Childhood friends Don Gragg and Scott and Brian Boyd have had one of the more surreal experiences running a Denver restaurant — their first — together.
The Rotary opened in 2018 at local food hall Avanti. For 18 months, it gained a loyal following, and then the pandemic shut down all indoor dining. As seating returned but capacity restrictions lingered, Gragg and the Boyd brothers tried to weather COVID-19 alongside six other food stalls in their building.
Then in January 2021, they finally opened The Rotary at its own brick-and-mortar location, within a small business district on Holly Street in Hilltop. And nearly a year later, on Dec. 15, the team was excited to debut a second neighborhood location in Louisville.
Just 15 days later, on Dec. 30, that restaurant was destroyed in the Marshall Fire.
“It was kind of the ideal situation to open up a place,” Scott Boyd said of The Rotary’s start three years ago inside a bustling food hall. “We went from the ideal scenario to borderline the absolute worst.”
On Thursday, Boyd returned to his Louisville restaurant.
“It’s brutal in there,” Boyd said, describing the blown-out windows and doors, burnt walls, burst pipes, water-logged and now frozen surfaces and smoke damage to what’s left of the equipment.
Still, he’s thankful: “We are insured, and we’re insured for business loss. And our staff should be (insured for) up to 60 days. Not that that’s long, but at least it’s long enough to help people until they find something else.”
The Rotary was one of seven businesses destroyed in Louisville and Superior and is just a small portion of the half-billion dollar destruction that’s currently estimated in the area.
While there’s no blueprint yet in place for cleaning up around 6,000 burned acres and rebuilding, Boyd says he’s hopeful that the restaurant will reopen eventually, just maybe in a different location.
“We still have essentially a 10-year lease there,” he explained. “My guess is the damage is so severe that they’re not going to be able to rebuild in time for that lease to remain relevant … . I think the ‘reopen’ in our minds is that we intend to reopen another location, ideally in Louisville.
“This is total speculation,” he added. “From my layman’s view, the building looks done.”
Speculation aside, it will be weeks, at least, before businesses like Boyd’s have more answers. As he and his co-owners assess the damage, they’re trying to divert employees and resources to the remaining Rotary location in Denver.
There they’ve been serving a steady, growing customer base over the past year with comforting rotisserie chicken thighs and pork shoulders, plus side dishes, salads, seasonal vegetables and meals for most dietary restrictions.
It’s a menu and a format that worked well pre-pandemic. As a business model now, it might be even smarter.
“We want to make really good, healthy food that you can have in a fast-casual environment,” Boyd said. “I personally believe (Gragg) is a rare talent with the food that he puts together. And just seeing the core following that we’ve built up, I’m not the only one who feels that way.”
Last week, Boyd said, The Rotary in Denver has experienced a small uptick in business. He’s happy for the support now and hopes to turn first-time visitors into lifetime customers. And The Rotary is still on track for growth, he promises.
“If (people) come in this week or next week or three weeks from now, we’re elated,” Boyd said.
“If you want to come in and sit down with family or friends and have a glass of wine or a beer and chat for awhile, you can. If you want to go on our app and just click ‘reorder’ for curbside, you can do that. We just want to be as flexible as possible.”
About the chef: After growing up in Denver, Don Gragg became an opening chef at some of the city’s most quintessential restaurants: Barolo Grill and Mel’s (since closed). He moved on to work across the country and world, from Chez Panisse in Berkeley to New York’s Gramercy Tavern, and, more recently, as a personal chef in France. Gragg brings a mix of his experiences to his Denver restaurant, The Rotary, which revolves around Brazilian churrasco grilled meats and vegetables and sauces. The restaurant is fast-casual with an emphasis on healthful meal options.
If you go: The Rotary is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily at 217 S. Holly St. Expect to pay around $14-$20 for a meal (one protein and two side dishes). For more information, call 303-537-5327 or visit therotaryeats.com.
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