Mitch Yellen first saw the benefits of healthy eating during his sister’s battle with cancer.
“She was given just six months to live but started reading a lot about eating healthy and changed her diet,” he said. “She ended up living another 16 years, and when she passed, it gave me inspiration to go ahead with a new idea of a sort of healthy, fast-casual restaurant.”
Yellen opened his latest concept, Sprig, in late January at 7 Spectrum Loop off North Gate Boulevard in north Colorado Springs.
The New York native is the CEO and founder of Altitude Hospitality Group, which includes Garden of the Gods Market & Café, Garden of the Gods Catering and Events, Till Kitchen, The Roost Coffee House and The Pinery at the Hill.
“The food scene here wasn’t great when I was starting all of this seven, eight years ago,” he said. “I started by bringing in great chefs, so that we could have great food here, and offered a more organic approach than we had back then.”
Yellen moved to Colorado Springs from California’s Napa Valley about 19 years ago.
In 2004, he bought Springs-based Taylor Fence Company.
“We do fencing all the way up to Wyoming with large contracts and an average fence order of about $280,000,” Yellen said. “With those workers and what I have at Altitude, I have about 300 employees. That’s a pretty good size. I think it’s making an impact here in the city and also with all the vendors we support.”
Yellen spoke with the Business Journal this week about his healthy, fast-casual concept and the challenges of opening a new restaurant.
Talk about your new eatery, Sprig.
I felt like, in all the noise that I’ve heard the last few years about, ‘Well, I’m gluten free or I’m vegan or I’m this’ — it was ‘How do I bring it all together?’ Sprig is about food that loves you back — or Sprig is food inspired by you. Those are two great ways to summarize ‘It’s about being customer-centric.’ I had a woman come to me just today who asked if we could replace the quinoa with some cauliflower rice. She said, ‘I would love to see something that was free of grains.’ And I’m going to go see what we can do about that. We really built this thinking of the customer. We want the customers to speak to us because I want her to go out … and say, ‘I talked with the owner and they’re altering the menu now.’ … We don’t even use ice in our smoothies because we don’t want what’s in the ice to be in our smoothie. We want to do everything all natural. I didn’t open this just because I think I’m going to make money. My motivation was to help people eat in a healthier way. If I’m really going to carry the torch for my sister, I need to go and make a difference in other people’s lives.
What challenges are there when opening a new restaurant?
There are always a lot of challenges but raising money has never been an issue for me — that’s easy. Attracting great people — I’ve been really good at that too. My mom had a makeup company when I was like 8 years old. She put a lot of money into that but she picked a horrible location and she lost everything. She ended up selling makeup more by going and visiting beauty salons and she lost her dream basically. So to me, the biggest thing is picking the right location and then having a great concept. You have to develop that concept and not just rush into it, because that’s why a lot of businesses fail, especially restaurants. I wasn’t too fast to pull the trigger on this concept. I developed the idea for Sprig over two years. If I didn’t have great people around me, there’s no way that I would have done it. I think the other biggest challenge is bringing it all together at the same time — the right location, the concept and the right people. It’s a little nerve-wracking when you open something new. I typically like to build my buildings like I did at The Pinery. That’s a 24,000-square-foot building. Or you go look at Till Kitchen, which is an 18,000-square-foot building. Somebody else built the building where Sprig is located and I’m a tenant. But for this concept, this was the perfect thing. I thought hard about if this was a good location. And I do think the traffic is only going to increase with the [Powers Boulevard interstate] connector going in right here.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I think I bring the best out in people, and I think I attract really smart people. I think, if you win championships, it is because you’ve got more talented people around you.
The people who have the big egos on basketball teams, or football teams, where it’s all about them, they win very little championships. You’ve got to have a good team. I remember when Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka said to the team, ‘The good news is we’ll get to the Super Bowl in three years. The bad news is that half of you guys won’t be here to see it.’ I’ve got people that I have brought in because they want to be here long term. They want to make a difference.
Has hiring been difficult recently?
Yes, but for me, it’s always going to be a challenge because I don’t just hire anybody. When you hire an employee in this business, in hospitality — whether it’s for a wedding venue, a restaurant or catering — you have to find the person that is the 51 percenter. Those are the people whose greatest pleasure in life is making other people happy. … I can teach anyone the technical stuff, like how to open a cork on a bottle, but I can’t teach them how to be kind.
Why integrate automation into the new restaurant?
We were really intrigued by a customer-driven experience and thought an automated ordering kiosk on the inside and at the drive-thru does that. … We wanted technology to be prevalent, because it symbolizes our modern take on things — being sort of cutting edge and innovative. From a back-of-house perspective, one of the most expensive things for a hospitality business are labor costs. Labor costs are getting higher every day and finding the right workers is becoming more difficult. Using the automated order system in the restaurant and drive-thru allows the people in the back to focus on making the food. We still do have someone out here ready to take your order, if that’s what you prefer. But the new system is almost entertainment for a lot of customers, especially younger ones. We see our Millennial audience walk in intuitively and start swiping away. It’s a bit of a risk and we did have a 70-year-old woman who came in here the other day, and she said, ‘I need a human.’
Like I said, we always have a human right here at the counter too. From a business standpoint, the automated system really is going to help us manage our inventory. It’s all connected, so we know if we’re selling more of one dish than we thought and we can shift the order for the inventory. We’re wasting less food because our operation is driven by real data in real time. So from an efficiency standpoint, the automated system is a really smart move.
Do you plan to open another Sprig?
I 1 million percent will open more of these if this thing takes off like I think it will. We will see how the next three or four months go, but I say yes. We definitely plan to open more. We definitely could go down towards University Village and over on Academy [Boulevard] somewhere. I also would look down south near downtown on Nevada Avenue as well.
What about expanding outside of the Springs?
I think there’s enough percentage of people in the Springs who are gluten free, vegan or whatever to support a few more Sprigs. We are supposed to be the largest city in the state eventually. But we have talked about other cities outside of Colorado. In the major metro areas, there’s already a lot of concepts that are not us but similar. We’ve looked at some second-tier markets that are similar to the profile of Colorado Springs. Those are the types of cities we might possibly consider in the future.
What advice do you have for someone opening his or her first restaurant?
I would say there’s wisdom in the multitude of counselors. Don’t ever think you will have all the answers yourself. Some people in the restaurant industry want it to be their way or the highway and they’re not open to criticism, but that doesn’t really work in my experience. I always tell people I’m limited in my set of talents. … You have to go into a project understanding there’s a lot of challenges and tasks to overcome and to go find those people who can help you achieve what you have set out to do.