoth sale was that the family would rebrand its company and dispense with the Udi's name - and they'd need to do it by July of this year. "Now that the life cycle of the gluten-free business is complete, we have an incredible opportunity to use those resources to support the seemingly infinite number of opportunities that lay ahead for our company, soon to be known by another name," says Udi.

See also: First look: Udi's Cafe, Pizza and Bar opens in Glendale's City Set Project

And while the Bar-on family, which also includes Udi's wife, Fern, and Etai's wife, Darcey, could have done the renaming themselves, they're stepping aside to give the community the opportunity to create a new name that best represents the next chapter for the company. And that company has big plans, including installing new oven technology in its 30,000-square-foot Louisville-based bakery, to "make it an artisan, world-class bakery that goes back to our roots - our original dream of selling bread to customers," Etai explains. "We're putting money on the table that we can evolve to the next level by having one of the best bread bakeries in the country."

But before that comes to fruition, there's the name game. Starting on Wednesday, January 15, the public will have the chance to submit its suggestions for Udi's new name by visiting renameudis.com, where they'll find an entry form, along with the option to upload videos, share images and keystroke a short (and convincing) plug that gives your name a reason to stand above the fray. The contest will run through February 10, and once the Bar-on family has settled on their three favorites, they'll turn the final vote over to civilians, who will ultimately choose the winning name. "Udi's Foods was created with family and community in mind, and putting control in the hands of our fans is a natural extension of our brand," says Etai.

And there's plenty of incentive to exercise your creativity, since prizes will be awarded to the top three finalists: Grand prize is a twenty-person party at any Udi's cafe or restaurant, worth up to $1,000; the second-place prize is a $300 gift certificate, and the third-place prize a $150 certificate.

The Udi's clan will announce the new name (and logo) on the website at 9 a.m. Wednesday, April 2. And over the next six months they'll host a series of hello-and-goodbye parties at each of their locations. The final farewell will be a blowout bash. "The act of changing our name really exemplifies our success, and we're going to spend the next six months naming renaming and celebrating," says Udi. "And then in June, we're having a huge block party at our Stapleton location, where we'll have a New Orleans-style funeral to bury the brand."

I recently spent a few hours with Udi, who in the following interview explains how a midlife crisis and a Christmas miracle resulted in twenty years of unrivaled success -- and a $125 million fortune.

Getting my feet wet: I worked at Denny's, which is where I started my restaurant career. It was a really great place to learn, and I came away with a lot of knowledge about staff training, discipline, cleaning, scheduling and efficiency.

The start of the Udi's empire: I had been a financial planner for years, but I was one of those people who always talked about food, and while being a financial planner was financially rewarding, I hated the work, so I started Udi's Cafe in 1994, originally as a dessert shop in the old Northglenn Mall. It was a true family business: just me and my wife, Fern; Etai, my son; his wife, Darcey; and my daughter, Robin, who was a teenager at the time.

My midlife crisis: I was 45 years old and opened the dessert shop in the mall - I call it my midlife crisis -- investing $20,000 of my own money into something that I knew was a risk. But at the time, there was no European-style coffee culture in Denver, and definitely nowhere that focused on coffee and desserts, so I went to Europe and Israel to learn how to bake, came back to Denver, bought a convection oven and started baking at home before opening Udi's Cafe. We were selling magnificent desserts - Fern was making them -- to coffee shops, but the coffee shops couldn't sell them to customers, because at the time, desserts in the afternoon weren't a part of American culture.

My Christmas miracle: I was buying bread rolls from a guy - Jim - who owned a sandwich shop called Sandwich Man Jim that was right across the street from the mall, when one night, during December, he suddenly got really sick with violent diabetes, and he had to sell his business. We closed Udi's Cafe in the mall and bought Sandwich Man Jim, eventually renaming it Udi the Sandwich Man, and that's when things started to take off, because instead of desserts, we were making sandwiches and selling them door-to-door at businesses. Jim had gotten better and wanted to work a few hours a week, so he was out there hawking lunchboxes for meetings, and it became a magical success. When we first started doing it, we were making about twenty to thirty boxes a day, and within the first year, the volume escalated to hundreds of boxes. By the end of 1995, we were doing $1,000 a day in sandwich sales alone. That's the Christmas miracle.

Better sandwich, better bread: In 1997, we realized that we needed to open a bakery and bake our own bread, the artisan way. We had been buying frozen dough - Subway-style bread - that we would bake off, but we knew that we wanted to do something better. Pasquini's had good bread, but they fired me as a customer for being too obnoxious, and Boulder Daily Bread was bought out by Whole Foods, so, in essence, there was nowhere for us to buy bread. You have to be pretty naive to open a bakery - it's very hard work and takes years to make any money - but we did it anyway, opening Udiyon, our original bakery in Northglenn, right next door to Udi the Sandwich Man, in 1988.

Growth spurt: Udi the Sandwich Man and Udiyon Bakery outgrew their original spaces in Northglenn, so my wife and I moved both locations to north Denver, and we started supplying restaurants and retailers with our breads. Costco was our biggest customer - that really put the bakery on the map - and we were also selling bread to Marczyk's, Racines, California Pizza Kitchen, Avenue Grill, the Palm and Peaberry Coffee. And then we hired Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, who now owns Spuntino, as our pastry chef. We sent her to the San Francisco Baking Institute so she could learn how to make croissants, and we also hired Maurizio Negrini, the former head baker of Whole Foods Bakehouse, who I really believe is one of the most talented bread bakers in the world.

On the move: We were growing so fast that we needed to find another space, so in 2002, we bought an acre and a half at 101 East 70th Avenue, just a block and a half away from the former location. We put our catering company and bakery under one roof, and by then, we had really evolved, and we wanted to streamline our business and elevate the brand to be more representative of our high-quality products, so we rebranded everything as Udi's, which also gave us the ability to branch out into other areas of food service.

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.