Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on restaurants, it hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs like Mitch Yellen and Jason Wallenta from proceeding with plans for innovative food and beverage ventures in downtown Colorado Springs.
Yellen is preparing to open three new downtown properties this year: multi-venue operations at 616 S. Tejon St. and 104 S. Tejon St., and South Side Social at Wahsatch Avenue and Rio Grande Street, a model similar to his North Side Social.
Wallenta, who also operates Dos Santos in Denver and in the Trolley Building at 524 S. Tejon St., will soon launch a second location of his Denver restaurant White Pie Pizzeria at 330 S. Nevada Ave.
“Yes, it’s a challenging time,” said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership, “but folks who have been in this industry, that are really committed to it, know now is the time to plan for the better times ahead.”
Besides Yellen’s and Wallenta’s ventures, Edmondson said she expects at least five more food and beverage businesses to open in downtown Colorado Springs this year. They include:
- City Works Eatery, 19 N. Tejon St., a food hall with two bars, nine food vendors, and a vintage motorcycle museum;
- Mash Mechanix Brewing, opening March 5 at 421 E. Pikes Peak Ave.;
- Homa, a craft café and bar on the ground floor of boutique hotel Kinship Landing, 415 S. Nevada Ave.;
- Red Swing Brewery, 521 S. Tejon St.; and
- The Garden, a beer garden at South Nevada Avenue and Costilla Street.
“And we absolutely have other inquiries,” Edmondson said. “Many people feel when we’re through all this, the pent-up desire to go out among friends again, have great food and a great drink, is going to be stronger than ever.”
The new ventures will add sophisticated concepts to Downtown that cater to the tastes of residents who are moving into luxury apartment complexes like Blue Dot Place and The Mae On Cascade.
It’s no coincidence that most of these venues are opening in the southeast quadrant of Downtown, where more new housing is being developed.
The New South End is “a little bit funkier, a little more eclectic, so that means there’s more opportunity for folks to come in and do something amazing,” Edmondson said. “I really predict that where you may see the most physical difference in downtown in the next three years is actually going to be that southeast quadrant.”
Yellen’s two multi-venue ventures will feature unique concepts from plant-based haute cuisine to a jazz-age speakeasy.
Yellen, founder and manager of Altitude Hospitality Group, plans to open a second location of Garden of the Gods Market and Café at 616 S. Tejon St. — the former site of Coquette’s Bistro and Bakery, which closed in September.
Yellen’s market is set to open Feb. 1; the café will follow March 4, and Garden of the Gods Market’s original location at 420 S. 26th St. will reopen Feb. 1.
“When we first opened, we had a lot more items,” Yellen said. “We’ve brought on new chefs, and we’re going back to the original formula.” That includes preparation of more than 100 items per day, including fresh-baked breads and pastry, and prepared foods — soups, salads and lasagna.
Till Kitchen, a Napa, California-style, farm-to-table restaurant, will open for dinner in the front of the building, Yellen said.
Till will share the seating that will serve Garden of the Gods Café’s breakfast and lunch diners, but the two restaurants will have separate kitchens.
Till originally opened in north Colorado Springs in an enormous, 18,000-square-foot building, and closed Jan. 1, 2020. Six weeks later, Yellen opened North Side Social at that location.
“The building was too big [for Till],” Yellen said. “The seating capacity was 340 people. Colorado Springs wasn’t ready for a restaurant that large.”
The new venue, with 120 seats will be just right, he said.
The back of the building will house two venues that focus on fine beverages — Vine and Wheel, and Blind Lark.
Yellen describes Vine and Wheel as “a chic, upscale design with a wine wall with 100 wines,” which will be served along with meats, cheeses and a few tapas.
He is bringing in a frommelier and sommelier to choose the cheeses and wines, along with a Coravin wine preservation system.
“I’m a red wine drinker and my wife likes sauvignon blanc,” he said. Usually, “we’d have to buy two bottles.” But with the technologically advanced Coravin system, “you can tap into the cork, pour a glass, and you don’t have to drink the rest of the bottle.”
Vine and Wheel patrons will sink into comfortable couches and enjoy live music. Hours will be 3-10 p.m. during the week and will be extended on weekends.
The ambiance at Blind Lark, a speakeasy with specialty cocktails, fine bourbons and a small menu, will be more mischievous.
Blind Lark is named for the Colorado state bird but also evokes having fun times, and references the speakeasies of the 1930s, Yellen said. Those Prohibition-era nightclubs were also known as blind pigs or blind tigers — a coded name patrons would use to refer to places that served alcohol.
“The cool thing is that there will be no advertising and no sign on the building,” Yellen said. “You have to be invited in. Like a jazz club, it will have a door in the alley.”
Patrons will take an elevator down to a library lobby. They’ll have to locate a book titled “Blind Lark” that they’ll pull out to gain entry to the club.
Yellen projects a March 20 opening date for Till Kitchen. Vine and Wheel is expected to open May 25, and Blind Lark will open its door — to those who know how to find it — starting Sept. 15.
Yellen will also be reopening Sprig, his “enlightened eats” restaurant, in a new spot downtown. Sprig closed its doors at a leased site off Voyager Parkway — which Yellen described as “not a good location” — in July 2020.
Sprig will share Yellen’s building at 104 S. Tejon St. with two other concepts: The Roost Coffee House and Bakery, and a pizza restaurant tentatively called Serious Pie, which will serve New York-style pizza.
He expects Sprig to open May 15.
South Side Social — the Downtown version of Yellen’s North Side Social — will house pickleball courts, golf simulators, shuffleboard courts and ping pong tables, lots of TVs and other family activities inside, and putting greens outside.
“We don’t have anything downtown like this,” Yellen said.
Altitude Hospitality Group also operates The Pinery at the Hill, Garden of the Gods Catering & Events, and Altitude Floral Design. Yellen also owns Taylor Fence Co. at 601 S. Wahsatch Ave., which was the first business he bought in Colorado Springs when he and his wife moved here from California 20 years ago.
Among all his companies, Yellen said he employs more than 300 people.
“We’re trying to make a difference,” he said. “My desire is to continue to grow and provide jobs. I am proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far, and we have faith in the future.”
White Pie Pizzeria will be Jason Wallenta’s fourth Colorado restaurant. His company, the Elan Group, consists of Wallenta, his brother, Kris, and Jason’s wife, Riley.
Wallenta and his brother also own two restaurants in Cozumel, Mexico. They plan to open White Pie in mid-to-late February.
The star of White Pie’s menu will be the handcrafted, thin-crust, New Haven, Connecticut-style pizza that the brothers enjoyed as kids.
New Haven is home to pizza places that produce “arguably the best pizza in the world,” Wallenta said. “We grew up going to those joints literally every weekend with our father. So we’re obsessed with pizza. We have a starter dough that we feed and nurture every day. Nobody in town makes it the way we do.”
White Pie also will serve Sicilian square pies. Burgers, appetizers and other family-oriented items will round out the menu.
Wallenta and his wife moved to Colorado Springs in early 2018, planning to stay a year or two.
“I’ve just fallen in love with the town, and we’re never going back to Denver,” he said.
Wallenta chose the New South End for his new venture after a citywide search. No other neighborhood resonated.
“It’s going to be a really cool, hip, fun area of town where you could go out anytime and have quality meals and quality experiences,” he said. “I just think that this town is going through a renaissance period, and we wanted to be here for the beginning and be part of it.”
Wallenta said all of his restaurants are “neighborhood joints.”
He expects White Pie to attract residents of nearby apartments like Blue Dot Place that are within walking distance, as well as families from farther away.
When fully open, the restaurant will seat about 70 people inside. Wallenta expects the 100-seat outdoor patio — a former parking lot — to be popular with a younger crowd.
“It has great views and tons of sunlight,” he said. In summer, the fenced-in patio will be landscaped.
“If I was 20-something, it would be my favorite place to go to hang out,” he said.
Wallenta said he realized that “it couldn’t be worse timing to open up a restaurant. … Dos Santos has been shut down twice this past year.
“But at the pizzeria, we have these new overhead heaters we’ve installed and we’ll have three fireplaces. We have the infrastructure for our patio to be warm for our guests, so we’re rolling with it,” he said.
While he would like to open at 100 percent capacity, he expects to be able to serve at 25-50 percent capacity when the restaurant opens.
“I feel like it’s a blessing in a way,” he said. “It gives us a chance to ease into our businesses and helps our staff learn everything better. In the end, it will make our business run stronger.”