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 June 3, 2011

Restaurants navigate shifting economic tides

The rules of nature hold that nothing exists in a vacuum. Any one entity — a restaurant, for example — shares space with a host of other entities — big local employers, say. At any given moment, these entities may or may not be useful to each other.

Consider the different effects that the downsizing of Agilent Technologies and the expected arrival of the ACE park in southwest Loveland have had on the well-established Schmidt’s Bakery and newcomer Sofia’s Bistro.

Schmidt’s has been a local favorite since 1985, doing well enough to maintain a loyal clientele for more than 25 years. But in March, Colorado revenue agents seized the property for non-payment of sales taxes — the second time in a year. No one argues that even in a bad economy anyone should be exempt from paying taxes due, and owner Harry Schmidt has since gotten right with the Department of Revenue.

But why would Schmidt, who had weathered other economic ups and downs over the years, suddenly slip? One possible explanation is that the lingering effects of the economic turmoil of the 21st century have taken everyone by surprise. Who could have foreseen that what was once a bustling five-building IT complex, busy beyond imagining with the Agilent employees who had been merrily spun off from HP, would become a mere shadow of its former self, languishing across the street from Schmidt’s? The city of Loveland is in the process of purchasing four of those buildings, while the greatly reduced Agilent workforce occupies just one.

It’s hard to adjust a sail shaped for racing to catch the vagrant breezes of a windless economy. And it is not difficult to understand why Schmidt’s expansion into Greeley in a time of plenty led to a major financial bind.

Just as Schmidt’s had no control over the downsizing of Agilent in 2006, it has no control over the anticipated arrival of its replacement — the Aerospace Clean Energy Manufacturing and Innovation Center — some five years later.

The expectation is that ACE will serve as a magnet for innovative companies with well-paid employees who will need to eat and will want to eat out. And Schmidt’s will be there, right across the street with its deli sandwiches, headcheese, jellied sulze, liver sausage, braunschweiger and kraut burgers, not to mention bear claws and Danish for a quick morning pick-me-up.

Unlike Schmidt’s, which had to figure out what to do when dearth replaced bounty, Sofia’s opened in the historic McKee House on North Lincoln Avenue in 2009 when the economy was really rotten for the entire hospitality industry. Now that prospects look a bit brighter, Sofia and husband Jeff Morrow are expanding little by little, building on some particularly nice reviews for breakfast fare.

“There are 7,000 news jobs coming to town with the new ACE project,” said Sofia Morrow, originally from Casablanca, Morocco. “Everyone is very excited for Loveland. We think it will be very good for our business.”

In anticipation of better economic times, the Morrows have added two elements to enhance the bistro’s conviviality quotient: a new bar that features 20 specialty martinis, and a tapas menu with 20 items to match.

“There is something very nice about being able to share food with other people without breaking the bank,” Morrow said. “The plates range mostly from $3 to $6, and so you have much more freedom to sample than if you were ordering an appetizer from the regular menu.”

She added that a newly instituted Happy Hour would offer martinis for $5 and house wine for $4 a glass.

“For our new bar arrangement, we had to get a new permit from the city of Loveland,” Morrow said. “But it has been very nice dealing with the people in the city.”

Although the front-and-center bar and tapas menu are new as of May 18, Morrow predicts that they will add to the bistro’s appeal both as a hometown favorite and a destination restaurant.

“There are a lot of people here with adventurous palates who want to eat something good,” she said. “Gas is expensive. Now it is possible to stay close to home and eat interesting food. We expect to draw people from both Wyoming and Denver, too.”

Because timing is everything, however, some Loveland establishments have already missed the coming wave. After only a year in business in the downtown location once occupied by Monaco Trattoria, Baja Fish Co. (managed by Mike Severance) has closed, leaving behind some prime Fourth Street restaurant space.

New kitchen for Kress

Linde Thompson, the accidental restaurateur, now has her own kitchen at Kress Cinema and Lounge in downtown Greeley.

“When we opened, the Island Grill next door prepared our food,” Thompson said. “Then when they closed, we used their kitchen. Then an Italian restaurant moved in and took the kitchen back.”

Ever the optimists, Thompson and her husband/partner Ron saw an opportunity to have their own kitchen — sans grill — and serve pizza along with other menu items.

“I have always wanted to serve pizza,” she said. “Pizza and a movie seem so right together. Island Grill had its own menu with no pizza. And the new Italian restaurant wasn’t interested in making our pizza either.”

Even more appealing than serving pizza was the opportunity to give those pies some “goofy movie-title names.” Can you say “Gouda Fellas”?

“We are hanging in there with downtown and offering something fun for Greeley folks,” she said. “We are real local yokels.”

Elsewhere in Greeley, restaurants in the resurrected St. Michael’s Square are gaining some traction. First, the Hill brothers, Brett and Brian, fans of the Hobnobber Tavern, bought it last year and reopened it as The Tavern: same plates and glasses, different menu.

Later in 2010, La Miraposa, a family-owned Mexican restaurant chain, bought the building once occupied by the Harvest Modern Country Kitchen, which closed in 2009. Maui Wowi, featuring coffee rather than what the name might imply to some, has taken a lease on part of the building occupied by Cranberries Fresh Food Market until it closed in 2008.

When St. Michael’s Town Square opened in 2006, it was full of promise as a gathering place for people who lived in the residential part of the development. If the time was not right then, maybe it is now.

Taverna opa! for business

Another dead restaurant location has come back to life in south Fort Collins. The Taverna Greek Grill has taken the College Avenue space formerly occupied by Johnny Carino’s. It serves up not only Greek fare, but also a little Greek dancing, fire breathing and plate breaking to go with it. Just remind the kids not to try that at home.

A bit north and west, in the gigantic space previously known as the County Cork Irish Pub, then Tailgate Tommy’s, then just The Cork, The Passport aims to transport its diners to Italy, Mexico and the good ol’ US of A.

Whether the call of foreign cuisines and festive dining habits can hold an audience grown picky about how it spends its dining-out dollar remains an open question this summer.

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

The rules of nature hold that nothing exists in a vacuum. Any one entity — a restaurant, for example — shares space with a host of other entities — big local employers, say. At any given moment, these entities may or may not be useful to each other.

Consider the different effects that the downsizing of Agilent Technologies and the expected arrival of the ACE park in southwest Loveland have had on the well-established Schmidt’s Bakery and newcomer Sofia’s Bistro.

Schmidt’s has been a local favorite since 1985, doing well enough to maintain a loyal clientele for…

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