Given the extent of restaurant slang and kitchen talk, it’s surprising to find a single term that gives industry folks the collective shivers. Say the word—chain—and people bristle, clam up, protest, reject. But in this modern age of the restaurant, does being—or becoming—a chain have to be a bad thing?
“It’s taken me a minute,” admits Jon Schlegel, owner of Attimo Wine in Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood and co-founder of Snooze, which now has 44 locations in six states. “But I’ve realized I can’t control everyone’s perception all the time. Do I say Snooze is a chain? No. We’re not franchised, we’re growing independent restaurants.” But can you really grow “independents” past a certain point? The answer, like so many answers these days, depends on who you ask.
Snooze, which first opened in Ballpark in 2006 and brought in a strategic partner in 2012, remains an operator-centric company. The sole reason for “the Mothership” (Snooze-speak for the corporate office) is to support and empower the individual chefs and general managers who run each restaurant as their own. Growth has allowed Snooze to maximize its impact. “David [Birzon, the CEO] made it feel like it was OK for us to grow, and instead of using examples like [big-name chains], he used examples like Patagonia that create incredible social impact,” Jon says. “All that we started is still there, but more. We have a foundation now. We’re a B Corp. We’re waving this flag in an independent/progressive world, but with firepower.”
Using restaurants as agents of change is a powerful tool—and wouldn’t logic say that the tool is more powerful the bigger it gets? “The more experiences a guest can have around a product or mentality, the more momentum,” says Dave Query, head honcho of Boulder’s Big Red F Restaurant Group (which includes Jax Fish House, West End Tavern, Centro Mexican Kitchen, and the Post Chicken & Beer). “Jax was the first restaurant in Colorado recognized by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program and James Beard Blue Ribbon task force, both of which were because of chef Sheila Lucero’s incredibly hard work. Having six Jax locations enables us to spread that word more successfully [than] having just one.”
“Small can be mighty, especially if independent businesses gain momentum and turn the tide on long-standing issues.“
That’s the same mantra Adam Schlegel, Jon’s brother and partner in Snooze, has adopted. In 2018 when he, together with Denver chef Alex Seidel and barman Randy Layman, launched Chook, a restaurant inspired by Australia’s charcoal chicken trend, the group was already thinking big. The original Denver location in Platt Park was followed by one at Eighth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard a year later and another at Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace in 2020. And there are more on the horizon. “Our mission statement—our purpose for Chook—is to create experiences and to create change. And within that is the ethos of growth,” Adam says. Expansion ensures that Chook can make a public impact, as well as pay staff a living wage and provide opportunities to grow professionally.
Chook, like Snooze, gives one percent of sales back to the community via local nonprofits and is a certified B Corporation (which means it’s been determined by an independent organization to meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and legal accountability). The company is devoted to being as environmentally sound as possible, a trait so important that composting is written into all the company’s leases. When Chook goes into new markets—such as Cherry Hills—that don’t offer the practice, Adam focuses on the opportunity, rather than seeing it as a drawback. “Can we create a larger model for all these restaurants in the area?” he asks. (He is currently spearheading a composting program in the suburb.) Adam is also keen on educating from the inside out. With each new location, he gathers staff and delivers his stump speech. “I say, ‘I get that more than half of you are here temporarily, but our goal is to make this an impactful moment for you so when you go on to other things, you care—and you can’t look at a piece of food and throw it away in a normal trash can.’”
If that sounds altruistic, it is. But small can be mighty, especially if independent businesses gain momentum and turn the tide on long-standing issues. As Adam points out, McDonald’s never would have even considered switching to cage-free eggs if the public hadn’t demanded it. Meanwhile, Bartaco, which now has 19 taco shops across the country (including one in Denver and one in Boulder), recently announced it is partnering with environmental consultant Green Places with the goal of going carbon neutral. “This is a model of how restaurants and businesses should act, and I think it’s the future of restaurants,” Adam says. “But in order to prove that it’s the future, you’ve got to [be] more than just a one-off restaurant.”
If smart growth is the new wave, is it fair to say that Chook or Snooze or even national entities like Bartaco are improvements over the historic chain because they integrate into the community and push the industry forward? It might take some reframing of what a chain is, or can be, but those who are doing it believe in both their hearts and business plans that the answer is yes.
“We like ‘un-chain,’” says Adam Halberg, CEO of Barcelona Wine Bar. The restaurant, which is financially backed by L Catterton, has 18 locations in 10 states. If Halberg’s response to the word “chain” sounds coy, it’s not meant to be. He explains: “If the question for your business is not how do I make sure everyone recognizes me, but how do I make it feel personal despite growth and size, it’s a different thought process. We’re never ‘adding units’ or ‘expanding our portfolio.’ Every restaurant is like opening a restaurant for the first time. Restaurant #3 can’t be ‘Restaurant #3,’ just like a bartender wouldn’t have a name tag that says ‘#12’ instead of ‘Mary.’”
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” admits Adam of Chook, “but I get nervous for the future independent restaurant because traditional chains are now doing such a good job.” By that he means: excelling at not being vanilla, of vibing with the community, of having a mission. And if good restaurants have souls that can be felt as much as they can be experienced, this is where these eateries are striking gold. “Bartaco, Barcelona, Postino—they’re the new age of chains,” he says. “They do a wonderful job because the food is good, the staff cares, the places are fun.”
“That the Mile High City is on national brands’ radars has everything to do with the city’s homegrown restaurants.“
In the past, multi-unit operations might have delivered decent food and a good vibe, but a staff that’s genuine and in tune with the customer? Well, that was a rarity—though not for Barcelona, which prides itself on its personalized service. “One of the last things we do before opening,” says Halberg, “is sit around the bar and look at each other. We gradually raise and lower the lights over the bar to see where the light most flatters you.” This critical detail is something the guest will likely never think about, but it’s also something that’s fundamental to Barcelona’s DNA. “We’re selling an experience in a place that looks a certain way with music that makes you feel a certain way. This is cinema. The movie theater is charging you for a seat and, yes, you’re getting popcorn, but you’re there for a scale of emotional reactions.”
That line of thinking may irk many a small restaurant operator. But that’s probably because it hits close to home: Halberg approaches business like an independent restaurateur. He knows his market and knows his customer. He speaks fluently about Denver and the RiNo neighborhood—and he knows the local diner is evolving. “The fact that Death & Co. bypassed San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago to come to Denver says something about who the dining public is,” he says. “We look at Denver and it’s a great city for us to put a restaurant.”
That the Mile High City is on national brands’ radars has everything to do with the city’s homegrown restaurants. “So much of the great culture of Denver can really be attributed to the great innovative restaurants that have shaped our landscape,” Adam says. “The pioneers—Jen [Jasinski] and Beth [Gruitch] and Josh Wolkon—they’re the ones who really helped make Denver cool, thoughtful, and innovative, which is why the Postinos and the Uchis now find it so intriguing.”
Many believe that having multiple restaurants strips the creativity from individual locations and creates the need for a template. They believe (or want to believe) that operating in multiples dilutes the guest experience. But can you say that for Matsuhisain Aspen? Outside of carrying Nobu’s name and a couple reminders from the servers, you wouldn’t know the restaurant is one of dozens that span the globe. One hundred miles away in Vail, while the menu is the same, the Matsu experience feels entirely different. Drive another 98 miles to Cherry Creek and find another Matsuhisa with all the same hallmarks, but none of the sameness.
That is the formula—capturing what feels special and being able to replicate it over and over again with market-specific tweaks. But it’s not easy. Delivering a unique dining experience has long been the job of the independent. So, is it even possible to box up the intangible, or does it have to grow organically?
“Look, when you go into different markets you can put the Kansas City Chiefs logo up and get a signed jersey, but you’re just a poser. You’ve got no cred, no legacy,” Query says. The only way to create that connection—that experience—is the old-fashioned way, through human interaction. And for that you need good people with keen instincts. Query recalls that when Jax Fish House first went into the Fort Collins market in 2016, the restaurant didn’t immediately vibe with customers. His manager at the time recognized that the relationship between the restaurant and the guest needed nurturing. “She said to us in a budget meeting, ‘Forget marketing; I want to spend all my money buying people glasses of Champagne, raising comps, and taking care of each guest.’”
“Look, when you go into different markets you can put the Kansas City Chiefs logo up and get a signed jersey, but you’re just a poser. You’ve got no cred, no legacy.“
Dave Query, Big Red F Restaurant Group
Here’s what’s the same for every successful restaurant, no matter if it’s a mom-and-pop, a growing brand like Jax or the Post, or a national entity like Barcelona: It’s the crystallization of identity—not in an overt, TGI Fridays kind of way, but a fluid and inferred way. Halberg uses Starbucks as an example of what not to do. When the coffee chain went gangbusters and its mission shifted from being a place to hang out and explore coffee to planting locations on every street corner, something changed for many customers. “Now it wasn’t Starbucks as an interesting place. [People started thinking,] ‘I’d rather go to Crema because I want to go to a place that can tell me about the farmers who are paid fairly and the person who curated the level of roast.’ It was, ‘I don’t want to sit on the same couch under the same piece of artwork.’ [Crema] feels unique and it makes me feel unique.”
No matter the size of your business, knowing your story and pushing it out in quiet ways is the way to nab and keep the loyal customer. This is something that’s second nature to Query. A natural storyteller, he writes notes to his staff each week. He banters about Big Red F’s beginnings, the story of Jax, of the Post, of the company’s growth and its ethos. That’s his way of passing down generational knowledge. “Be that second-grade schoolteacher—reiterate early and often what you are and who you are,” he says. “My guess is when you go to work at Canlis [in Seattle], or Disney, or the Stanley Hotel, you get, ‘This is what we do, this is who we are, and can you buy into this even before you pre-set a soup spoon?’ Bartaco has that. Barcelona and Postino have it, too. It’s really important.”
The truth is, in today’s world, independents and chains cover much of the same ground. And inside each of those business models, there are lessons that can be gleaned. Take them and run.