He had the pedigree, with management positions at a number of top Colorado and San Francisco restaurants and experience opening restaurants for others. He had the investors, the chef, the concepts. Mario Nocifera had everything he needed last January to finally, after years of dreaming, open his own restaurant in Denver.
But for one important detail: He didn't have a place to put it all.
So he began looking.
After eight months without luck, Nocifera, 38, projected confidence that things would work out. During a morning meeting in a Boulder cafe, he said he had visited a bunch of properties, and come close twice to signing a lease . His real estate broker kept unearthing new opportunities, and Nocifera evaluated them
But he hasn't been able to greet a guest, invest in glassware, or begin studying the resumes of local Johnson & Wales University culinary graduates.
Now, 10 months into his quest for a spot, he remains nearly where he was in the beginning: without a lease.
Nocifera remains hopeful. But hints of the taxing slog leak through.
"I'm fatigued," he said recently, drinking early-evening coffee at The Kitchen [Next Door] after a meeting with Kitchen owner Kimbal Musk. Nocifera was looking for advice from the successful restaurateur and
Nearly everybody who loves food fantasizes, at least a few times, of opening a restaurant. Not many get beyond the "Wouldn't it be fun?" phase and start pitching investors.
Those who take the leap might, one day, own that lovely French-influenced American bistro. But first they must navigate the complicated, expensive minefield that prefaces any restaurant opening.
"It's like playing Tetris," said Leigh Sullivan, the owner of Leigh Sullivan Enterprises, a hospitality consulting firm working with the soon-to-open Corner House. Sullivan has opened a bunch of Denver restaurants over the years, including TAG. "Getting the business plan together, getting the capital. That is one brick. Then you go out and start talking to investors and when it comes time to write checks, only two of the 22 who committed actually write checks."
Sullivan rattled off a long list of things that amount to so many falling bricks in the Tetris videogame: the hunt for space, the dance with landlords, the lease negotiations, turning the blank space into a restaurant, ordering equipment, hiring staff, dealing with governments — an especially maddening brick, she said — the liquor-license.
"The closer in the project gets, the more these bricks are falling, and the faster," she said.
For Nocifera, just handling an early brick — the space — has been difficult. But his experience is not unusual, even for seasoned restaurateurs.
"I'm sure there must be a threshold where it gets easier, but I'm not there yet," said Bobby Stuckey, the owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder. Frasca is considered among the finest restaurants in the Rocky Mountain West, and it has spawned a pizzeria, Locale, and a sandwich-and-coffee shop, Caffe, all in Boulder. But like Nocifera, Stuckey and his business partner, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, have been searching for a spot in Denver to open something since the beginning of the year. As of press time, they still had not signed a lease.
What about the plumbing?
Stuckey offered a hypothetical scenario, but one that happens in real life all the time. Restaurant person swoons over a space. Has budget of $500,000 — a typical amount for a moderately ambitious restaurant in a downtown Denver neighborhood. Signs lease, hires and trains staff. Finds out later the space has a creaky plumbing system, which wasn't caught by the general contractor hired to evaluate the space. Between that and three other surprises, the tab comes to $90,000.
"You just spent 20 percent of your budget on something that won't help guests," said Stuckey. "If I find a space because I fall in love with it, and I'm fixing the foundations and putting in a firewall, not one cent of that tenant improvement is helping the guest."
This sort of stuff makes the space-hunt sometimes grueling. Smart dining entrepreneurs are picky. Nocifera's difficult hunt for space is not a result of unrealistic expectations, or lack of opportunities, for example. He is just meticulous.
"I could sign a lease tomorrow, but that doesn't meant it would be a good move," he said. "It's all about the right space."
Let someone else blaze the trail
One of restaurateur Dave Query's principal strategies is awfully simple — go where others have gone before. With one exception, all of his places occupy space that previously held restaurants.
"The lights work, the hoods are on," he said while downing gazpacho at Centro, one of his Boulder restaurants on Pearl Street. "You come in, do a remodel, make it yours, and go after it. But if you are moving into a big open shell that has never been a restaurant before, you can spend ungodly amounts of money."
The hunt alone, though, can run up a big tab. Every time a restaurateur thinks a space might work, lawyers get involved.
"All of the sudden you have a $1,500 bill here, an $1,800 bill there," said Query.
A lot of the headaches revolve around something awfully straightforward, at least in theory: the lease.
On the one hand, somebody owns a vacant commercial property. On the other hand, a restaurateur wants to open a Roman trattoria, and has the capital and background to do it.
Should be easy. A glorified handshake. But usually, it's not. With their grease traps, hoods, fire worries, floors — are they litigiously slippery? — water demands, energy requirements, waste issues, and much more, restaurants are complex. The point of lease negotiations is to map the quagmire, providing both parties a route to success.
The restaurateur wants the landlord to fix a lot of things — it's his property, after all. The landlord is leery. What if the British gastropub shuts down after 15 months, and the landlord dropped $100,000 into transforming the former shoe store into the restaurant?
Landlords follow the moneyMany landlords want no part of those costs. They would rather have a coffee hop. A boutique. A law firm.
Assuming the landlord wants a restaurant (and some do, considering there are more that 10,000 in the state), the parties go back and forth about the lease's legal stipulations regarding a host of things, including snow removal, energy, insurance and trash removal. Many deals die during these negotiations. Nocifera has walked away from a few properties during this phase.
If it all works out, the landlord gets a cool, wine-fueled tapas spot that makes his property even more valuable, and the restaurateur is already thinking about his next place. If not, both sides walk away with lighter wallets. The lawyers walk away happy either way.
"Everything can be solved. It's just a matter of money," said real estate broker Marc Feder. "Who is paying?"
That question isn't a tough one for Nocifera, at least for now.
Nocifera used most of his savings to cover bills; he quit his job because looking for the right address is a full-time job. Recently, though, he started doing fire-reclamation work in Nederland to make money. He is talking with restaurant groups about short-term employment. He even moved from his place in North Boulder to a spare bedroom in a friend's house on the south side of town.
"I need to downsize my living situation," he said.
As he chatted on the patio at The Kitchen [Next Door], a liquor salesman friendly with Nocifera stopped by, making motions with his eyebrows that Nocifera immediately translated into words.
Nocifera smiled, and sighed.
"No, nothing yet," he said. "As soon as I've got something, I'll let you know, my man."
Douglas Brown: 303-954-1395, email@example.com or twitter.com/douglasjbrown