Lenny and Sara Martinelli, owners of Three Leaf Concepts, operate some of Boulder’s most visible restaurants, including the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse and the Chautauqua Dining Hall. Jonathan Castner/For BizWest

Three Leaf Concepts has a full plate

LOUISVILLE — Lenny and Sara Martinelli never set out to be in the restaurant business, but when opportunities came their way, they snapped them up.

The owners of Three Leaf Concepts operate the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse and Chautauqua Dining Hall and own The Huckleberry and Zucca Italian Ristorante in Louisville, Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant and Aji Latin American Restaurant and The Naropa Cafe in Boulder; plus Three Leaf Farm in Lafayette, Three Leaf Catering and The Boulder Tea Co.

The couple met as students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Sara earned a degree in anthropology and Lenny achieved a degree in environmental design. Sara later attended art school in Denver for graphic design.

They both utilize their degrees in their current ventures.

“We have such ethnically diverse restaurants,” Sara said. “It goes along with nutritional anthropology and food in different cultures and how it helped develop different aspects of different cultures.”

Lenny’s background with architecture and sustainable-energy choices and building materials “formed the backbone of our business philosophy of being green,” she added. “We use sustainable practices as we can.”

Both of the Martinellis worked in restaurants during college, and when Lenny graduated from CU, he was given the opportunity to buy into The Naropa Café. Since he had worked in all aspects of the restaurant business since he was a teenager, he jumped at the chance.

The rest is history, according to Sara. The purchase “cemented us in the restaurant business.”

When the City of Boulder put out a call for a company to come in and operate the Dushanbe Teahouse, the couple decided to give it a shot.

“We bid on it never thinking we would actually get it. We were thinking it would be a little tea house,” Sara said.

They won the bid.

“At first it was hard,” she said. “We were pretty young with the tea house. We made a lot of mistakes. Trial by fire. Our philosophy has always been when the opportunity presents itself, we grab it. …We were so excited and thrilled to win that bid.”

When the city of Boulder was looking for someone to lease and run the Chautauqua Dining Hall a few years ago, the Martinellis again jumped at the chance. As part of the winning bid, the couple agreed to extensively renovate the interior with the approval of the Colorado Chautauqua Association board.

“We work closely with the city and the CCA to keep the missions on point. They are such visible businesses, it is important to maintain relationships and work as a team with those organizations,” Sara said. The dining hall is the couple’s most recent food project.

They founded The Huckleberry and Zucca in downtown Louisville because they live and work there and wanted some nice restaurants in town where they could bring their three children.

“Louisville is the greatest little town ever. We love Louisville,” Sara said. “We’ve lived here for 24 years now. When we bought our house, we were way too poor to buy a house in Boulder. We raised our children here. It is a great community.”

The Huckleberry serves up American comfort food all day, but is most popular for breakfast and lunch, she said. Zucca features real Italian fare and an all-Italian wine bar.

“It is slightly elevated Italian food,” Sara said. “It is more than red and white checkered table cloths. It is not super upscale. To be honest, it is the kind of food you get in Italy. It is not Italian American food.”

Zucca does offer some classics such as spaghetti and meatballs and fettuccine alfredo, but the restaurant doesn’t put red sauce on everything.

“We like the creative process of opening new restaurants. That part is really fun,” Sara said. “It is fun to come up with new concepts. With both Lenny’s and my design background, that is the really fun part of the process. Sometimes we have to hold ourselves back from opening them. We don’t need another one. We don’t need anything more to do.”

In 2010, Lenny convinced Sara to buy Three Leaf Farm in Lafayette to grow organic produce for the couple’s restaurants.

“We farm about three acres, which is relatively small compared to other organic farms in Boulder County,” she said. “We offer workshops and classes. I’m a medical herbalist. I teach a lot of classes about herbal medicine, teas and gardening.”

The farm also keeps 100 chickens, most of which provide eggs for Three Leaf’s restaurants. Some no longer lay eggs, but since Sara doesn’t want to use them for food she calls the farm the Three Leaf Chicken Rescue.

“Working with your spouse is difficult sometimes. Working in the restaurant industry is difficult because you are always working. If you are awake, you’re working,” Sara said. “On the flip side, that’s positive as well. It is a shared goal. We have been fortunate. We found areas in the business we are well suited for and different from each other.”

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