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Sean Huggard of Humboldt Talks About the Last Year's Journey

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.

Adam Larkey

Taking over a space that once was a three decade old iconic establishment can be a task tough to tackle but Humboldt: Farm, Fish, Wine seems to have filled those shoes. Opening in the spot that was once Strings on 17th Street, the restaurant that is part of Concept Restaurants, is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month and it seems ready for many more to come.

The kitchen is run by chef DJ Nagle who, like operations manager Sean Huggard, is a seafood lover. Though the restaurant does not label itself a seafood restaurant, it does serve an expansive seafood selection, including oysters grown exclusively for Humboldt. Besides the seafood, the restaurant focuses on serving a menu that makes it a neighborhood eatery with items like the burger that just won Westword's best burger award. Eater talked to manager Sean Huggard about construction, pressures of opening in the former Strings spot, and more.

How did the concept of Humboldt come to be? The concept of Humboldt came about through trial and error of me writing menus and showing them to Frank Day and Kevin Brown and then them coming up with names of restaurants. This was going to be an Italian restaurant or a replica of one of the other restaurant or a Rialto Cafe. One of the most fun ideas was Ike's, which was going to be a New Orleans oyster bar kind of like a Jax. That is where we started to get clarity with seafood. I was a chef on the East coast so I have passion, to say the least, for all things that come out of the ocean. I think it was Frank’s wife who said, "I want a place that has oysters." We didn’t want to be Jax or compete against them, but we saw our niche in the market for seafood. Frank’s wife Gina is a sommelier, so she picks our wines here and she really wanted a place where she could shine. That's how the ‘wine’ part came into place. Once we hired DJ Nagle and the chef staff, the ‘farm’ part came in. We never set out to be a farm to table restaurant. Maybe we just weren't on the ball enough when we decided to be Humboldt: Farm, Fish, Wine to realize that everyone besides the group of us was going to consider us a farm to table restaurant since we put the word farm on the sign. That wasn't the point but it is how the concept came together. Once we landed on the concept, I had a very clear vision of what the experience of the restaurant would be like; what the servers were going to act like and talk like, what the restaurant was going to smell like, and how the menu was going to be. We had all that accomplished well before the name. It might have been Frank who was like we are on Humboldt, it’s a legendary building, and there were a lot of things attracting us to that market. It is like Madonna, it’s a one-word type of thing.

What did you change about the space? Kevin’s wife, Dianna Lynn, worked on the space. The day we signed the lease, we ripped out the mezzanine. It really compartmentalized the space and made it feel closed in and uncomfortable. That was a drastic change. It changed the energy in the place completely. We still get people coming in here being like, "Wow!" A lot of them can't pinpoint what we did; they think it is because of the lights. Besides the mezzanine, we kept the bones of the restaurant here. The kitchen was designed by a great chef 30 years ago and it is still kind of the same layout. The bar is the same bar that was originally there but we built this artistic piece above it to change the feel. What we ultimately ended up doing through the remodel was creating an experience of different energy levels throughout the space. We now have a bar area that Strings never had. In my mind, this is the bar which translates into the patio which is high energy and fun—it is no longer just a fine dining place. You can then float into this middle area which used to be like you were eating in a cage to now this second tier energy level where you are on a first date so you can talk but you can still see the bar and people can see you. That translates into the next dining experience which is the actual dining room where grandma is in town and you are taking mom and dad to dinner. Finally there is the atrium; it is a love it or hate it kind of deal. It is our indoor patio that is very New Orleans-style back-alley kind of feel.

What was it like opening up in the spot that was previously Strings? It was very nerve-wracking the first few weeks opening up because there were such high standards set. We thought about it a lot and the press talked about it a lot. I think people were already looking down upon us thinking oh what are they going to do to the legendary space that was once Strings. Internally we were thinking the same thing; what are we going to do? If it was just some space that had gone out of business you can do whatever you want but 30 years of business is a long time. This place was a landmark. I think we did a really good job by putting a really solid culinary team together, a really strong restaurant experienced team in the front of the house, and we didn't try to do things that were over our heads. I think we hit it on the head. We get a lot of Strings clientele in here and they feel comfortable and we get a lot of clientele who never knew that this was Strings. We wanted to open a restaurant that will be here for 30 years. We didn't want to be the next hottest spot in town. We wanted a restaurant that if it was comparable to Strings it would be because it was around for so long. I grew up on the East Coast and dining in Boston you see these restaurants that have been around for generation after generation and they keep up with the times but they are still great. A couple of the dishes that we had on our opening menu, Steak Diane, shrimp cocktail, and fried calamari were a must in my mind. I wanted them to be perfect and wanted to have them on our menu 30 years from now. We talked about that a lot when creating the concept here. What are the things we are going to do here that are going to be timeless and never go out? We took the shrimp cocktail off the menu but the other two are still on the menu.

Do you think people had any perceptions of the restaurant since it is part of Concept Restaurants? We don't do the greatest job promoting ourselves as a corporation or as Concept Restaurants in general so I don't think that most people know. I think that we put it in our hands of our individual operators or our general managers and the expectations from me, Kevin, and Frank is that they run the restaurants as if they own the restaurant. I think a lot of people meet the general manager and they assume that it is the owner of the restaurant. Frank and Kevin are not people who want people to know that they own restaurants. If you notice who is not in the room right now. They don't want to be written about; they don't want to be in the press. They just want to provide great restaurants that they know are putting out a great product.

What was opening day like? We had, and I have been involved in a lot of restaurant openings. This was one of the smoothest restaurant openings that I have ever witnessed—to the point where we kept thinking what is going to go wrong? I think it was because we were all on the same page, which doesn't always happen. If the chef has an idea of what something should look like versus the general manager and the ownership group is on a totally different page, things won’t run well. We all knew what the experience was supposed to be. I think people were working a ton. I think the chef actually lived here for three or four months, but I think it went really well.

How did the neighborhood respond to the change? People are already vested ahead of time especially in this type of neighborhood, which is different than opening a restaurant downtown. You get Jim who walks his dog every day who is fired up about coming in to eat and we can't disappoint Jim! It builds on this added pressure but it also helps us to be successful knowing that there are real people out there who want to make this their Cheers. We have to live up to them.

What does it mean to you to turn one? Mentally, it is a pretty big milestones because we have all taken the time now to think about it and can’t believe where the year has already gone. I think it is giving a lot of the team members that are still here from opening the time to reflect and look back on what we did; especially with having most of the original staff here. Yes, the opening was really great but we've had our ups and downs throughout the year and maybe getting off track with certain menu items or trying promotions that didn't work. It’s been great for us as a team to celebrate something and to look into the future. We can now say, "Wow, we did make it a year and it has been great. What did we do well? What haven’t we done well and how do we roll that into the future."

Speaking of that, anything you would have done differently in the past year? When you take over a 30 year old restaurant, you don't really know what you are getting yourself into. There were times this year where we had to close the restaurant for days at a time for construction issues we didn't know going in. For example, we had to tear up the entire floor to rip out all the old plumbing in the building three to four months after being open. Also, not too long ago we had to close the restaurant for a few to rip out the entire kitchen and remodel that. You can look back on things and laugh because a year ago you were opening and trying to hit budgets and things just didn't make the budget and you go back to them later on or not on purpose.

Could you explain how the menu gets built? We typically do the menu by me sending text messages to the chef sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. in the morning. A lot of times you get these great culinary experiences elsewhere and you realize you would be lucky if that is still a trend a year from now. So we restrain and remind ourselves to stay away from that and continue to cook classic flavor that people want through the season. Right now all I want to eat is some sort of pumpkin ravioli with brown butter and sage. Why? Because that is what I want to eat every fall for the rest of my life. It’s kind of like beets and goat cheese; people aren't going to get sick of beets and goat cheese ever I don't think. That is how the menu development happens. We change it seasonally, so it will change a minimum of four times a year. We also have the fresh eats daily special which list our oysters and the fish features of the day. That is a part of our concept and our culture and will never go away. That gives us the opportunity to play. We can be like, "Hey, I really want to cook this fish in Denver that no one has heard of. Can we try it?"  The answer is sure because we print those menus three four times a day sometimes. That is the evolution of the menu. We are being more inspired lately by trying to set ourselves apart in Denver by trying to do those favorite dishes that people want and come back for twice a week.

We have only been open a year and though it feel like an eternity it also is very little time when you are building regulars who are already coming back being like when are you going to put this back on the menu? Really it was on the menu last week and you are already asking for it back? Customer feedback at the end of the day is also a big part of the menu. As chefs, we really want to cook what we want to eat and that is tough when our team here, not just DJ, are all aspiring to be chefs or are great chefs from other restaurants who have come to work here. It is tough to refrain them some days. If your guests love the steak dish you are doing now just leave it; you don't need to change it.

What is your top selling item? Funny enough we have a burger restaurant in our restaurant group, and then we have Humboldt which serves a burger. The one here won Westword's best burger this year and is our number one selling item. I think it says a lot about who we are. We are a neighborhood restaurant. I think a lot of restaurants open and I am guilty of doing it in the past, and say they are opening a neighborhood restaurant. Wel,l whose neighborhood? Those prices are not neighborhood prices. Just because you say you are opening a neighborhood restaurant and you open in a per say neighborhood, I don’t think that entitles you to say you are a neighborhood place. Winning best burger and serving a great roast chicken and building bar regulars I think those are the type of things that start to build the fact that you can call yourself a neighborhood restaurant.

Humboldt has an oyster that is grown specifically for the restaurant, can you explain how that happened? My parents live down the street from an oyster farm. When we were opening up I emailed my dad a list of 20 oyster farms on the Cape and told him he needed to drop my card off at every one. My dad pulled up Washburn Island Oyster Farm in Falmouth Massachusetts and they nearly chased him off the property. Oyster farmers are very protective of their land. He dropped of my card and I got a call about an hour after he was at the farm from this guy who wanted to know why my dad was at the farm and who I was. It was the most awkward conversation I have had with someone from a farm. I explained who we were and that we were opening a restaurant in Denver and we wanted to be able to fly in oysters direct. We also had some specifics for how I wanted the oyster to be grown and where I wanted it to come from. His name is Todd Stressenger and he has become a great friend of mine. I have noticed that oyster eaters in Colorado like what is called a cocktail oyster or an oyster that is under two and half inches. A couple of good things about that is that the petite oysters are illegal in Massachusetts because of some old blue law. He was excited and began dedicating a portion of his farm to growing a special oyster for us. It is a super premium oyster. I may be biased but I think it’s one of the best oysters to come out of the Cape. The farm empties into a river and into a bay therefore creating brackish water which is great for growing oysters. There is a certain inlet in there that they grow these oysters and he only sells them to us.

What makes your seafood different than other seafood restaurants? I know we put seafood on the sign, but we were not like we are opening a seafood restaurant and let's wrap things in nautical rope and paint the walls blue. It turned out our chef is also from the East Coast and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two of us. We out-vote everyone when it comes to putting menu items on. If it comes down to choose between a new steak or a new fish, it is going to be a new fish. A lot of seafood restaurants are corporately owned. Maybe it is because we are in a land-locked state; these corporations present themselves as high-end seafood houses or steak houses and they therefore have to be a la carte expensive and so forth. Really good quality fish is not inexpensive by any means, but we try to do it and offer it with a value. We get a lot of comments from guests, "Oh my god we had sword fish Downtown and it is $45 and this is twice the size, what is different about this piece?" I say, "Well we are probably buying from the same person or if not we have a direct connection to it."

We try to do the seafood front-and-center and try not to load it up with heavy sauces or shrink the portions down and load it up with starch. For us, it is fish on a plate with sauce and a side of fresh vegetables. Besides the burger, those are our highest selling items—chose your own adventure. Swordfish tonight, with the lemon grass barbecue with the brussel sprouts. Maybe it is not as chef driven because you have control of what you are choosing but he is the one creating the sauce and the vegetables.

What are your future plans? We have a patio expansion going on that we are going to be leveling out the patio and then extending with a raised deck. We are thinking about live music. It will have a cover on it so it will be more like three seasons. Having the street side presence is great. We really wanted to make an investment in making this great patio even better. We are coming out with a new great happy hour menu that is going to more of a shareable small plate very inexpensive one, two, three dollar bites. Almost piggy backing on the old McCormick’s happy hour like a million years ago when that is all people used to talk about and pairing it with this old school martini program. That is an idea not solidified yet but it’s a thought.

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