Vail-area eateries expand on national scale |

Vail-area eateries expand on national scale

NWS busy Larkburger KA 3-18-11

EAGLE COUNTY – For Jeff Kennedy and his partners, growth has been a pleasant surprise. For companies led by Adam Baker and Kevin Sloane, growth has been part of the plan all along. But these Vail Valley original companies are growing, even in an economic downturn.

Kennedy and partners Ben Gilbert and Mike Fernandez are the founding partners of Moe’s Original Bar-B-Que. That company, founded with one location in 2001, is now a chain of 18 stores, mostly in the south, but with a handful of Colorado stores, including in Vail and Eagle.

Baker and partners Thomas Salamunovich and Nancy Sweeney own Larkburger, an Edwards landmark. That company is set to open its fifth store in Colorado next month.

The Smiling Moose Deli got its start in the valley, too, although the central office is now in Boulder.

All three of these restaurant groups compete in the relatively new “fast casual” section of the market, which is defined by prices a bit higher than national burger chains and the use of higher-quality ingredients and, in many locations, the ability to enjoy an adult beverage with a meal.

Larkburger was a spinoff of the popular burger served at Vail’s Larkspur restaurant. Baker said it was Salumnovich’s idea to create a burger restaurant.

“We saw really strong success in Chipotle,” Baker said. “We liked their business model and loved their food.

“That model makes sense because you can control your output quicker, be more accessible and have a lower price point. And we can serve food we feel really good about.”

And it’s the food that’s fueling these restaurants’ success.

For Kennedy and his partners – all Alabama natives – Moe’s started out with a smoker and some down-home recipes. Moe’s quickly gained a following in Vail and then at summer-only locations in Edwards and then Eagle-Vail. The surprise came when the partners would head south.

“Our barbecue was better than anything we could get there,” Kennedy said.

So a plan was born. While Moe’s has locations in Denver and Fort Collins, most are in the south, starting with Birmingham, Ala.

Sloane has moved around quite a bit but returned to the Vail Valley after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Not long after moving back, he founded the Smiling Moose, known for its “Mighty Mo” sandwich.

Kennedy said he doesn’t like to call Moe’s a “franchise” operation – “So far, it’s friends and family who have been involved,” he said. But in the Moe’s model, the food is made the same way everywhere, but the owners put their own touches on their restaurants, so every location is different.

What Moe’s growth did require, though, was a standard contract.

“After a while, you can’t just operate on a handshake with everybody,” he said.

The Larkburger model so far is more tightly controlled, since Baker and his partners own all of the stores. That means only minor differences among the locations.

And, Baker said, the stores have been pretty successful, despite the lingering economic slump.

“We’ve been fine,” Baker said. “We don’t know anything different. And this segment of the restaurant world has fared pretty well.”

While the models are different, all three restaurants are still expanding and evolving. Sloane said the Smiling Moose in lower downtown Denver has gone with a somewhat more upscale look and has added custom-made “chopped salads” to the menu, something that’s bringing in more female customers.

Sloane said he’s just signed a deal to put three Smiling Moose stores in Dallas, which will bring the total number of restaurants to 22, split just about evenly between company-owned stores and those sold to franchisees.

Baker and his partners have plans to open a couple of stores this year and another couple in 2012.

“We want to keep growing until it doesn’t make sense any more,” Baker said. “But our ambition is to continue to grow – we like what we do.”

Love of the business is fueling Moe’s, too.

“It’s been a fun ride so far,” Kennedy said. “We’ve had interest from all over the country – there’s no telling how far it will go.

“It’s all about the people. We’re going to do four more stores this year, so we’ll see how it goes.”

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