Staying Power: Formulas for Survival in North Denver

By Kathryn White, Editor

When Eef at Dubbel Dutch pitched the story to me, I was busy putting together one of the fall issues of the newspaper. I tucked the idea away for another time.

We hear a lot about businesses that are gone, Eef said. But what about the ones that have survived? She’d just marked her 20th year in business, selling sandwiches, salads and Dutch groceries out of her small shop on Lowell Boulevard near West 50th Street.

The question nagged at me. What does it take? Every day I walk by businesses with papered-over windows or handwritten signs in windows sharing stories of unexpected expenses or mechanical issues. In the time since I first spoke with Eef, Enigma Bazaar, Denver Bread Company, Oasis Brewing Company, Pizza Alley, Pizzeria Locale and Roberta’s Chocolates have closed.

Sign posted on the door at Pizza Alley, Feb. 5, 3499 W. 32nd Ave. Photo by Kathryn White 

Perhaps because this mighty little community newspaper is itself a struggling small business, Eef’s innocent and celebratory idea operated in me like a haunting. If I pounded the pavement asking longtime business owners about their winning formulas, would I find a hidden gem for The Denver North Star’s own survival?

The day I went back to visit Eef, I waited in line behind a retired couple who had driven across town from Aurora to visit their favorite North Denver spots: coffee at Dubbel Dutch, Ragin’ Hog BBQ for lunch, then take-home treats from a bakery farther north.

“I’m very stubborn,” Eef said. She molded the business around her personal needs, setting hours that made room for getting her son to school and back. She has a good relationship with her landlord and a loyal following for her niche product line of Dutch goods. 

“You look the same!” a customer said, smiling at Eef, closing the door behind her as she stepped inside. The former Regis student had been a regular and couldn’t wait to come back for her favorite sandwich as she was passing through town.

Owners Todd Bunting and Jake Weber, Seafood Landing, 3457 W. 32nd Ave. Photo by Kathryn White

This year, Seafood Landing on West 32nd Avenue marks its 50th anniversary. Todd Bunting and Jake Weber worked for the business, and nearby businesses, before taking over in 2018.

“It’s probably 50/50 between customer service and the products,” said Weber about the fresh seafood business’s formula for longevity. 

“For us,” Weber continued, “it’s making sure that everything we put in the case is the best ever. Whether it’s for our regular customers who are coming in once a week, once every two weeks for a nice fish meal, or for the people that come in for special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries. The holidays are always a good one for us.”

“Patience, persistence,” added Bunting. “Every day we see somebody who just moved from one of the coasts. When they go to the grocery store, they’re unhappy with their options for seafood. So they seek us out. It’s our job to do our level best to provide that confidence, that what they just spent money on will provide satisfaction.”

Owner John Ludwig, Carl’s Pizza, 3812 W. 38th Ave. Photo by Kathryn White 

Carl’s Pizza on West 38th Avenue has been around over 70 years, serving up its classic menu of Italian sandwiches, dinner plates and pizza.

“Well, we put out a great product,” said owner John Ludwig, who started at Carl’s as a delivery driver in 1976, at 16 years old. 

“We try to keep the prices reasonable, for the neighborhood,” said Ludwig. “A good work ethic. We open every day, seven days a week.”

Tamales by La Casita, 3561 Tejon St. Photo by Kathryn White

Tamales by La Casita at West 36th Avenue and Tejon Street celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“Making sure you keep the quality of your product consistent,” owner Paula Sandoval said, but not before sharing about the financial pressures on a small business. She ran through a list that included increasing property taxes, the ripple-out impact of higher wages and the cost of implementing a new statewide ban on plastic foam packaging.

“This isn’t a fancy place, it feels homey to our customers. And familiar, especially to people who have lived in the neighborhood a long time,” Sandoval said. “Even if they move away, they come back.”

“I want people to be able to afford to come in here, but still have a really good meal,” she added.

Bienvenidos Food Bank opened not long after Tamales by La Casita in 1975. It’s one of the oldest food pantries in the country.

“We have incredible support from the North Denver community,” said Executive Director Greg Pratt. “The majority of our funding comes from individual donations from people who live in the North Denver area.”

Pratt also cited the importance of support from churches, neighborhood associations and businesses from Leprino Foods to neighborhood coffee shops.

“Of course, our bottom line is serving our community,” Pratt said. “That’s a changing demographic, especially as North Denver has been gentrified. Right now, all of a sudden, we’re serving hundreds, thousands, of migrant families. At the same time, we’re still available to those who need help who are living in this neighborhood. There are people still living here who are on the margins.”

The Historic Elitch Theatre, which opened for its first summer shows in 1891, served as the last stop on my quest for secrets to longevity in North Denver. 

I sat with volunteer board President Greg Rowley in some of the earliest seats built for the theatre’s audiences. It was cold and drafty, but he agreed to meet at the theatre during its off season. And he was expecting guests from Dazzle, who wanted to take a look at the stage and talk about a partnership for this summer.

“Our foundation got started 20 years ago to restore the building,” said Rowley, who lives three blocks away. “It really was entirely because of neighborhood interest, neighborhood people who wanted their neighborhood to thrive.”

Rowley spoke about the Elitch Gardens amusement park’s move downtown in 1994 and concerns about what would appear in its place on the block of West 38th between Tennyson and Wolff streets.

The late Dennis Gallagher, a City Council member at the time, helped neighbors obtain a historic landmark designation for the theatre building. Developers who had shown interest in the property balked at the idea of keeping the theatre and nearby carousel shell standing.

Eventually, a developer who had been an usher at the theatre in the 1970s, Chuck Perry, took an interest. 

“He’s a Denver guy,” Rowley said. “And he loves this theater and loves the history of it. In fact, this big lawn out front, the lawn that connects the theater to the carousel, that was Chuck’s doing. Any other developer would have said, ‘That’s 20 homes I could stick in there.’ But Chuck wanted community space. He wanted space that highlighted the theater and the history of it.”

“It’s always been about neighborhood support,” Rowley added. “Even today, we estimate that for a summer movie, 50% of the people who come walk here.”

With many renovations accomplished, and the COVD-19 pandemic subsided enough to allow for performances, Rowley looks forward to the theatre’s next season as a cultural hub in the neighborhood for tours, films and performances from May through October.

In the end, my quest did yield a few answers.

The people I spoke with talked about adapting to change, focusing on customers and a quality product, and leaning on and partnering with other small businesses. 

They all seemed to remember names and faces, and greet everyone who came through their doors, including the postal carrier, by name.

Some had a Plan B. 

I didn’t ask how close to the edge they were. I was afraid of the answer.

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