Fancy food goes mainstream
FRISCO – Top-rated chef David Welch has served up incredible culinary dreams, but his latest feat benefits the average Joe.During his eight-year position as Keystone Ranch’s executive chef, Welch enjoyed plenty of fame. The Ranch won the Zagat survey’s No. 1 award for the last three years, and Welch cooked on channel 9, flew from Florida to Mexico City to represent Keystone in international food gatherings and earned chef of the year from Colorado Hotel and Lodging and Colorado Mountain College’s apprentice program.Welch began as a dishwasher at the Keystone Lodge in 1978. He skied 195 days a year, and throughout the seasons, he learned to cook through informal apprenticeships.But as he climbed the culinary ladder, he longed to provide excellent food to Summit County locals. After 26 years of living in the community, he wanted to watch his friends and neighbors eat up his cooking rather than just serving wealthy tourists he never met again.Doug Schwartz shared a similar dream. Schwartz started as a line cook at Keystone Lodge in 1977. Later, the pair worked together at the Ski Tip Lodge.Twenty years ago, they daydreamed about starting their own restaurant.Thursday, they opened the doors to a small ma and pa café in Frisco called Food Hedz World Café.Cuisine for the average ski bumThe café, located between Safeway and Wal-Mart in Frisco, serves breakfast and lunch. Though the prices appeal to the average Joe, the cuisine is anything but average.Welch serves micro greens cut and immediately overnight expressed from San Diego. He tops the greens with ahi tuna delivered overnight to Summit County from Hawaii.His roast blue corn – which he makes Atole French toast from – comes from Mexico, as do the chilies to spice other dishes.He obtains his food from the highest end sources worldwide, which top-notch chefs deal with, he said. He collected his food sources from the years he spent at the Ranch; in fact, many sought him out because of his status.
“It’s still the same culinary influence and the same sourcing as I used at the Ranch,” Welch said about the cuisine at Food Hedz.Only it’s a fraction of the price. Breakfast ranges from $5.25-$6.25 (beignets are $4.25 and fresh bakery is even cheaper). Lunch ranges from $3.50 for a cup of homemade soup to $8.95 for the Kokopelli club. The blackboard menu changes almost daily, offering specials from Thai cuisine to down-home cooking.”I owe it to the county to cook for them,” Welch said. “I want to welcome people back and know how people like their French toast. One of the biggest reasons I’m doing this is to give back to the community and provide good culinary service.”Trading dreams of Porsches for eggsPeople ask Welch why he left a cushy corporate job to cook eggs.He smiles and says this year he spent his first Thanksgiving day off in 26 years – though he admits he spent half of the day feeling guilty because everyone he knew worked an 18 hour day beginning at 5 a.m.And he admits he’ll miss the glamour of flying truffles in from France. Plus he’ll take an approximately 30 percent pay cut and lose corporate benefits.”Doug and I aren’t in this to drive Porsches around and make millions,” Welch said. “We’re doing it to cook good food in a cool space.”The risk of entrepreneurismAfter five start-ups, Schwartz still doesn’t have complete confidence.His first small business, a rotisserie chicken company called Back Street Chicken, almost landed him in a back street alley; he lost every penny of his savings. After the failure in the mid 1980s, he moved back to Summit County with a $50,000 debt.”Any entrepreneur will tell you it’s an absolute roller coaster,” Schwartz said. “But you need to live your dreams. I’ve learned as much from failure as I have from success. You can turn your life around even when you think you can’t.”
After returning to Summit County, he and Welch created the concept of a four-course bed and breakfast atmosphere at the Ski Tip Lodge. Later he started the Breckenridge Coffee Company. In 1993, he got fed up with cooks not showing up for their shifts on powder days, so he decided to create the Culinary Institute at Keystone.”We were trying to compete in a worldwide market without a staff,” Schwartz said.The institute helped fill chef positions with students attending the three-year program. The school teaches about 30 students at a time, providing them with a certified cook level from the American Culinary Federation.In 2000, Schwartz left to open Mi Zuppa in Breckenridge because he wanted to be self-employed and eliminate as many of the negative aspects of the restaurant business – like late nights – as possible.”I wanted to cook, but I also wanted quality of life,” he said.He opened Mi Zuppa in Frisco in 2002, then sold the concept. Now there are six Mi Zuppa stores between Vail and Denver.For the last three months, Welch and Schwartz have done almost everything – from tile to electrical work – themselves to open Food Hedz.”It’s the most I’ve been pushed in my career, from opening a café to the creativity to the building to the pricing,” Welch said. “I’m using every single tool I’ve ever been taught and learning new ones as I go.”In fact, Welch just learned that a pastry comb textures walls as well as it spreads butter cream.When the pair bought the space, which used to be a Mexican restaurant, Welch’s sister – whom holds a Master’s in Fine Art, walked in and said, “Oh no.” So she developed color charts to give the café a Mediterranean and southwestern feel with rusty oranges and blues.Antique tables from Mexico, a rustic bench from Santa Fe, N.M., a hand-painted sideboard from India and faux-painted chairs add to the welcoming atmosphere.”For two guys who have been in the business for 25 years, it was an absolute push to open the restaurant,” Schwartz said. “You need to be on top of every single little thing.”He says distributors take advantage of people who don’t know enough. For example, a stove’s list price may be $10,000, and a dealer will offer it for $9,000. But the real price a restaurant owner should pay is $6,000. The same goes with food, such as prime rib. If owners can’t answer the question, “What kind?” dealers will rip them off.
Can they make it financially?By blending a fine dining influence with affordable breakfast and lunch entrees, the chefs are entering somewhat uncharted territory, Schwartz said.”We could serve the same thing for dinner and charge $12, and no one would blink,” he said. “But there’s only so much people will pay for breakfast and lunch. I don’t know of anyone in Colorado who’s trying to do what we’re doing at this price point.”The chefs plan to pull it off by being smart and using what they’ve learned from experience.For instance, a pound of basil from a source in Denver costs $7, while a freshly clipped pound from California costs $8 and lasts four days longer, Welch said.Welch and Schwartz also are careful to keep business costs down. Schwartz takes care of the accounting and legalities and does everything possible before calling a lawyer or accountant – who will charge him to answer questions.The pair will work from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week and close on Sunday. A minimal staff – a full-time cashier, a part-time cashier and a full-time dishwasher – will do the rest of the work.In January, the owners will reevaluate the menu and the price.”The people will tell us what they’re willing to spend on lunch,” Schwartz said.In the meantime, Welch and Schwartz plan to focus on their passion: Cooking unique dishes with the freshest ingredients.”My whole life revolves around food,” Welch said. “These fingers are going to take care of the cooking, and they’re highly skilled.” Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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