Last year, DLM’s Colorado Proud article featured an extensive array of businesses that make our state prosperous. This year, we’re delving more deeply into three areas of entrepreneurship that define the Centennial State. Fast-casual restaurants, outdoor gear and apparel and distilleries; though each industry is vastly different from the others, they are all proud to be from Colorado with loyal followings across the country and world.
Speedy service, a laidback environment and fresh ingredients are staples of the best “fast casual” restaurants, many of which call Colorado home. Chipotle, Smashburger, Noodles & Company, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill are some of the top-performing Colorado natives, but there are many more bursting onto the scene.
In 2013, NPD Group, a Chicago-based marketing firm, revealed that Colorado has the three highest concentrations of fast casual restaurants in the country, with the Fort Collins- Loveland area placing first at 13.14 locations per 100,000 people, and then Denver and Boulder with 12.76 and 12.53 locations per 100,000 people respectively. Nationwide, there are only five fast casual restaurants per 100,000 people.
“Colorado is at the forefront of health and eating well,” says Thomas Salamunovich, chef and co-founder of Larkburger. “People with active lifestyles often don’t have time to cook. Larkburger helps in that niche… It’s real food coming out of our restaurant for the busy lifestyles of Coloradoans.”
One notable fast-casual trend is pizza, offering shorter wait times, fresh ingredients and lower prices than the average take-out pies. In 2013, the founders of Colorado-based Smashburger launched Live Basil Pizza, the first fast-casual, Colorado pizza concept, creating delicious, made-on-thespot pizzas. Another trend: ethnic concepts, with Colorado-based Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, as well as Toyko Joe’s, Bombay Bowl and Qdoba Mexican Grill enjoying nationwide success.
One cannot forget the upscale burger niche with Smashburger and Larkburger on the scene. Business Insider named Denver-based Smashburger one of the “burger chains poised to conquer America” and fastcasual.com named it number one on its list of the “Top 100 Movers and Shakers” in the fast-casual industry for 2012. Other notable Colorado-based “Top 100 Movers and Shakers” include Chipotle (number five in 2013), Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill (number 15 in 2013) and MAD Greens (number 16 in 2012).
The talent of Colorado’s fast-casual employees runs deep. “Having so many restaurant companies located in Colorado creates a deep pool of talented people to draw from,” says Anthony Pigliacampo, cofounder of Modmarket, a “farm fresh eatery” with locations throughout the Front Range. Many fast-casual restaurants inspire employees to start their own concepts. “I’m originally from the Mediterranean region… I had always dreamed of one day bringing the flavors of my home to the U.S.,” says Alon Mor, founder of Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill. “After working many years in the Denver area for other fast-casual restaurant concepts, I knew that model could be replicated for the types of foods on which I was raised.”
The “fast” element of the fast-casual industry may give Coloradoans pause, since the connotation is often interpreted as unhealthy. However, these concepts raise the bar for both fast food chains and traditional restaurants while providing healthier,
fresh ingredients to diners. “We believe there is a high demand for food that tastes great and is good for you,” says Pigliacampo. “I hope we can look back and say that Modmarket helped the restaurant industry evolve in a new, more sustainable direction.” And with progress comes accountability. “Larkburger’s goal is continued refinement,” says Salamunovich. “For example, we are gutting our turkey burger and will probably try 100 variations until we’ve nailed it. We’ve had this on our menu and think it’s great, but we don’t settle.” Continual growth is certainly a common goal among fast-casual restaurants and Coloradoans.
In 2013, for the third year in a row, Colorado earned the nation’s lowest adult obesity rate at less than 20 percent, according to the Gallup- Healthways Well-Being Index. Additionally, the American Fitness Index ranked Denver the fifth healthiest city in the country due to its healthcare, parks and other factors. One contribution to our well-being may be our access to the great outdoors, which is even more accessible because Colorado is home to many outdoor apparel and gear businesses.
“Individuals who live here care about health, sustainability, education and a long-term outlook on how we take care of our planet,” says John Le Coq, founder and co-owner of fishpond. “By attracting quality outdoor companies to our state with these values, Colorado has the power to fuel innovation by gaining the best creative talent.” As Vice President of Kelty, a maker of innovative sleeping bags, packs, tents and more, Steve Nadler agrees. “Colorado attracts people who are passionate about the outdoors,” he says. “The fact that they work in a field that they love leads to great designs and superior innovation.” This rings true for the many Colorado gear and apparel companies.
Steamboat Springs headquarters Big Agnes, creator of duffles, sleeping bags, tents and apparel, and Smartwool, the maker of woolen socks, base layers, hats and more; both have gained international success. Cortez boasts the Osprey Pack headquarters, and Leadville enjoys Melanzana’s national success.
“The mountains are our laboratory,” says Robert Yturri, senior vice president of global sales, product and brand management for Aspen-based Obermeyer. “We receive immediate feedback on our innovations and prototypes by walking out our front door and skiing or riding on one of four amazing Aspen mountains.”
Obermeyer began with Klaus Obermeyer, who grew up in the mountains near Oberstaufen, Germany and eventually moved to Aspen, continuing to climb and ski. Obermeyer is now a family-run, privately-held skiwear company. “It’s an exciting time for the company right now, as Klaus Sr. has surrounded himself with incredible talent from across the industry,” says Yturri. “From this, we’ve seen major improvements in all facets of our business, from increasing effciencies with a new ERP software system to build-outs of new worldwide showrooms.”
Boulder hosts many successful outdoor companies as well, such as Slumberjack, a leading provider of tents, camp furniture, sleeping bags and more; Ultimate Direction, a creator of hydration packs for runners; Neve Designs, a maker of high-end performance apparel; Sierra Designs, a renowned outdoor apparel and gear retailer; and the aforementioned Kelty. “We are proud to have won some key awards,” says Nadler. “These include a 2014 Backpacker Magazine Editors’ Choice Award for our TN 2 tent, a 2013 Outside Magazine Gear of the Year Award for our Ignite DriDown™ sleeping bag and a 2013 Men’s Journal Gear of the Year Award for our Mach 4 tent.”
Although Colorado is an ideal environment for gear development, the industry does face obstacles. “The outdoor industry faces the collective challenge of expanding the definition of outdoors; making our gear and our recreational pastimes more tangible and inclusive,” says Jay Getzel, president of Golden-based Mountainsmith, a maker of packs, tents, trekking poles and more. “By casting this wider net, we’ll make it easy for consumers to choose a life outdoors versus one tied to computers. That is likely the most important challenge the outdoor industry faces, fighting the consumer electronics industry for the attention of our youth and making the outdoors fun.”
Ultimately, Colorado’s abundance of outdoor gear and apparel positions its residents in an advantageous location to appreciate the outdoors.“Colorado is still a frontier in many aspects, and we have the opportunity to show the world that caring for the planet matters,” says Le Coq.
Why is Colorado home to so many award-winning distillers? From KJ Wood Distillers in Berthoud and Roundhouse Spirits in Boulder to Loveland’s Dancing Pines Distillery and Lyons’ Spirit Hound Distillers, we’re not complaining. “From a producer’s standpoint, Colorado has an advantage in that you can sell direct to consumers, operate tours, offer product samples and self-distribute,” says Bryan Nolt, founder of Breckenridge Distillery. “In the U.S., liquor laws are skewed to protect the distributors, so the self-distribution avenue helped us get out of the gates. Now we love our Colorado distributor, RNDC.”
From one of the world’s best whiskies to handforaged, small-batch liqueurs, there’s something homegrown for everyone. Leopold Bros. is a family owned and operated small-batch distillery founded by two brothers who wanted to keep sustainability and the art of distillation at the forefront of their enterprise. One of Leopold Bros. most well-known spirits is Leopold’s Gin, which was named the Best American Gin by the Wall Street Journal in 2009.
Another Colorado frontrunner, Montanya Distillers, is proudly established in Crested Butte’s intimate downtown. Their “award-winning, obsessively crafted, high-mountain rum” is made from four ingredients; Colorado mountain water, yeast, sugar cane and Colorado honey. The water comes from a spring-fed aquifer below Crested Butte. Montanya was named the 2013 Craft Distillery of the Year by the American Distilling Institute. Crested Butte locals and visitors alike flock to their rum bar to enjoy cocktails, tours and tastings.
Tequila is one thing you don’t expect in Englewood, but reside here it does. Arta Tequila’s single estate, in the Jalisco region of Mexico, produces all of their agave and has been in the same family for more than 250 years. The thirdgeneration distiller is passionate about utilizing 150-liter barrels—smaller than other producers’ barrels—to infuse the tequila with wood nuances. Arta finishes their distillation process in Englewood and reaps awards, such as the Double Gold Medal at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for their Añejo tequila.
Breckenridge Distillery distills in Breckenridge at 9,600 feet, making it the most “elevated” distillery in the world. Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey received a gold medal at the 2011 International Wine & Spirits Competition, making it one of the top three bourbons in the world. “We’ve maintained a year-over-year growth rate of more than 100 percent for four consecutive years,” says Nolt.
With so many distillers contributing to Colorado’s successful spirits industry, one of the main challenges the entrepreneurs may face is their own growth. “Far and away our biggest obstacle has been operating in a tight space,” says Nolt. “Our future includes another 9,000-square-foot expansion coming this summer. With elbow room, we have dozens of market-tested products to launch. To date, our products nailed down some impressive accolades, but our best stuff is yet to come.” The latter sentiment rings true for Colorado’s future, and we can be Colorado proud thanks to these hardworking entrepreneurs.