DENVER - The Denver metro area has become a foodie’s paradise. The desire to try a new place every time they dine puts pressure on restaurants to make a great first impression.
In 2017, more than 250 restaurants opened in the metro area while 110 closed. These restaurants typically operate on 3 to 6 percent margins, increasingly narrowing due to rising rents and food costs and labor costs that recently went up with a new minimum wage.
“Not only are we competing with other restaurants. We are competing with grocery stores that are now offering more to-go foods,” says Carolyn Livingston with the Colorado Restaurant Association.
She says the Colorado restaurant industry has seen a 40 percent jump in retail sales, from $8 billion in 2010 to an estimated $12 billion in 2017.
“It is astronomical growth in our industry. Faster than most other states that are out there,” she says. “It gives a restaurant a difficulty in trying to attract that customer back again because there are so many other opportunities for them to choose from.”
Experience will certainly give restaurant owners and chefs an advantage. But Mark Ferguson, owner and chef of Solitaire in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, who has been in the industry for decades and worked with world-renowned chefs, says it’s a daily grind.
“The best chefs, the best locations, best food, best drink, best everything doesn’t necessarily always equate to complete and total success,” he said. “I think so much of it is the passion and obviously the commitment. The ability to commit. The ability to sustain. This industry is brutal. It does take everything and more than most have.”
Mark agrees that “finding talent that doesn’t kill you on the payroll side is difficult” and that buying high-end ingredients to match his ever-changing farm to table menu presents challenges. And he says “the competition is tough, just in volume let alone in talent.”
And in that sense, this experienced chef faces a challenge that even someone new to the game faces. How do you keep them coming back?
“So much of it is consistency. Consistency of product, of the environment, product, food, drinks, service,” he says. “We want our regulars to see what else is out there. Because, hopefully, they’ll realize how good they have it here.”