When Chipotle Mexican Grill announced in 2018 that it was wrapping its office supplies in aluminum foil and moving its headquarters from Denver to Newport Beach, California, it left a burrito-sized hole in the state’s business identity.

At the time, the company had more than 2,300 locations around the world, all of which grew out of a tiny store that opened near the University of Denver campus in 1993. After a major outbreak of E. coli in 2015, it saw a few difficult years of motion events that led to the move, but Chipotle’s meteoric rise gave it status as an iconic restaurant brand based in Colorado.

Three years after Chipotle’s departure, Colorado hasn’t fallen off the fast food menu. If anything, the state’s continued strong population and economic growth and food innovation have made it a better launch pad for ambitious brands whose goal is to implement their concepts regionally, nationally or even globally, experts say.

And despite what Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol said about the need to move to Southern California to find talent, Colorado restaurant managers say they are finding the people they need to achieve their goals.

“There are a lot of talent out there who are genuinely interested in working with an aggressively growing company in the Denver market,” said Michael Haith, owner and CEO of Teriyaki Madness, a company that plans to expand to 500 locations over the next few years .

Hyoung Chang, the Denver Post

The original Chipotle location at 1644 E. Evans Ave., Denver, Colorado. May 24, 2018.

When HG Parsa looks at Denver, he sees all the ingredients needed for a vibrant restaurant industry and a wider business community. These include a diversified economy, one of the world’s leading international airports, and land prices that are still a bargain compared to major coastal markets. The labor force is currently scarce, but the University of Denver hospitality professor believes the labor pool is here.

“Denver has the potential to be the next big city like Dallas. lots of land, a busy airport, ”said Parsa. “And what we have that no one else has: mountains.”

With 15 years of experience in the restaurant industry, including serving as the regional trainer for Wendy’s oversight of 35 locations, Parsa said what encourages him in Denver’s place in the fast food ecosystem are all brands that choose to make a foothold here. Not just In-N-Out burgers, but other brands like Torchy’s Tacos from Austin, Texas.

As a hub for growing chains, Parsa said the home of a corporate office is good for the commercial real estate market and for people who fill in employees like lawyers and real estate professionals. For him, the ultimate measure is how many chains start here.

“Starting here means it’s fertile land,” said Parsa.

Teriyaki Madness may not have started in Denver – it launched in Las Vegas in 2003 before corporate headquarters relocated in 2014 – but its owner and CEO Haith knows a thing or two about building food services businesses on a mile above the sea level.

Cherry Creek High School graduate founded Pour La France! Catering, a corporate catering company, based in Denver in 1989. It sold the company in 2015.

Haith originally invested in Teriyaki Madness because he was interested in food: healthy, customizable Asian cuisine. But he also admired the simple business model and high profitability. He sold all of his other businesses before buying founder Rod Arreola and his family in 2016, and immediately focused on building the technology stack to drive Teriyaki Madness’ growth.

Five years later, the company has 103 locations, including one in Mexico City and eight along the Front Range. The company’s first two Canadian locations are slated to open in the next few weeks, Haith said.

With the help of an app that enabled easy roadside pickup, third-party delivery services, and well-traveling food, Teriyaki Madness thrived during the pandemic, Haith said. This trend has not let up in 2021. Since the beginning of the year, sales in the same store are up 32%.

For Haith, talent matters and Denver is a breeding ground for it. His company may have benefited from expansion mode when other established Denver restaurant brands – such as Chipotle, Qdoba Mexican Eats, and Quiznos – either moved their headquarters or were taken over by new owners.

“My timing was just perfect where I got all of these people who didn’t want to move to San Diego or where the brands were going,” he said. “All of a sudden, I was talking to these veterans with 20 years of experience who really wanted the adrenaline rush of working for a fast-growing company.”

Teriyaki Madness only owns one of its locations, a store near Denver Union Station that struggled during the pandemic, Haith said. It focuses on suburban franchising. This strategy has paid off as more people have stayed near their home over the past year.

FIRESTONE, COLORADO – MAY 12: Dylan McCurry cooks vegetables to add to a flavorful chicken yakisoba style bowl in the kitchen at Teriyaki Madness on May 12, 2021 in Firestone, Colorado. Dylan’s father, Tim McCurry, owns the Firestone franchise and plans to open two more soon. One in Longmont and one in Brighton. The flavorful bowl is a customer favorite that has hand-cut, fresh, all-natural chicken teriyaki that is fried in its homemade flavorful sauce and comes with a choice of white rice, brown rice, fried rice, or noodles and steamed or stir-fried vegetables . (Photo by Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post)

Tim McCurry and his sister Erin Brueggeman jointly own Teriyaki Madness, which opened last February in Firestone, just off Interstate 25, Colorado 119. The pandemic meant the store got off to a rocky start and sales fell 30% below their opening numbers, but business has picked up since then, McCurry said.

“We were the fastest store in Teriyaki Madness history outside of Vegas, with net sales of $ 1 million,” said McCurry, who lives just minutes from the restaurant. “We are proud to be part of this community and I think that got the local community to support this business.”

McCurry and Co. are investing what they did in the first year back into their franchise agreement to open a second location in west Longmont this summer. A third store, possibly in Brighton, could follow next year, he said.

“I think your business model really got me to know they had all of these systems in place,” said McCurry when he became a Teriyaki Madness franchisee. “If you want to invest and build a legacy for your family, buy a franchise and get an instruction manual to build a successful business.”

It’s not up to Teriyaki Madness’s level just yet, but as Birdcall prepares to make its debut this year with two locations in Arizona, CEO Peter Newlin is optimistic about the company’s development.

The natural-product-focused chicken sandwich chain, which debuted in the Five Points neighborhood in 2017, opened its fourth store in Colorado Springs earlier this year. Four or five more could open before the end of 2021, Newlin said. The company is looking for locations in the Dallas area and plans to open a store there early next year.

“We have an amazing group of investors based in Denver that is just focused on continuing to make Birdcall super-unique,” said Newlin. “Our goal is to have up to 20 openings per year by 2023, 2024.”

Newlin founded the company with Chef Philippe Failyau. The two met when Newlin was a graduate student at the University of Denver visiting Failyau’s Park Burger restaurant near campus. The partners and their companies – Birdcall and the restaurant company Gastamo Group – benefited from the insights of EatDenver, the nonprofit membership organization dedicated to supporting independent restaurants in the city, Newlin said.

“Here you can share stories or hear from industry leaders. More importantly, I viewed it as a place to find mentoring, ”Newlin said, noting that you can learn from executives with the brunch chain Snooze at AM Eatery. “People say, ‘Hey, why are all these restaurant groups from Colorado? ‘and I’m directing it back to the church. “

Even idiosyncratic Cheba Hut Toasted Subs can take advantage of the Denver gravitational restaurant chain, despite being over an hour north of the Fort Collins subway area.

The marijuana-themed sandwich chain, founded in Arizona in 1998 before establishing more permanent roots in Larimer County in 2014, has grown by about 30% over the past four years. According to CEO Marc Torres, the company opened seven stores in six new markets last year despite the pandemic and now has 39 stores in more than a dozen states.

The company is debt free and chooses who it brings in as a franchise partner. Therefore, its growth targets are in the 10 to 15 locations per year range for the foreseeable future, Torres said.

Torres has an emphasis on corporate culture (including regular “meetings” after work) and is at the company’s headquarters in the building at least four days a week. According to Fort Collins, recruiting at Fort Collins can be tricky. But Cheba Hut firmly believes it offers a culture worth moving or commuting for. Denver is an important recruiting market.

“We are well connected with the other Denver franchisors and speak to them all the time, especially during the pandemic,” said Torres. “I think we have many challenges and opportunities in common. While we may not be able to communicate directly with them personally, we cultivate relationships as best we can.”

If there’s a lack of what Denver has to offer growing restaurant businesses, it’s the lack of a formal cooking school with Johnson & Wales University preparing to close its campus in the city this summer, said HG Parsa, who DU professor. Still, he expects the area to remain a mature ecosystem, especially given the natural and healthy food innovations coming from Boulder County.

“Plant foods are the future and they are here,” said Parsa. “There are all kinds of emerging foods here.”