With Colorado’s longtime focus on fresh, healthy eating, combined with its entrepreneurial spirit, it’s clear to see why its residents established so many successful food franchises. All these casual chain restaurants share a common theme, and that’s their focus on quality ingredients, affordable prices and fast service.
This rapid-growing restaurant concept during the past decade is known as “fast casual“. A more upscale approach to eating out, fast casual combines affordability with higher quality ingredients compared to “fast food” (in industry parlance, “quick service” or QSR) restaurants like McDonald’s or KFC.
The Rise of Colorado-based Fast Casual Restaurants
Although patrons order from a menu board, fast casual establishments provide a more refined ambiance than the typical hash house. After placing their orders, diners sit down to enjoy their repast much as they would at a “casual” restaurant like a diner. While disposable dishes and plasticware are the norms, fast casual eateries add value by offering premiums such as organic ingredients and perceived “healthier” menu options.
Food industry research firm Technomic sets the following metrics for “fast casual” restaurants:
- Self-service or limited service
- Meal prices average between $8 – $15
- “Made-to-order” menu options with greater flavor variety compared to fast food
- Unique, upscale and (or) highly refined decor
- Usually does not offer “driv-thru” window service
The 1980s in Colorado saw the onset of what’s now called fast casual restaurants offering subs, pizza and burgers. In the 1990s, fast casual establishments began dishing out burritos, sushi and pasta. With the new millennium came fast casual breakfast and salads eateries.
Below are 15 fast casual restaurants with Colorado origins. Some have hundreds—even thousands—of locations nationwide and internationally while the smallest has less than a dozen.
1. Quiznos – Started 1981 in Denver, CO
Quiznos first opened in 1981 at 1275 Grant Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill area; the location is still in operation. The sub chain once boasted 5,000 locations spanning Asia to Europe to South America and North America. In its heyday, Quiznos was second only to Subway in North America as a sub shop chain. In 2016, sales ranked Quiznos as the ninth-largest sub chain and by May 2018 only 1,500 U.S. locations remained.
Quiznos is no longer Colorado-owned. While the company is still headquartered in Denver, San Diego-based High Bluff Capital Partners, a private equity firm, bought Quiznos in June 2018. The company reported a revenue of US $170 million in 2017. Money.com ranked Quiznos in 2018 as the 14th-best fast casual chain in the U.S.
The shop chain that popularized “Mmmm…Toasty” (and prodded Subway into toasting subs) is no moribund brand. Emerging from a slew of franchisee class-action lawsuits following the Great Recession, the chain plans to roll out over 1,000 locations in 40+ countries (mostly in Asia) by 2020.
2. Anthony’s Pizza & Pasta – Started 1984 in CO
Starting business in 1984, this chain counts 23 locations along the Front Range from Windsor south to Colorado Springs. Anthony’s uses pure olive oil imported from Italy, pizza dough made daily and 100% whole milk mozzarella cheese shredded by hand.
Anthony’s makes two kinds of New York-style pizzas: a thin-crust Neapolitan pizza with either white or red sauce and a Sicilian thick crust pizza with red sauce. Both styles are available by the slice. Gluten-free pies can be had as well.
The chain also offers a variety of salads available with the diner’s protein of choice, premium pasta made with 100% semolina flour, Italian subs and hoagies—even three styles of chicken wings. Those with a sweet tooth can order New York-style cheesecake, tiramisu or cannoli for dessert. Note that menus vary by location.
3. Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custards – Started 1987 in Boulder, CO
Based in Lakewood, Good Times opened its first location in Boulder in 1987. It started publicly trading on NASDAQ in 1992. Most franchisees are located in Colorado; Wyoming has two. Many (if not all) locations have WiFi available for customers.
Calling itself a “quick service” restaurant, Good Times is a fast food style restaurant with drive thru at all its locations. Good Times serves all-Angus beef, all-natural chicken, breakfast burritos made with Hatch Valley green chile, beer-battered onion rings and signature “Wild Fries.” Deserts include frozen custard, “hand-spun” shakes, sundaes and their famous “Spoonbenders.”
For canine “furkids,” Good Times offers the “Pawbender”—vanilla custard served in a “lick-friendly” cup with peanut butter and three doggie biscuits. Just ask, it’s complimentary!
4. Santiago’s Mexican Restaurants – Started 1991 in Brighton, CO
Local Carmen Morales opened the first Santiago’s in her home town of Brighton in 1991. She’s since grown her empire to include 28 franchised and company-owned restaurants across the Front Range. (The Eastern Plains towns of Fort Morgan and Sterling have locations as well.)
Santiago’s specialty is their famous breakfast burrito made with the family’s secret green chile recipe. Restaurants use locally-sourced eggs from Platteville and Hatch green chiles from New Mexico. Most locations serve full lunch and dinners as well as breakfast items. Other menu choices include tamales, chile rellenos, Indian tacos, Mexican hamburgers, fajitas, carne asada and enchiladas.
Santiago’s is a Denver-area favorite; its smothered breakfast burrito and green chile have received numerous awards from local publications. Morales claims their restaurants use almost a half-million gallons of green chile per year. They also serve New Mexico-style red chile.
5. Chipotle Mexican Grill – Started 1993 in Denver, CO (HQ in Newport Beach, CA)
Named after the dried and smoked jalapeño pepper, Chipotle opened its first location at 1644 East Evans Avenue near the DU campus (still in operation). Now a publicly-traded company (CMG) on the NYSE (and part of the S&P 500), as of 2018 the chain counted more than 2,000 locations in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France and Germany.
After calling Denver home for 25 years, in June 2018 Chipotle relocated to Newport Beach, CA. Also, in early 2018 Chipotle announced that Taco Bell exec Brian Niccol would replace founder Steve Ells as CEO. While Wall Street greeted the news by launching Chipotle’s stock up 12%, CNBC’s Jim Cramer criticized the move as “against everything the (company) stands for.” Ells remains as board chair.
Despite two E. coli outbreaks in 2015 sickening diners in 14 states, Chipotle was ranked 11th in 2018 among the best fast casual U.S. chains by money.com due to their use of high-quality ingredients, which include open-range pork and organic produce.
Menu offerings at Chipotle are limited to five categories: Mission-style burritos, tacos, bowls, quesadillas and salads. Vegetarian options are available. After expanding the menu in 2007, Ells remarked, “(If you) keep the menu focused, you can ensure (doing) them better than anybody else.” Most locations offer margaritas and beer.
6. Qdoba Mexican Eats – Started 1995 in Denver, CO (HQ in San Diego, CO)
One of Chipotle’s fiercest competitors is Qdoba, which first opened in 1995 at the corner of Grant Street and Sixth Avenue in Denver. Originally known as Zuma Fresh Mexican Grill, the original location is still open for business.
Like Chipotle, Qdoba departed for California, leaving Lakewood for San Diego in 2017 after parent Jack in the Box (which acquired Qdoba in 2003) integrated the company into their corporate headquarters. In March 2018, when Qdoba was sold to Apollo Global Management, the chain had over 700 outlets in 47 states, D.C. and Canada.
Too, like Chipotle, Qdoba is known primarily for its Mission-style burrito but also serves quesadillas, nachos, tacos and Mexican “gumbo.” Food is prepared in open kitchens in plain sight of patrons. Qdoba also serves breakfast; some locations remain open 24 hours during weekends.
While considered, Qdoba didn’t crack the top 15 in money.com’s best fast casual chains in the U.S. for 2018.
7. Noodles & Company – Started 1995 in Denver, CO (HQ in Broomfield, CO)
Based in Broomfield, Noodles & Company started its first restaurant in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood in October 1995. Now a publicly-traded company listed on the NASDAQ (NDSL), the company has 459 locations in 29 states and D.C.
After a rocky start and numerous negative reviews, founder (and former Pepsi marketing exec) Aaron Kennedy overhauled the company’s operations. Changes included a modified menu, revamped decor (such as recycled bamboo furniture and softer lighting) and new pricing. Management also installed sauté lines to prepare dishes as they were ordered.
As the name indicates, restaurants feature both American and international noodle dishes. Other offerings include pasta, soups and salads. Most entrees are vegetarian-based with a choice of protein toppings. Gluten-free options are also available.
While some outlets are owned by franchisees, Noodles & Company has a reputation for carefully selecting franchise partners and thus has more corporate-owned outlets than most franchising restaurants. It tied for 9th place on money.com’s list of best fast casual chains in the U.S. for 2018.
8. Illegal Pete’s – Started 1995 in Boulder, CO
With just 11 locations across Colorado and Arizona, Illegal Pete’s ranks among the smallest chains on our list. It’s another Mission-style burrito eatery and it too began business in 1995. Founder Pete Turner opened the first location in Boulder’s The Hill (still in operation), just west of the University of Colorado campus.
With a relaxed yet nonconformist vibe, Illegal Pete’s is a favorite haunt of athletes, musicians and college students. Rock musician Jack Johnson claims that while eating a burrito at Illegal Pete’s in The Hill, Universal Records first contacted him about a record deal. The restaurant also gives “Starving Artists” free food vouchers in advance to touring bands when they hit a town with an Illegal Pete’s outlet.
Like its competitors, Illegal Pete’s has a simple menu of burritos, tacos, nachos and salad. Add-ons include grilled chicken or steak, pork carnitas, shredded beef and beer-battered fish. Customers can choose sides such as pinto beans, primavera or fajita veggies, tortillas and cheese or sour cream. (Guacamole can be substituted for dairy.) “Extras” are potatoes, green chile, queso and poblano pesto.
All ingredients used in Illegal Pete’s dishes are locally sourced; meats are antibiotic- and hormone-free. While bar options vary by location, happy hour is from 3 – 8 pm with an extensive selection of local craft beers.
9. Tokyo Joe’s – Started 1993 in Englewood, CO
Now with 46 locations in Colorado, Arizona and Texas, Tokyo Joe’s began operations in 1996 at 8727 East Dry Creek Road in Centennial. Asian-cuisine inspired, Tokyo Joe’s prepares made-to-order dishes using proprietary recipes. Their model combines both full service and fast casual concepts.
Started by ex-pro skier Larry Leith, Tokyo Joe’s offers white and brown rice and udon noodle bowls, salads and made-to-order sushi rolls. Ingredients are sourced from mostly organic vegetables and “natural” meats. The menu is MSG-free with gluten-free options available. All dishes are either steamed or grilled.
To spur growth beyond Colorado, in 2013 Leith sold a majority stake of his company to private-equity firm Gridiron Capital. Greg McDonald, former Quiznos CEO, assumed chief executive duties of the chain. Leith became chief innovation officer, saying: “(McDonald is responsible for) making Tokyo Joe’s bigger. I’m (responsible for) making it better.” McDonald has since been replaced as CEO by Mark Davis.
10. Snarf’s Sandwiches – Started 1996 in Boulder, CO
Founded in Boulder by Jimmy “Snarf” Seidel in 1996, the original location at Pearl and 21st fondly known by locals as “The Shack” closed in 2007, a victim of soaring real estate prices. Seidel moved his flagship catty-corner across Pearl Street but developers struck again, forcing him to close on March 27, 2019 to make room for new townhomes.
Residents need not fret; Seidel plans to soon reopen his flagship at 2660 Pearl, and Boulder is still home to three other Snarf’s locations. Seidel’s empire (which now includes three Snarfburger outlets) counts 22 Snarf’s Sandwich locations as far afield as St. Louis and Austin.
Seidel’s oven-toasted sandwiches feature his combination of giardiniera peppers, premium cheeses, hand-sliced meats and fresh, crusty bread. Menu choices include French Dip, the Italian, NY Steak and Prime Rib as well as salads with homemade dressings and soups. Vegetarian and gluten-free fare is available, as is catering.
Seidel strives to create a unique vibe for each location with custom décor and commissioned mosaics and artwork from Nederland native Jen Haley.
11. MAD Greens – Started 2004 in Centennial, CO
Now with 33 locations scattered across the Front Range to the metro areas of Phoenix and Austin, MAD Greens first began tossing their salads in 2004 at the northeast corner of East County Line Road and South Yosemite Street in Centennial.
Co-founders Dan Long and Marley Hodgson sold their company in 2013 to the Coors family company AC Restaurant Group, which expanded MAD Greens to Arizona and Texas. Just within the last month (October 2019), MAD Greens merged with Dallas-based Snappy Salads to form Salad Collective, led by the MAD Greens management team of Darden Coors and John Montgomery. The two companies will continue operating under their respective brands.
MAD Greens is noted for its signature salads named after “MAD” people like Ty Cobb, Bonnie Parker and Pancho Villa. Their menu also includes grain bowls, wraps, soups and juices. The restaurant strives to deliver healthy meals lickety-split in a clean but austere dining environment.
12. Larkburger (maybe Lark Spot) – Started 2006 in Edwards, CO
Debuting in 2006, the first Larkburger opened at the Edwards Village Center mall off I-70 in Vail Valley. The chain, which rebranded itself in early 2019 as Lark Spot to highlight its menu focus away from burgers, has contracted from 14 outlets at the end of 2018 to now just 2 locations in Boulder and Greenwood Village. The original Larkburger is “temporarily” closed; both Denver locations have closed as well as stores in Kansas and Missouri.
In February 2019, Lark Spot CEO Todd Coerver said that the rebranding of one-location-at-a-time would be “mostly finished” by the end of the year. He added that the rebranding is due to constriction in the fast casual sector of the restaurant business. Yet the first location to be rebranded, in Arvada, has closed and the remaining two outlets still carry the Larkburger name. Too, “larkspot.com” currently redirects to “larkburger.com.”
Eschewing the plastic, pre-fab look of most burger joints, Larkburger uses wooden trays, wraps sandwiches in brown paper and uses cardboard boxes for sides to highlight their eco-friendly posture. The decor of the flagship store in Vail Valley included white top tables, plenty of wood and steel chairs, imparting a hybrid concept of a contemporary drive-in with a classic carhop.
The two remaining restaurants currently offer seven different burgers, four made with house sauce. They include exotic choices such as a truffle burger (finished with truffle aioli), a tuna burger (made with a cilantro and wasabi-ginger dressing) and a veggie portabello burger from a mushroom cap. Other items available are wraps, salads and “shareables.” Their menu is predominantly gluten-free with many vegetarian choices.
13. Snooze – Started 2006 in Denver, CO
In 2006, founders Adam and Jon Schlegel began the first Snooze at 22nd and Larimer in Denver and quickly grew to eight Denver metro locations plus restaurants in Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and Boulder. This one’s a sit-down, order with your server-style, brunch restaurant, and not a “fast-casual” diner, but we included it anyway because it’s local, tasty and growing.
Calling itself an “A.M. Eatery,” Snooze markets an eco-friendly image by using sustainable (and trendy) ingredients such as pure maple syrup from Vermont, handcrafted Snooze Bloody Mary mix bottled in Denver, Guatemalan coffee and “responsibly raised” pork products from an Iowa farm.
In 2016, the Stripes Group gained a majority interest in the restaurant chain, propelling the restaurant’s expansion into distant locales like Texas, California, Arizona and North Carolina. Snooze’s plan to open Georgia and Missouri locations in 2020. As of now, Snooze’s has 39 outlets. They serve breakfast, lunch and brunch items; most locations close by 2:30 pm.
At Snoozes, diners can partake in potent adult libations with their meals. The extensive drink menu includes a variety of mimosas, “morning” margaritas, coffee cocktails and local and seasonal craft beers. Their signature entrees include a pineapple upside-down pancake and Benedict egg dishes, one with smashed avocado.
14. Smashburger – Started 2007 in Glendale, CO
In 2007 with $15 million in capitalization, veteran fast food execs Tom Ryan (Pizza Hut, McDonald’s) and Rich Schaden (Quiznos) founded Cervantes Capital, the corporate overlord of Smashburger. With backing from private equity firm Consumer Capital Partners, they opened the first Smashburger, located in a Glendale strip mall at 1120 South Colorado Boulevard.
Smashburger is more akin to a QSR than most brands listed here but Ryan explains that Smashburger was meant for the 20-30% of QSR patrons who want something better than the industry norm. Using Angus beef, Smashburger truly “smashes” their burgers and cooks them on a flattop grill at a higher temperature than competitors. Another difference— Smashburger serves beer to their customers.
Smashburger was a success from the start as outlets soon appeared nationwide and internationally. As of November 2019, 313 Smashburger locations are found in 36 states; 23 more are sited in Canada, the U.K., Costa Rica, Saudi Arabia, Panama and El Salvador. Money.com ranked Smashburger as the 12-best fast casual chain in the U.S. for 2018.
15. Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh – Started 2008 in Denver, CO
Featuring an open kitchen and a sleek dining decor, Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh was founded in 2008 and first debuted in 2009. Since its inception, the Denver-based chain has grown to 26 locations with franchises in 10 states, some on college campuses. Larry Sidoti, Garbanzo chief development officer, foresees much greater growth soon. Within five years, corporate management looks to have 300 locations.
One food critic compares the restaurant’s concept to that of Panera Bread. Garbanzo features WiFi and classical music, creating a calm and relaxing dining atmosphere. The restaurant’s menu focuses on healthy dining, accommodating low-carb, gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian and paleo diets.
Garbanzo makes their pitas fresh with on-site baking ovens. Mediterranean staples include hummus, tabbouleh. falafel, grilled steak and chicken, rice and baba ganoush as well as Greek gyros. Many dishes have Lebanese spice blends to impart an authentic Middle East flavor and the chain uses the Israeli founder’s family recipes.
When new management assumed control of the chain in 2016, CEO James Park reined back expansion while they revamped menu items and recipes. They also introduced a new décor with a Middle East-inspired look. The changes worked; in 2017, industry magazine First Casual cited Garbanzo as fourth-best “Mover and Shaker” and QSR Magazine included it on their “40 Under 40” as a chain with under 40 locations poised to hit the big leagues of franchised restaurants.
As you can tell more than a dozen top fast casual restaurants got their start in Colorado. While some have since moved their headquarters out of state, such as Qdoba and Chipotle to California, all of them were found and grown with passion in Colorado.