A first-time customer approaches the counter at Coquette’s Bistro & Bakery, a hint of incredulity in her voice when she asks, “Is everything gluten free?”
“All of it,” Michelle Marx, one half of the restaurant’s mother-daughter owner team, answers. “Every bit.”
Michelle and her daughter, Turu Marx, have answered that question on a near-daily basis since opening the 100 percent gluten-free restaurant 10 years ago, but they never grow tired of the gratitude that usually follows.
“We just have a lot of people with intolerances for multiple things, and they know we care and try to cater the best we can,” Turu said. “They know we’re going to do our best to make sure they get the experience they’re looking for.
“We do a service for people,” she added. “It’s not been an easy road, but it’s definitely been worth it.”
In 2009, when the Marx women were looking to open a crêperie in a 750-square-foot space in Manitou Springs, the phrase “gluten free” was only uttered in hushed tones on the culinary circuit. But a recent illness meant gluten products were out of the question for Michelle, which complicated the process of cultivating a menu.
“Once we started, Turu and I got diligent about finding a flour that we could at least test the products with, and then we said, ‘This is so good — let’s just use it for everything,’” Michelle said.
The women quickly realized they had filled a void most in the community hadn’t even known existed. Ten years and two locations later, customers now drive from all over Colorado — and often beyond — to visit the sprawling 6,700-square-foot building at 616 S. Tejon St.
“We realized we needed a forever home that was expandable, and this was it,” Michelle said. “We decided we would really invest in this community and show our customers some love and really expand.”
The latest location — a deteriorating, vacant eye clinic that the Marxes renovated — maintains a cozy, tucked-away ambiance despite its proximity to the city’s bustling downtown streets. But calming vibes aside, customers with specific dietary needs are typically overjoyed to have their pick of anything on the menu, rather than the pared-down selection of gluten-free products offered at other establishments.
“The basis of what makes [Coquette’s] so popular is, we said, ‘You know, let’s normalize this,’ because if you have a gluten problem and you’re with family members who don’t, they don’t want to hear ‘gluten free,’” Michelle said. “So we said, ‘Let’s have a varied menu — not just a piece of chicken and a salad.’
“I think it’s an important point that we are really not just gluten-free people,” she added. “We’re just a really good restaurant, and we’re gluten free and allergen sensitive.”
Coquette’s also has expanded its services since moving to the South Tejon location two years ago, adding a retail section where customers can purchase their own ingredients such as 2-pound bags of gluten-free flour, and two rooms that can be rented out for business meetings or social gatherings.
Customers can now book events through Gather, an app available on Coquette’s website, and the Marx women will soon launch online retail and baking services as well. Additionally, they are working on an elevated dinner menu to enhance the dining experience.
“Even though we’re 10 years old, we’re still always thinking and growing and adding something for our customers,” Michelle said. “We’re just not static people — we like change. We don’t change enough to be disturbing, but we look at what the trends are.”
That practice of tracking their customers’ evolving needs is what has kept Coquette’s afloat for the last decade, she said.
“These are things that people are asking us about that we now can provide,” Michelle said. “You have to constantly maintain a high standard, which we do. … I think that really paying attention to the customer, trying to keep good employees happy, being part of the community — these are all components of what keeps you alive and thriving.”
Not a day goes by that Michelle and Turu don’t field customer requests to open a restaurant in other parts of the state — or even the country. While they haven’t ruled out establishing a smaller footprint in Boulder or Denver, hopefully leading to the licensing of their products, Coquette’s is here to stay on South Tejon Street.
“We bought this building, and we transformed it when nothing was going on around us. It was pretty dead over here,” Michelle said. “And now we are in the middle of a huge growth spurt for this neighborhood. We feel it’s important to be an anchor for that.”