John Hickenlooper, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Republican Cory Gardner, was an unemployed geologist when he got the idea of starting Colorado’s first brewpub in a run-down part of downtown that had yet to be nicknamed LoDo.
Hickenlooper and his partners opened the Wynkoop Brewing Company at 1634 18th Street in October 1988, a depressed period in Denver and a tough time to start anything new. But a dozen years later, the place had become such an institution that Hickenlooper contemplated going into politics — a move inspired by a campaign to save the Mile High Stadium name that had been cooked up at the Wynkoop. In 2002, when he decided to make a run for mayor, he talked it over with many community leaders who’d visited the ‘koop, including Pete Meersman, then the longtime head of the Colorado Restaurant Association.
Would the CRA be willing to endorse him? Hickenlooper asked.
“We’d endorse Stalin if he owned a restaurant,” Meersman replied.
Hickenlooper went on to become mayor, then a two-term governor of Colorado, then a presidential candidate, and now a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Meersman retired from the CRA in 2019, having left the CEO role to become the chief strategy officer in 2014, when Sonia Riggs became the president of the group. He was feted at last year’s CRA Hall of Fame dinner that included a video with a cameo appearance by Hickenlooper — telling the Stalin story.
(By the way, even though Lauren Boebert, the Republican running for the 3rd Congressional District, owns a restaurant in Rifle — Shooters Grill — the CRA says it is not endorsing candidates in this election. In fact, it’s been the organization’s policy to not endorse candidates for several years.)
Stalin has never owned a restaurant in Denver, but a few other politicians have. Then-Denver City Councilman John Silchia owned Grande Giovanni’s, a popular Italian joint at 575 St. Paul Street, in the early ’80s; it later became the home of the Irish Hound, then the Hound, and is now for lease. And current Denver City Council rep Amanda Sandoval grew up at La Casa de Tamales (now La Casita), the popular tamale shop started by her parents back in 1975, and where her father, political wheeler and dealer, often held court. “Many a great conversation took place and many tamales eaten in the back room of Paul’s restaurant,” remembered then-Governor Hickenlooper when after Paul Sandoval passed away in 2012. “While his family and friends were his passion, he loved a good political fight.”
Current Governor Jared Polis is certainly fighting to help restaurants as the winter months descend.
The State of Colorado, in partnership with the CRA, has teamed up with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation, American Council of Engineering Companies of Colorado, the American Institute of Architects Colorado and the Associated General Contractors of Colorado and other design and construction professionals in an effort to encourage the creation of additional outdoor dining spaces this winter, spaces that will expand capacity — and so increase a business’s chance of survival.
The Let’s Take This Outside program has two parts. One will be a grant program for restaurants; the details are still being worked out. But restaurateurs will have a chance to work on the first part: an all-day charrette/design workshop on October 19, kicked off by Polis, with other state and public officials (including Jill Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; Cathy Ritter, head of the Colorado Tourism Office; Betsy Markey, director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development), as well as architects, engineers, designers, restaurateurs and more. They’ll be divided into teams and charged with coming up with feasible ideas for outdoor dining during Colorado’s cold-weather months. Find out more about the project here.
And in the meantime, the CRA is hosting Let’s Take This Outside: Creative Solutions to Winter Outdoor Dining, on Wednesday, October 7. The third in a series of educational webinars for CRA members will address the issue of how restaurants can incorporate the outdoors into their cold-weather plans. Learn more here.