#COEats 1: Fast casual’s deep roots in Denver’s past

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DENVER -- Denver has become the hub of the quickest growing segment in the restaurant industry: fast casual restaurants.  Chipotle? Noodles and Company?  Did you know some of the most well-known restaurants in America were started right here, in our back yard.  We're going behind the scenes, meeting the people who started a new restaurant revolution.  How did these eateries get so big so fast?  And what are the next Denver-based restaurants that are about to go global?  We start with a mouth-watering history lesson.

Before we checked out the menu's at some of Denver's newest restaurants, we decided to hunt down the menus at some of our city's oldest, with the help of the History Colorado Center.  Historians and curators unearthed for us a treasure trove of Denver’s dining past.  Including the story behind the strange little beer-keg shaped restaurant in north Denver in the early 1900s that changed everything.  And first exposed the rest of the world to the way Colorado eats.

“The Humpty Dumpty is significant in Colorado for people who don't know, it's the first fast food drive-in that opens (in Colorado) in the 20s,” said Alisa Zahller, Senior Curator for Artifacts at History Colorado Center.

Legend has it, back in the 1930s, owner Louis Ballast was experimenting with toppings for hamburgers - when he had an epiphany.

“Some people said he tried different things - chocolate on top of a hamburger, marshmallows.  But one day he was cooking these burgers, and a slice of cheese fell on it accidentally, and he said aha!!,” said Tom Noel, Professor of History and Director of Public History, Preservation and Colorado Studies at University of Colorado Denver.

Of course that is just legend, and odds are he's not the first to put cheese on a burger.  But he was the first to make it official.  On January 1, 1932, Louis Ballast and the Humpty Dumpty Drive Inn filed papers with the Colorado Secretary of State to trademark the cheeseburger.

That strange shaped restaurant is long gone, but to this very day if you drive down Speer Boulevard just west of downtown near North High School - you'll see a little stone marker on the very spot where the Humpty Dumpty once stood.  The very spot where Ballast made food history.  And helped change the way the nation eats.

“Colorado is famous for fast food.  And it really starts with the cheeseburger,” said Noel.

So maybe it's appropriate that one of the fastest growing restaurant chains in America got big here in Denver  by selling - you guessed it - the cheeseburger.  Although they call it a Smashburger.

Smashburger first opened its doors in Denver eight years ago.  It's since grown to 325 restaurants in 32 different states.  And now, they're worldwide too.

“We've been in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Costa Rica, El Salvador,” said Smashburger CEO Scott Crane.

This burger chain is a shining star in a rapidly growing niche in the restaurant business - that in many ways began right here in our backyard.  They're called fast casual restaurants.

“Fast casual is sort of in between quick service restaurants, and casual dining,” said Sonia Riggs, President and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

“In fast casual restaurants, what tends to happen is you go up and order at the counter, and then you sit down and are waiting to be served, so you don't need as many people,” Riggs added.

It's a concept that costs less to operate than traditional sit-down restaurants - and tends to offer more fresh, made to order high quality food than traditional fast food.  And it's a huge hit.

“Not only is fast casual the fastest growing segment in the restaurant industry, but Colorado actually has about double the restaurants per capita than any other state in the country or in the national average,” Riggs said.

That is why you're starting to see a Chipotle or Noodles and Company  or Modmarket on every street corner and strip mall in our state.  And now across the country, too.

“It's such a broad demographic here that you feel like if you can make it work in Denver, it can go elsewhere,” Crane said.

Fast casual has now grown into a $38-billion a year industry.  That's on top of the $100-billion spent every year on hamburgers.  Americans love burgers.

“I eat a lot of salads, and I love to eat salads, but I have yet to sit down to a salad and rub my hands together like this and say ‘Oh yeah, I'm in,’ and a hamburger does that, I watch it happen and that's an awesome place in the business when people do that,” said Adam Baker, co-founder of Larkburger.

Larkburger is fast casual chain started here in Colorado, working to become the next big thing.

“Why did we think we'd be successful?  One thing we knew was the hamburger has yet to go out of style,” Baker said.

Baker and his business partner started Larkburger in the Vail Valley nine years ago with a simple idea: take the popular burger they were making in the high-end Larkspur restaurant - and serve it to the masses.

“We want to add restaurants as fast as we can, and still execute,” Baker said.

They now have 13 restaurants, and they want to get even bigger.  They're certain Larkburger will one day be a national brand.

“Growth is next, and where next is what we're working on now,” Baker added.

Another Colorado entrant - in the fast casual restaurant race.  Food served fast, in places that don't look or feel like fast food restaurants.

CONTINUE READING: #COeats 2: The Denver restaurants that changed the way America eats

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