Typical menu items include a Cobb salad with chicken tenders, a two-piece chicken and churros plate (its version of chicken and waffles), with house sauce and maple syrup. Dallas Heltzell / for BizWest

Comet’s tale helps restaurant group soar

FORT COLLINS — What do you get when you cross a Rhode Island red chicken with a white leghorn? You get a hybrid breed called “golden comets,” birds known for early and prolific egg laying but also tender, flavorful meat.

What do you get when you close a popular formal Italian restaurant, gut the space and turn it into a fast-casual eatery featuring a limited menu with some trendy twists? You get Comet Chicken, an idea hatched 28 months ago in downtown Fort Collins that certainly hasn’t laid an egg.

“We call our chicken ‘never-ever.’ It’s all-natural, never frozen, antibiotic free,” said Adam Vander Sande, the restaurant’s general manager. “We get it from Redbird — small family farms.”

Enzio’s had been a downtown staple since it opened in 2004, but the team at Fort Collins-based Hot Corner Concepts decided “it didn’t grow in alignment with our other units” and was closed in December 2016, Vander Sande said. “It was time for a new, fresh concept. We’ll still see a balance between nice sit-down and casual, but the new generation is looking for a quicker meal.”

The company also runs two other restaurants in the same block of Mountain Avenue — Austin’s American Grill and Big Al’s Burgers and Dogs — as well as another Austin’s location and the Moot House in midtown Fort Collins. Vander Sande got his start with the company in 2007 in the kitchen at the Moot House.

Redevelopment of the site for Comet Chicken included stripping the building down to its original brick and making the space more open and industrial. Dallas Heltzell / for BizWest

Hot Corner Concepts’ in-house designer helped transform the space after Enzio’s closed, calling for removal of the Italian décor and the full-service bar near the front door, and giving the room a more open, industrial feel.

“There had been a lot of artificial fronts on the walls, including some that had covered up a fire.” Vander Sande said. “We stripped it down to the original brick from the 1800s,” and more bricks from that time period were found and used to fill a hole in the west wall of the space that had housed various businesses including a wine bar and a postage-stamp purveyor.

Before it could open in September 2017, the new eatery needed a name.

“It was a struggle,” Vander Sande said. “A group of six of us spent hours coming up with names. We had about 50 on the board and cut it down to six. A friend of ours from Habitat for Humanity pitched the name that stuck.”

For the new restaurant, the team decided to offer grilled or fried chicken served on its own, in sandwiches or on salads, along with churros — the long, fried pastry made with cinnamon and sugar popular in Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican culture. Pair them with the restaurant’s signature meat and you get Comet’s take on chicken and waffles.

“There were so many iterations of those churros when we opened, over three dozen,” Vander Sande said. “We kept adding more flour, more sugar, more eggs, and cooked it longer. When we got to the 30th version, we said that’s a winner.”

The menu includes homemade dressings and sauces as well as French fries from Kennebec potatoes.

Since opening, Vander Sande said, Comet Chicken has added sandwiches and tacos and changed salads as seasonal ingredients came and went. “When you live in the all-natural world, you have to be more flexible,” he said, adding that he felt the best addition to the menu has been Nashville-style chicken.

“We run new stuff as a special first, like an ‘armadillo sandwich’ with roasted tomatillo, crema cheese, jalapenos and bacon,” he said.

Experimentation also was the key to offering “nitro coffee,” he said. “There are really no books on how to do it. It took me about five months to figure out the process. It was taking about 72 hours to make it, but I figured out how to do it in 24.”

Comet also does catering and has served bulk orders of its tenders, sandwiches, salads and coleslaw to events hosted by the city, Larimer County, Colorado State University and local businesses. One of its largest orders was 2,200 tenders for an event at Timberline Church.

The company gives back to the community as well, Vander Sande said, pointing to the nearly $20,000 from Comet Chicken and more than $120,000 from Big Al’s that has been donated to charities. “We’re also involved with Habitat for Humanity,” he said, “and we help with fundraisers and send staff out to do volunteer days.

“We also want to be a great role model for supporting employees for their future,” he said. “We’re locally owned and operated, and we believe in doing it the right way even if it’s the hard way.”

Not a bad way to feather one’s nest.

If you go

126 W. Mountain Ave., Fort Collins

970-689-3464

cometchicken.com

FORT COLLINS — What do you get when you cross a Rhode Island red chicken with a white leghorn? You get a hybrid breed called “golden comets,” birds known for early and prolific egg laying but also tender, flavorful meat.

What do you get when you close a popular formal Italian restaurant, gut the space and turn it into a fast-casual eatery featuring a limited menu with some trendy twists? You get Comet Chicken, an idea hatched 28 months ago in downtown Fort Collins that certainly hasn’t laid an egg.

“We call our chicken ‘never-ever.’ It’s all-natural, never frozen, antibiotic free,” said Adam Vander Sande, the restaurant’s general manager. “We get it from Redbird — small family farms.”

Enzio’s had been a downtown staple since it opened in 2004, but the team at Fort Collins-based Hot Corner Concepts decided “it didn’t grow in alignment with our other units” and was closed in December 2016, Vander Sande said. “It was time for a new, fresh concept. We’ll still see a balance between nice sit-down and casual, but the new generation is looking for a quicker meal.”

The company also runs two other restaurants in the same block of Mountain Avenue — Austin’s American Grill and Big Al’s Burgers and Dogs — as well as another Austin’s location and the Moot House in midtown Fort Collins. Vander Sande got his start with the company in 2007 in the kitchen at the Moot House.