Durango boasts a well-deserved reputation as a foodie town. So three brand-new entrepreneurs are gambling that even in the middle of a four-year recession, our little burg will transform their American dream into a profitable business.
Downtown alone has at least five Asian restaurants, yet that isn’t stopping three friends – itinerant sushi chefs who have worked together since high school – from opening a sixth. It offers a well-known chocolate factory at the base of Main Avenue, but that isn’t deterring a first-time businesswoman from opening her own chocolate shop. It includes six stores selling wine and yet, a former photographer-cum-wine aficionado is betting Durango will support one more. And two experienced restaurateurs are wagering their customers will go with them – one figuratively, to a bigger, sleeker space and the other literally, to a more complete understanding of fine Italian wine.
Beyond revealing their stories of struggle and hope, success and chance, these five new or expanded enterprises challenge us to build our stature as the town where foodie dreams come true.
Animas Chocolate Co.
They look like little mountains and taste like cocoa-enrobed macaroons, sending you simultaneously to the snow-capped San Juan range and a Caribbean coconut plantation.
If you can find heaven in a single bite, then Carley Felton can create it for you in one of her custom-made truffles. She uses everything from local blackberries to Colorado Cabernet to craft chocolate sensations from the explosive – try the chili sea salt taster – to the sublime (the drive-in malt truffle can’t be beat.)
After college, Felton worked at the Rochester Hotel for four years, dreaming all the while of starting her own business. This summer, she traded long hours as general manager to long hours as sole proprietor of Animas Chocolate Co. But now she imports French and Belgian chocolate, tempers it into a smooth elixir, adds flavorings like coffee, jelly beans and cranberries and crafts divine odes to the mountain scenery she adores.
You can try the mudslide, with peanuts and honey; the twilight, with dark chocolate and red painted swirls or the Grasshopper Creek, a tiny square of dark chocolate with a mint center. And if you do, believe me, you’ll be happy.
Felton is staking her career on customizing her concoctions strictly for you or your event. At the Foxfire Farms dinner, she invented a cabernet truffle as well a strawberry and white chocolate confection for the occasion. She can imprint the name of your company on her simple dark and milk chocolate bars or add colors and flavors as you like for a wedding, a party or just for you (if you call in advance, of course.)
Her biggest worry? Not that she’ll fail and lose her life savings or that she won’t enjoy it – she does. She’s terrified her truffles will melt. She covers them in ice packs and wraps the fragile goodies in blankets and still she says, she rushes when she delivers a major order.
Even more troublesome, Felton worries customers will buy her treats now and save them for later.
“You have to eat them right now, when they’re freshest,” she said. “You can’t wait.”
Indeed, you can’t.
Animas Chocolate Co.: 317-5761, 555 Rivergate Lane, suite B1-103. Open from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday or by appointment.
Fired Up Pizza
Ted Brown was drinking a beer and contemplating what to do now that he’d been laid off from his career job as a therapist at a boarding school. Travel the world, switch careers, leave his long-time Salt Lake City home?
Two days later, his wife, Vilma, learned she was pregnant with their first child.
The leisurely fantasies screeched to a halt. Drawing on his own dream to become a pizzaiolo and a well-timed gift from his grandmother, Brown channeled his anxiety and energy into opening a gourmet, Neapolitan-style wood-fired pizzeria from a cart he pulled behind his car.
That was five years ago. Last week, Brown, his wife and their two young sons celebrated the success of that initial venture when they opened Fired Up Pizzeria in its large, new clamorous location on a prime Main Avenue block.
“It’s so big, it’s so fast,” Brown said, tears welling in his eyes as he looked around the new restaurant and realized how fully his and Vilma’s hard work had paid off.
A dab at the eyes and a big intake of breath and Brown acknowledged how frightening it is, too.
“We’re all in. Your heart thumps when you think about it,” he said, noting that the loan to open in such a premier spot was about the equivalent of buying a fancy house.
But the new space – of the old one, which seated eight, Brown said: “I knew I had a problem from the start” – offers snazzy, spacious booths, an enormous bar, an open kitchen where the 900-degree wood-burning oven is on display and enough servers to storm the doorway, should the need arise.
Brown proudly details the 15 new employees he has hired, the back patio crowded with chopped wood to be transformed into outdoor dining, the primo locally sourced ingredients, to say nothing of the enthusiasm of the early crowds for his thin-crusted, authentic Neapolitan-style pizza.
The goat cheese, mushroom and mozzarella one I tried was salty, creamy and earthy – tasty all around, even gluten-free – confirmed when my husband took the other half for lunch the next day.
Should Brown ever forget the struggle of his first years in the business, he keeps a reminder in the back parking lot – his original pizza cart.
Fired Up Pizzeria: 247-0264, 741 Main Ave. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Put a Cork In It
If simplicity is the key to life, then Alan Cuenca has it all figured out.
His new wine shop on 10th Street is shoe-box shaped and about the same size. The difference, however, is the store is loaded with scrumptious wine gems often for $30 or so. A red Sancerre from Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Juliette Avril, a Mercatto Barbaresco, a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, all for about the price of an entree at one of Durango’s better restaurants. Those are hard wines and even harder prices to come by in the world of good grapes.
Cuenca, a tall man with dark hair and an enormous white dog named after an earlier love, Guinness, came to own his own specialty wine shop after a career in photography, selling wine at a large store and launching a local wine bar. He went to lunch with a friend to discuss the viability of opening his own place – after all, yet another wine shop downtown – and inspired, they hurried over to a former boutique with a for-rent sign in the window.
“Put A Cork In It” was born. He named the shop to let customers know when they step in the door that this isn’t a pretentious place. You may be a wine snob, but he isn’t.
“My philosophy is to educate the world through wine, one glass at a time,” he said one afternoon in his shop. “The name is to thumb my nose, in a way, at the intimidating experience buying wine can be. In the end, it’s fermented grapes.”
Cuenca’s mission, if you will, is to share the best yet affordable small-batch wines from different regions in the world with his customers. (“We’re supporting small farms, which are more sustainable.”) It’s also to educate them to understand the various tastes you can experience in a glass of wine. He offers free wine tastings on Saturday afternoons and teaches classes to help wine-lovers develop that oh-so-vaunted quality, a refined palate.
He hopes to foster not just knowledge, but confidence in his customers and class-takers, so they’ll feel comfortable ordering wine at a restaurant and talking to wine merchants. After six months, the venture has gone well, he said – better, in fact, than he expected.
“I don’t want much,” he said, “a life that’s rewarding and a business that’s sustained by locals.”
Don’t we all.
Put a Cork in it: 375-9463, 121 E. 10th St. Open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
You wouldn’t think a land-locked mountain town would be a felicitous place to open a restaurant based on raw fish, but Jimmy Nguyen, Dung Tran and Ezrick Villuferte are undaunted.
“It’s sushi, man,” says Nguyen, 28, a native of Florida and long-time friends with his business partner Tran and fellow chef Villuferte. “Everyone loves sushi.”
And in Durango, that’s true. Both East by Southwest and Sushitarian, located across the street from each other, are packed on any given night. Cosmo Bar & Dining will bring you back again and again for its nightly changing sushi appetizer.
Nguyen, 28, ditched a blossoming career as a medical technician 10 years ago – “I didn’t like it” – to do something he did like: eating and making sushi. He quickly learned it wasn’t easy (it typically takes a decade to become a head sushi chef). But even after initial years of cleaning up after and prepping ingredients for other chefs, Nguyen stuck with it, traveling from Houston to Chicago to Arizona to here on a seasonal basis, rising through the ranks as he went.
He discovered snowboarding, and it became his second love. To marry it to his first – sushi – he and Tran planned to open a food cart on the streets of Durango. But at the end of summer, Fired Up Pizzeria’s former Main Avenue store front shop became available.
“A food truck would have been our dream come true,” Nguyen said. “This is a better dream.”
While still an under-construction mess, in two weeks, Rice Monkeys will open its doors to what Nguyen and Tran hope will be hordes of hungry diners who want a quick bite of sushi or an easy take-out meal (the space seats just 10) and a no-muss-no-fuss dining experience that suits the lifestyle of the young and, dare we say, hip.
Oh, they’ll gladly feed the rest of us with the substantial offerings they both grew up eating in the kitchens of their Vietnamese-born mothers. The delicious brothy brew called pho will come in both the traditional beef version and a lighter chicken-ginger offering, the first with brisket and tenderloin, the second with pulled chicken and both finished with rice noodles and fresh herbs.
“We’ll be the fastest sushi chefs,” Nguyen said. “It’s fast food, but it’s gourmet.”
Rice Monkeys: 1050 Main Ave. Open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday-Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Opening date is scheduled for Nov. 15.
Susan Devereaux of Guido’s Favorite Foods struck on the bright idea of turning the restaurant’s small kitchenware shop into a wine store specializing in fine Italian wine not too long ago.
“I thought, it can’t be that hard,” she said, shaking her head ruefully.
It wasn’t hard, it was impossible.
The state refused to give her a license to sell wine in a retail shop because she already has one to sell wine in the restaurant. Not that you can’t buy a bottle from Guido’s to take home. You can, but first a server must open it and pour you a taste before packaging it to go.
Sometimes you just have to say, that’s government for you.
So Devereaux, dismayed but undaunted, switched course. She transformed the little room behind the cashier’s desk that once held cheese graters and mixing bowls into a visual embodiment of the restaurant’s extensive all-Italian wine list.
The bottles are arranged sideways with the labels facing out, providing instant recognition of the familiar (I spotted a bottle of Barbaresco my husband and I adored in Venice) and intriguing forays into the unknown. There’s a smooth white from Friuli, a fruity Chianti, an amazing – and yes, expensive – Brunello di Montalcino.
The notion behind the wall-sized wine list is to give customers a chance not just to see a particular bottle, but to learn about it. Labels tell quite a lot about a wine – where it’s made, who imported it, what types of grape went into it. And Devereaux hopes customers will take advantage of the knowledge Guido’s sommelier, Sam Hobson, brings to the task.
“Someone may not be able to go to Italy, but they can get pretty darn close here,” she said.
In fact, she is going to Italy next week to train at her favorite Roman trattoria, Agustarello. The restaurant specializes in quinto quarto, or the nose-to-tail cooking always popular in Italy and France and just now gaining a following in the United States.
“I’ll just be glad if I get a great oxtail out of it,” said Devereaux of the savory, slow-simmered stew beloved by Italian-Americans.
Guido’s Favorite Foods: 259-5028, 1201 Main Ave. Open from 11 a.m. to closing Monday-Saturday.