Xan Creative Is Behind the Design of Some of Denver's Most Well-Known Restaurants | Westword

Meet the Team That's Designed Some of the City's Most Well-Known Restaurants

"I love that I’ve managed to stay in the restaurant industry without having to be in the restaurant industry," says Xan Creative owner Melissa Friday.
Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant the Ginger Pig was designed by Xan Creative.
Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant the Ginger Pig was designed by Xan Creative. Xan Creative
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“You can’t just have good food and good service. You need a well-designed space, too. You need the whole package, especially as the restaurant scene grows in Denver. You can’t get away with just having good food,” says Melissa Friday, owner of restaurant design firm Xan Creative, which she founded in 2002.

For most of her life, Friday has kept one foot rooted in the culinary world and the other planted in creative design. She graduated from the Art Institute of Colorado in 1993 with a BFA in industrial design, then spent the next decade working as a chef.

She bounced around Boulder, working at various restaurants; her final stop was Alfalfa’s (which was eventually bought by Whole Foods), where she was the kitchen manager. It was, she says, the “ideal food job. I was managing the kitchen, I was hiring the people, I was creating the menu. It doesn’t really get better than that. But it wasn’t satisfying my real creative needs.

"The industry is brutal," she explains. "I love, love the industry, but I was just burned out. It’s hard work. It’s a lot of hours. It’s impossible to have a family. It’s gross. It’s smelly. It’s exhausting" — and there is a prevalence of drug and alcohol use, she adds.

So Friday turned in her notice and left the stable, salaried job for an entry-level design job at Goog building architectural models for $11 an hour. The firm was the epitome of cool, she recalls. The designers shared the space with fabricators in a clubby artist’s loft located in what is now the Dairy Block in downtown Denver.
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Melissa Friday (left) and Dana Ensing of Xan Creative.
Xan Creative
Over the next five years, Friday worked her way up to design director, creating reception desks, conference tables and custom light fixtures for commercial real estate projects. It was at Goog that she designed elements for her first restaurant project, Vesta, which was owned by Josh Wolkon.

That experience allowed her to combine her restaurant knowledge with her love of creative, functional design, and sparked the idea for Xan Creative. Along with Vesta, which shuttered in 2020, Xan Creative also designed Wolkon's other concepts, Steuben’s and Ace Eat Serve.

When Goog began to shift its business to lean more heavily into fabrication, Friday and her designer, Marisha Farbotko, amicably parted ways with the business and set out to launch their own firm. One lesson they took with them: "The importance of a short and slightly unusual name,” recalls Friday, laughing. “I’ve always hated 'Friday Design.' I think that’s so weird. Sounds like an attorney’s office.”

While driving to the mountains to snowboard, Friday pulled out a thesaurus and started at "x." The first word was xanthos, meaning “blonde and fair complexion," a fitting description for both Friday and Farbotko. “We looked at each other and were like, ‘Done! Let’s go snowboarding!’” Friday remembers.

One day, Friday was on the construction site for a client building a fast-casual Thai concept called Sticky Rice, “and this dude walks in the front door. He's like, ‘Hey, what are you guys building in here? You building a restaurant or whatever?’” she recalls.

That guy was Jon Schlegel, and he had a business plan for an upscale breakfast restaurant/bar. “We proceed to fly to Chicago together, and he shows me these places doing upscale pancakes,” says Friday. “He had a chef already in mind, and she was going to do the menu, and he told me, ‘I just need to find a place. Will you design it?’ And I said, ‘Sure'" — which is how she became the designer for Snooze, the brunch institution that has since grown to over sixty locations nationwide.

The endeavor put Xan Creative on the map; after that, it became one of the most sought-after restaurant design firms in Colorado, working with such brands as Mad Greens, Illegal Pete’s, Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizza and Atomic Cowboy, the three-in-one concept that also includes Denver Biscuit Company and Fat Sully's.
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Postino Wine Cafe is one of Xan Creative's clients.
Xan Creative

A sizable portion of Xan’s clients are brands that already have multiple locations and are looking to take the next step of expanding out of state. The firm specializes in creating what the industry calls "trade dress." It's “something you can actually trademark and that’s a combination of things," Friday explains. "Snooze is a great example. Sure, everybody copies the round booths, but if you have the round booths and the stars and the color palette. ... If you can combine these certain things, you can trademark them so people can’t steal your design."

Xan still takes on smaller, independent concepts, too. Friday says she has a soft spot for restaurateurs who are sinking their hopes and life savings into their first brick-and-mortar, often after years of working out of a food truck, like clients Kiké’s Red Tacos and the Ginger Pig. She sees projects such as these, which Xan often takes on at cost, as an obligation to combat design homogeneity in Denver. The firm's office wall even has a giant neon sign proclaiming it “Enemies of Sameness.”

Despite its expansive portfolio, the Xan Creative team is intentionally small. The core group consists of senior interior designer Dana Ensing, who has worked with Friday for eleven years, and Friday's wife, Stephanie, who is the marketing manager. (Farbotko — now Cowles — left the firm after several years to move to Seattle.)

Today, the day-to-day design work, including research, 3-D modeling and documentation, is mostly handled by Ensing, which frees Friday up to focus on big-picture design, nurturing client and vendor relationships, communicating with contractors and meeting new clients.

What’s consistent among current and future Xan Creative team members is that they have all previously worked in hospitality. It’s a driving force for its commitment to function before fashion, always prioritizing the design of a restaurant so that it works for its customers and its employees. That means considering things like, "How far does a server have to go to get to a terminal, or get water or condiments to serve their tables?” Friday says. “Dana has worked at a barista counter before, so we can have really practical feedback in terms of what is the flow of the equipment, how much space is needed, where does somebody place their order, how does pickup work, and how do people know where to go without having to put dumb signs everywhere.”

A second consistent theme of Xan projects is that the firm and its clients are design-first. Whereas in a typical restaurant buildout the architect will be at the top of the hierarchy, bringing in the contractor and the designer, Xan is “a design unicorn, so we start first, and then we bring in the architect and bring in the builder,” Friday notes. That way, everything from space planning to color is decided with design as the top priority.

“It’s about balance in the space: not enough visual interest, not too much visual interest," says Friday. "One of my pet peeves is restaurants that have seventeen different light fixtures. The quality of light is really important — like temperature and dim-ability and making moods, especially in big restaurants to still feel intimate. And that could be bringing the ceiling down or creating cozy spaces, or doing that with lighting.”

It’s also about staying on trend and ahead of the curve. COVID obviously had a big impact on restaurant design, and Xan’s team is seeing more fast-casual concepts with smaller footprints that are designed to operate with less staff. There's also more consideration for designing separate pickup spaces for delivery app drivers.

Xan is also starting to expand beyond restaurants, with current projects such as La Vista Motel on East Colfax and the Oakwell Beer Spa. In both cases, the company intends to leverage its knowledge of designing lounge-like, comfortable, inclusive spaces. “For hipster boutique hotels, you actually check in at the bar now and they offer you a drink. They’ve gotten rid of that stodgy big open room, and then we can create more of a living room that people can enjoy," says Friday. "And so we definitely have expertise in that."

But the food and drink space continues to be the focus at Xan. “I very much consider the restaurant industry my industry, more than the design industry. That’s where I started. That’s where my roots are. Those are my people,” Friday concludes. “I just have so much love for food and so much love for how hard these people work. I love that I’ve managed to stay in the restaurant industry without having to be in the restaurant industry.”
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