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In The Restaurant Biz, The Food Has To Be Great, But The Total Experience Even Greater

There has never been a more innovative time for the Denver restaurant and nightclub business, according to the Made In Colorado panel speakers at Bisnow's recent Denver Retail & Hospitality event. That is a good thing, but there is also a downside: intense competition to provide the kind of experience that will be noticed and keep guests coming back.

Nocturne President and co-founder Nicole Mattson and Evergreen Devco Managing Principal Tyler Carlson

Nocture is all about the experience, the nightclub's founder, Nicole Mattson, said. The experience is jazz, and bringing that kind of music to guests in the right setting. High-quality cocktails and food are part of that, and so is the place's hospitality. But there is more to the experience. 

The experience is about establishing a connection with the guests, she said. Artists at Nocturne usually engage in a multi-week performance run that focuses on the exploration of a musical icon, or a particular era of jazz, or their own original works. That is an old-school approach that helps establish a rapport with Denver music fans.

Evergreen Devco's Tyler Carlson said a developer sets the stage, via placemaking, for restaurants and nightclubs to offer experiences.

"So that tenants can deliver the experience, you work with the tenant and the architect and interior designer," he said. 

The goal is to encourage guests to feel that they are somewhere distinctive. They will linger in a place like that. If a developer gets that right, its tenants will be more successful."

Union Station is probably the best example of placemaking in Denver, he said, and it took money and time and the talents of thoughtful individuals to create every aspect of it, to remake it as a place.

Chipotle Brand creative lead William Espey and Secret Sauce Food & Beverage owner Josh Wolkon

Chipotle's William Espey said every single point of contact helps create the brand in the mind of the customer. Site location, design, the food, the music, the convenience, how the staff interacts with the customers are all important. Each of them is key to creating the brand experience, and Chipotle focuses on them all. 

In the early 1990s, Denver was an ideal place to start Chipotle, he said. It was a large enough market, but not so large that a new brand would not be noticed and have enough time to develop as a distinctive presence. 

"Denver was a market that allowed Chipotle to be successful," Espey said.

Now it might be more difficult: Denver is larger, and more saturated with brands. 

Josh Wolkon, who has founded a number of Denver restaurants as owner of Secret Sauce Food & Beverage, said he looks for older properties.

"Older buildings give our restaurants some built-in character, which is a little harder to do with new development," he said.

That is one element in creating a restaurant that people will remember and want to experience. It is important to pay attention to authenticity, which is critical in a chef-driven food culture. Also, owners need to engage with their community and their employees.

"We want our guests to come to a place where they can connect with each other and other people," Wolkon said. 

Transwestern Managing Director Larry Thiel, who moderated, and Caribou Coffee & Einstein Noah Restaurant Group President U.S. Retail and Chief Operating Officer Sarah Spiegel

At Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bagels, taste is the most important part of the experience, but not the only part, Caribou Coffee's Sarah Spiegel said.

"The in-store environment has to be right — if you want to stay, you should be comfortable in doing so, but if you want to leave, you can get in and out quickly," she said.

"An increasingly important part of the experience is convenience. How do we get product where the guest wants it?"

Spiegel said the proliferation of specialty coffee shops, especially in Denver's urban core, actually benefits Caribou.

"The newest coffee shops are innovative. We learn from that, too," she said. "Caribou has the opportunity to bring that innovation to a wider audience, to people that might not come to the urban core. Specialty coffee shops are great, but not always as convenient as we can be."