“If you didn’t build during 2020, you can’t call yourself an entrepreneur,” says Josh Schmitz. The founder of Handsome Boys Hospitality (don’t Google that, or you’ll be getting an eyeful of boys who are hospitable in an entirely different way) owned Bellwether, a coffee shop, bar, and barbershop on East Colfax Avenue at the end of 2019. Now, he’s looking at opening four more spots by July 4, all on or near Larimer Square. He has COVID to thank for it.
Schmitz says he was approached by Urban Villages (the real estate development and property management company that managed Larimer Square before its December sale to Asana Partners) in early 2020, before COVID was on everyone’s lips. The company had realized the street was in need of some fresh blood and wanted to start offering what it called “pop-up” leases to newer brands: think 12-month leases for young entrepreneurs with fresh, creative energy instead of shop after shop of long-term tenants selling clothing for the over-60 set.
“Then COVID hit, and everyone threw up their hands,” says Schmitz. He continues: “The uncertainty is a lot to bear. I don’t want to be a vulture, but everything is 80 percent off right now….The price of entry has never been this cheap, and will never be this cheap again.” So he signed three leases—two on Larimer and one on Market street—in March 2020, and soon he’ll be opening four concepts. “We definitely bit off more than we could chew,” Schmitz admits, “but now we’ve become experts at chewing it.”
On Larimer Street, there’s Hidden Gems, a “Wizard of Oz-themed ice cream shop that only plays trap music,” (opening March 27); Drunken Bakery, which is Alice in Wonderland-themed, complete with down-the-rabbit-hole effects of upside-down art and tables and chairs on the ceiling (opening April 3); and Ghost Coffee Saloon, a coffee and cocktail bar serving both brews and booze from 7 a.m. to midnight (opening April 10). Consafo’s, a fast-casual taco joint, will open on Market Street around July 4. Bellwether became Horror Bar, with nightly horror movie screenings and themed drinks.
Schmitz is bootstrapping the whole effort without any outside investors. “We have about $400,000 into all five [locations] currently,” he says. That’s impressive, especially considering the Larimer Square buildings are designated as historic and were previously retail clothing spaces that required a good deal of retrofitting. “There are a lot of people who are skilled tradesman out there, who found themselves with a lot more time on their hands last year. We’ve been very blessed by the people who put their hands up [to help construct the spaces], whether they were working for a few bucks or for whiskey or friendship.” Schmitz notes Wes Bruce, the New York-based artist who designed Adventure Forest at Denver’s Children’s Museum, camped out inside Hidden Gems with Schmitz for three weeks, sleeping on the floor, drinking Twisted Tea, and creating the space.
Construction during COVID hasn’t been convenient: “We hit every [city] department,” Schmitz says of the process. “We had to go through change of use permits….back in the day you could sit in someone’s office and even if you had to wait three hours you could see them. Now I can’t get the health plan reviewer on the phone for two weeks.” And when Larimer Square’s sale was finalized, Schmitz had to start his in-progress liquor license applications from scratch. Still, that hasn’t been the most difficult thing during 2020.
“I think for anyone that’s trying to grow, it’s the anxiety mixed with the inconsistency. A roller coaster is fun because you know when it’s going to end. I’ve been saying that I can do anything for 24 hours for a year now.” At the same time, Schmitz admits, “My worst fear is I’d becoming out of 2020 with my tail between my legs. I wanted to be coming out with right hooks, even if they weren’t landing. I wanted to be trying.”
Schmitz cites the familiar entrepreneurial refrain of being relentlessly adaptable as his saving grace over the last year. Of the November 2020 shutdowns, he says, “I couldn’t look my people in the face and furlough them a second time, so I called the Larimer Square people and asked if they could turn the lot into a Christmas tree lot….If you’d told me a year ago my only sources of income [in 2020] were going to be macaron delivery and a Christmas tree lot, I would’ve said you’re crazy.”
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