July 30, 2010

Kress kitchen proves worthy understudy

GREELEY – Some restaurants make a grand entrance as the end product of careful planning. Others are born of necessity, appearing in a supporting role.

“When we opened the Kress Cinema and Lounge in the old Kress building in September 2008, The Island Grill was operating as our kitchen, and we thought we would be running a theater,´ said Linde Thompson, who owns the Kress on Eighth Avenue in downtown Greeley with her husband, Rob.

The Island Grill, a Fort Collins favorite, had opened the year before in the spot vacated by The Magnus Restaurant and Bar at 801 Ninth St., around the corner from the Kress. The building originally housed an S. H. Kress & Co. department store, a chain known for its fine architecture and the Art Deco detail of its interiors.

The chain is long gone, but its buildings live on across the country. In Greeley, the adaptive reuse plan also includes Aims Community College’s conference center.

“It’s a big building used in a number of ways, thanks to the vision of Bob Tointon, who bought the building and supports the businesses that occupy it,” Thompson said. “Rob and I are historic preservation people and had some experience with restoration. Our wonderful architect, Art Hoy, worked with us on Margie’s Java Joint and the Book Stop.”

Margie’s occupies part of the historic 1928 Hallet Drug Co. building across from the University of Northern Colorado campus. It has long been home base for science fiction writer Connie Willis, winner of 10 Hugo Awards and six Nebula Awards. The Thompsons know how to create a good creative vibe.

Returning a big box of a space to its historic Art Deco style required some imagination. But artfulness and new plaster design created three distinctive spaces: the bar and lounge, a place to enjoy a local Crabtree Brewing beer on tap; the fireplace lounge, a place to gather before or after a movie or for no apparent reason at all; and the theater, a place to have a bite while watching a good movie.

“Running a kitchen was not part of the plan,” Thompson said. “Margie’s was about as close to a commercial kitchen as I wanted to go.”

Kress had been open barely a year last September when the Island Grill suddenly closed, after co-owners Hal Walker and Ken Kuk decided the concept was not working out in Greeley. They have since opened a new location in Loveland.

“We were given five days’ notice,” Thompson said. “Since we were the Kress Cinema and Lounge, and since it is nice to have food and drink to go with a movie, we took over the kitchen to keep our menu alive.”

Thompson did note that there was an upside to the surprise. Running the kitchen with her own cooks gave her more control of the menu, which features items such as “A Fish Taco Called Wanda.”

“I did most of the naming of the menu items,” she said. “It was fun: ‘Silence of the Yams’ are our sweet potato fries.”

While running the kitchen was a stopgap to keep the concept of a movie theater/lounge rolling, Thompson said that that chapter in the life of the business, though enjoying a positive cash flow, may end soon.

“There is an Italian restaurant coming into the Island Grill space,” she said. “It will probably open in August. I can see that they are working to get it ready.”

Meanwhile, there is plenty of good food and drinks (a “Chewbacca” or “Big Lebowski,” anyone?) to take into the prettiest little movie theater in Northern Colorado.

Summer bounty in a jar

When local chefs start working with local farmers, a web of suppliers and growers and eaters begins to develop. Northern Colorado is caught up in that web, not only in a bounty of fresh produce, but also in prepared foods made from that produce.

Amy Lasley has not only created a line of salsas – Rocky Mountain Salsas – but has also become “one of those incubator people” who turns around and helps the next small producer get started.

“I started my salsa business in 1991,” Lasley said. “I had two or three buyers. The Cupboard in Fort Collins was awesome to work with from the very beginning. They will always promote local products.”

By 2004, Lasley, a nurse by profession, decided to move forward with her business. She hired a distribution company, but then had to look around for a commercial kitchen to cook in.

“I had a kitchen locally that I could cook in, but then it went out of business,” she said. “So I had to go to Denver to locate the big kettles necessary for preparing salsas.”

What she found was that she was spending up to an hour and a half cleaning before she could even start the hours of cooking. So in November 2007 she began work on creating her own commissary kitchen in Fort Collins, which she opened in the spring of 2008.

“It took me three years to really figure out how to deal with health codes, distributors and local growers, but now I am in a position to help other people make connections more quickly,” she said. “I can open doors for people who rent from me and help them avoid making bad decisions.”

Since she opened her kitchen, Lasley has had no shortage of people eager to rent.

“People got laid off from their big corporate jobs and decided it was time to do something different,” she said. “I have bakers, a honey packager, a toffee maker, a rib smoker, and a relish maker. All of these are startup companies. We can buy lids together and save money.”

One of the ideas that got hatched in Lasley’s incubator is Meg Campbell’s Bella Dolci. Campbell has been baking pies since she was 9 years old.

“I always have wanted to have a pie shop in Fort Collins,” she said. “But I have three kids and so wanted to start in a way that would give me time with them. I started the process a year ago last March. The Northern Colorado Food Incubator sent me to Amy. And in May I sold my first pie to the F/Stop Cafe in the Poudre River Arts Center.”

Campbell’s pies also appear at the Happy Lucky Tea House in Old Town, next to the Old Firehouse Books. In time, she plans to open her pie shop (just as soon as her youngest starts school). But for now, she can bake away in Lasley’s kitchen.

Financial supporters of interesting ideas, like Greeley’s Bob Tointon and The Cupboard’s Carey Hewitt, and creative sorts like Linde Thompson, Amy Lasley and Meg Campbell can do only so much. It takes regular customers to make any business profitable.

Besides, who can resist spending money on a cherry pie or a movie with a side of something local and delicious?

Jane Albritton is a contributing writer for the Business Report. Her monthly column features restaurant and hospitality industry news. She can be contacted at jane@tigerworks.com.

GREELEY – Some restaurants make a grand entrance as the end product of careful planning. Others are born of necessity, appearing in a supporting role.

“When we opened the Kress Cinema and Lounge in the old Kress building in September 2008, The Island Grill was operating as our kitchen, and we thought we would be running a theater,´ said Linde Thompson, who owns the Kress on Eighth Avenue in downtown Greeley with her husband, Rob.

The Island Grill, a Fort Collins favorite, had opened the year before in the spot vacated by The Magnus Restaurant and Bar at 801…

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