Many new restaurants open in Boulder to fill a hole in cuisine options. That was true for empanada spot Rincon Argentino, as well as Dave Query’s first restaurants Zolo Southwestern Grill and Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar.
They launched successfully, satisfying a Boulder demand for Argentinean, southwestern or seafood.
So how did Query open five more Boulder restaurants in the last 20 years, along with concepts in Denver and Fort Collins? And what keeps 10-year-old Rincon Argentino as a stand alone, along with other popular Boulder restaurants like Cafe Aion and The Sink?
The answer seems to come down to location, the ability to own and not lease space — which favors those who opened restaurants in Boulder years ago — and a fair amount of luck. This matters because restaurants that can thrive in Boulder will shape the local food economy and Boulderites’ dining out experiences for years to come.
“If you don’t [own your building], you have to hustle pretty hard to be making enough to cover all your expenses, pay for your life and save,” said Dakota Soifer, who opened Cafe Aion in 2009 and leases his space.
“You do need a few locations — or to be incredibly talented.”
‘One success does not guarantee the next’
Dave Query of Big Red F Restaurant Group opened Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar in 1994. A decade later, the owner of the West End Tavern sold Query his restaurant. Query followed with Centro Mexican Kitchen, The Post Chicken & Beer and The Velvet Elk Lounge — all on the Pearl Street Mall.
Query isn’t the only one with a multi-concept restaurant group in town. Bryan Dayton’s Half Eaten Cookie Hospitality opened OAK at Fourteenth in 2010, then Corrida in 2018 – both on the Pearl Street Mall. In June, Dayton added Bellota on Broadway to his lineup.
Also on Pearl Street, Working Title Food Group launched River and Woods in 2016 and Ash’Kara last year.
Today, more than two-thirds of the 86 cafes, bars and restaurants on the pedestrian walkway have multiple locations, or concepts in different cities.
Query never intended to open more than one restaurant, according to Big Red F’s website. His restaurant group unofficially started when the West End Tavern’s owner Marc Minion sold the restaurant to Query after his co-founder Steve Goren died. Working Title Food Group also formed after opening several concepts, and didn’t anticipate launching River and Woods, according to Kate Dinar, director of team hospitality at the restaurant group.
“The little cabin that had been a beloved restaurant for so many years fell into our lap by a series of coincidences,” Dinar said of River and Woods. “The concept clicked with the neighborhood.”
But “one success does not guarantee the next,” she added.
Indeed, other owners have tried expanding in Boulder only to realize it’s not as easy as it might look.
Brothers Chris, James and Mark Heinritz bought pizza and burger restaurant The Sink in The Hill neighborhood in 1992. Three years later, they opened Redfish New Orleans Brewhouse on the Pearl Street Mall, and, in 2012, West Flanders Brewing Co. on Pearl Street.
“As an entrepreneur, one of the greatest things is you get to say, ‘what if?’ And then act on it,” Mark Heinritz said. But Redfish New Orleans Brewhouse closed in 2009, because of differences with the Heinritzes’ business partner, according to Mark Heinritz.
Flanders Brewing Co. closed last year because of rising labor costs and rent.
Weighing the costs of expanding
In 2009, when Dakota Soifer opened Cafe Aion, he said he worked for years perfecting the components contributing to his restaurant’s success. The restaurant cured its own charcuterie and baked baguettes — both of which it no longer does.
“With the time and energy it took me to do that, the business wasn’t seeing the value returned,” Soifer said. “We have about the same number of people coming to dine with us as we have for the past six to eight years.”
But Soifer is grateful to even be in business.
“Though certainly not the busiest business, I’m lucky it pays my bills,” Soifer said of Cafe Aion. “I live pretty modestly. I’ve run it long enough that it’s pretty smooth, and it affords me a certain life balance. I’d be pretty nervous about opening up a second and third Cafe Aion and giving that up.”
Christian Saber, who owns empanada restaurant Rincon Argentino with his wife Karly, has a similar perspective. Though the couple has discussed expanding, they’ve decided that the potential benefits of additional locations — a stronger brand and reputation, for instance — are not without cost.
“The restaurant business is very time consuming, and we prioritize family,” Saber said.
“With the search [to expand], your life will be gone.”
Location, location, location
Many of the Pearl Street Mall’s popular dining spots belong to restaurant groups that benefit from heavy foot traffic.
Further south, Cafe Aion and The Sink sit on The Hill. CU Boulder students leave for summer and winter breaks, making it difficult to rely on them for year-round business. Cafe Aion, Soifer said, mostly serves CU faculty and those attending performing arts or guest lectures on campus.
Soifer — who is president of the nonprofit The Hill Boulder, which promotes the neighborhood’s commercial district — said besides a smattering of restaurants, The Hill doesn’t have much to draw locals there. The Hill commercial district is smaller with fewer parking options than the Pearl Street Mall and lacks the downtown’s variety of cuisine, coffee shops and retail stores.
“The bottom line is there’s no anchor on The Hill,” he said.
Dinar of Working Title Foods said success comes down to much more than where a restaurant is located. (The Heinritzes’ expansion ventures were both on the Pearl Street Mall.)
“Some of the most successful businesses in town are nowhere near the center of town,” Dinar said. “It’s really about finding the right execution for the space. River and Woods, for example, would not work in a sleek new building.”
‘I think the biggest thing is owning your own space’
The Big Red F owns some of its Boulder restaurants and leases others. Dinar said both River and Woods and Ash’Kara rent their buildings.
Owning a property helps significantly with a restaurant’s success, according to Heinritz, who bought The Sink’s building with his brothers in 2000.
“That was the game changer for us,” Heinritz said. “We knew what things looked like moving forward. Had we not been able to acquire the real estate, who knows?”
Soifer agreed. “I think the biggest thing is owning your own space which, in a town like Boulder, is so hard and out-of-reach.” Last year, Cafe Aion’s building went on the market for the first time in over 40 years. Though Soifer put in an offer, University Hill Portfolio, a holding company, bought the buildings at 1203 13th Street (which houses Cafe Aion) and 1211 13th Street for $10 million.
Saber, meanwhile, leases Rincon Argentino’s building from Gart Properties, which he said won’t sell. Though, if they did, Saber couldn’t afford it. “If I had $3 million, I’d take it out of my pocket” and buy Rincon Argentino’s property, he said.
“Is there room for success?” Soifer asked of single-location restaurants like his.
“Is it just that the people behind [restaurants with multiple locations] have a better set of skills or are more driven?
“Is it something in the dynamic of this area — the numbers of rent, payroll, cost of living — that drives that to be the default?
“If you really want to drive a Tesla and send your kids to college, do you need a couple restaurants?” he continued.
Both Soifer and Heinritz seemed content with their decision to stay small.
“It seemed a lot more manageable to just have one restaurant that we knew was working well,” Heinritz said, “that provided for us and we had control over, than to sign up for another tour of duty, managing another large, complex operation.”
Soifer agreed, but not without some rumination. “There might be more to life and my identity than a business. Maybe it’s good enough. Maybe we’re filling a need and our little community appreciates it.”