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Mainline Turns One In Fort Collins: Lessons Learned

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Fort Collins, nicknamed the Napa Valley of beers, is more known for its brews than its restaurant scene, but new restaurants are challenging that idea. Places like the Colorado Room, a farm-to-table restaurant, or the third outpost of the Kitchen are giving diners new options and bars like Social show that the cocktail scene is on the rise.

Among the additions to the town's dining scene is Mainline, a restaurant that opened a year ago at 125 S College Avenue. The from-scratch food and chef-driven menu, as well as the wide beer selection would not give away the fact that the spot is owned by the Breckenridge-Wynkoop group. The kitchen is led by chef Justin Burdick, the opening sous-chef, while the front of the house is the domain Brooks Gordon, the opening general manager. Gordon chatted with Eater about the last twelve months, adjustments made, lessons learned, and more.

What do you remember about the first week of opening? The most interesting thing we dealt with was all the construction going on. It was a miracle that we pulled off the opening when we did. We put our opening date off by two days. We worked hand-in-hand with the construction teams to get the restaurant up, and we also worked to clean up behind them. And there was still periodical work during the night. After a busy day, you'd come in the next morning and the construction crew might've sanded down something — we have a resin top bar that needed a bunch of sanding. So we'd come in and have to wipe all the dust off of everything and reset it. That went on for a couple days, and to open the day we did was incredible. If you would've walked in the restaurant at 7 a.m. and known that we were trying to open the doors by five, you would've thought we were crazy. But we just had a great staff and everyone pitched in to get everything cleaned up and ready for opening: from the president of the company all the way down. And it was quite a busy opening.

Was there any one thing that went totally haywire on the first day of being open?I actually think that all of the opening stuff went very well. Besides all of the scrambling behind the scenes with the construction and cleaning, the opening itself went very well. The first few weeks, we definitely confused some of our guests because we were running two separate menus. We have a two story restaurant that seats about 420 people. We call the upstairs the Treehouse, and the downstairs is called the MainLine. They aren't separate titles; that's just what we call the upstairs. And we had a more whimsical, kind of fun menu up there. There were items between the two menus, but there were also items specific to each, and that definitely confused a people for the first few weeks to a month that we were open. We've since made the change after listening to guest feedback, and we now run the same menu both upstairs and down.

What are some of the adjustments you've made since you opened? The menus were probably the biggest change that needed to be made after we opened. We saw more of a bar scene on the upstairs, so we put together more hors d'oeuvres-driven menu. As I mentioned, that just ended up confusing people, so we quickly adjusted and made sure that we could offer both menus no matter where you sat.

What was the reception from the Fort Collins community. It has been very good. We have done a lot with the community. I've lived in Fort Collins since 1998 and have been a member of the restaurant community here for about 12 years. We've done fundraisers, joined non-profits, and other things like that. Recently, we just donated 250 desserts to Kristi's House, a joint venture through Habitat for Humanity to help raise money for a housing building.

What about press reception, what were some of the reviews that you have received? We've received good reviews. The local paper has been very good to us. A few of the local bloggers that have been in have done nothing but talk well about us. Most recently our brunch has received some great press.

Were there any major surprises or setbacks that you can recall from this first year? I think one of the things that surprised us a little bit was that the Old Town area was a little bit more seasonal than we first anticipated. It can be somewhat more event-driven, so you can have a really, really big week that can be followed up by a quieter week. I wouldn't say it was a setback, but it was something we had to understand and learn how to prepare for. Now we're a year in and we know what to expect from those really big, event-driven weekends.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment or something that you are most proud of from the last year? The reception that we have been receiving from our guests. It has been great to get some of those regular customers that we were looking for. We've created regular customers not only on the bar side of things, but also on the dining side, with people that keep up with our specials. We're a chef-driven, from-scratch restaurant, so it's interesting to see the people that walk in the door and then go, "What's the special tonight? This is what I want." They're looking to be able to find something that's not on our standard menu because they know that the chef has done a good job creating the specials nightly and weekly. The restaurant also sets itself up very well. We've got quite a few different areas that can be rented out, and guests can even rent the whole upstairs if they want to. We've seen quite a few of corporate parties, and we've had great success with holiday parties for some of the local business, as well as with Colorado State University. When your boss is buying, it's a little bit funner. You're gonna buy a little nicer glass of bourbon and you're gonna eat a little more food. I really enjoy having those people come in during an event-driven situation, and then watching them return and say that they really loved the place and wanted to come back. We've done a really good job of being able to host everything from wedding receptions to, like I said, corporate Christmas parties and things like that. And it's all been a real blast.

Since you opened, some of your staff exited; how did that affect the restaurant? I think it is pretty common in the restaurant business to do a little bit of over-hiring in the beginning. Within the first six months or so, people kind of weed themselves out, so to speak. Now we're down to a really great core staff of employees, both in the back of the house as well as the front of the house. The kitchen and the front have great communication. We have an employee council made up of peer-nominated employees that meet once a month to go over things like menu changes. For example, we have a new menu change coming up for the fall, so the chef was sitting in with us this past month and kind of going over the changes and getting feedback from the servers, the bartenders, and the hosts to see what they've got. Then the chef also gives us feedback on what could be done to make things easier or what certain things should look like. He's been very receptive to listening to that and making changes.

Have your guests developed any favorites on the menu? Oh yeah. We have a 50/50 burger that is half ground beef and half bacon. It's great, and it is one of our number one sellers. Also, some of our dishes that we opened with have either gone away or changed. We went from a pork chop that we were serving to a pork tenderloin. We went from a fresh market fish to a blackened ahi. And a lot of that is based on guest feedback that we hear from either the bartenders, or the servers, or directly from the guests themselves. It's a southern driven menu, so that can be a little confusing to guests sometimes, but once you talk them into chicken or waffles or a shrimp and grits, often they have it end up being happy about it.

What about the cocktail menu and beer selection: How have those evolved? Considering we are owned by Breckenridge-Wynkoop, I think a lot of the community thought we were just going to try and stick to those beers. We run 24 beers on tap, six or seven of which are Breckenridge-Wynkoop beers. But of course, we had to give a nod to all the craft brewers in our area. We were once small breweries, so we definitely like to help those that need a leg up. However, we also have mainline beers, as we call them, like 5 Barrel from Odell and Fat Tire from New Belgium. We saw those definitely selling, but we also saw a niche that we could fill with more specialty beers, like the Lips of Faith beers that New Belgium sends out. It might be a little more costly, but our guests really like it. We've added some rotators to those items so we can get these short brewed series of beers and offer them to our guests. It's gotten our breweries excited because they're happy to come in and advertise new beers, and we are able to put them on and see some great return. What's also exciting is being able to team up with the smaller breweries, put them on tap, and try and do rotating beers and all that. We have staples, but its nice to be able to play around with six or seven handles. One might just always be a Black Bottle Brewery handle, but we're rotating beers through there as they bring in different seasonal items.

Our cocktail program is great. I know that cocktails on tap have probably been a relatively common thing down in Denver, but we were actually one of the first to actually do that in Fort Collins. We currently run three. A Full Monty, which is vodka-based with a Marie Brizard peach, some campari, and finished with a mint soda. A Mainline Hooch, which is bourbon-based with an orange marmalade shrub and finished with a tea. And then we rotate one. Currently we've done a lot with Spring 44 vodka out of Loveland. We're running a Spring 44 fizz with their gin right now. More than anything, right now we've seen a huge drive on our Moscow mule. We do three different kinds. We do a standard Moscow mule using Sobieski. We also have an American mule using Tito's, and then as a nod to CSU, we do a Ram using Spring 44. My bar manager's wife works at a restaurant nearby, and she says that they have seen this huge surge in people wanting mules. I think that rise is because we have been able to introduce it as well as we have. We've been able to make it a little more mainstream. I think the cocktail program has really been able to help bring in more guests. Like with the beer, we're seeing people come in and want to try some of the specialty cocktails that we are doing along with some good old classics.

What are you guys planning for the next year? Well, there's the new menu coming out. We've got some live music every Thursday night now, and we're having fun with that. We're getting a better and better crowd and finding better and better bands to come in. We have bands that are now approaching us because they are hearing from their peers how fun it is to play there and things like that. We've had success with brunch. I think now, moving forward, we're focusing on our marketing plan and trying to really tap into the Fort Collins market, seeing what we can do to continue to be part of the community and grow with everybody there.

If you were to tell guests one thing about the MainLine that they didn't know, what would it be?That it's casual, it's approachable, it's fun. I think there are times when the restaurant looks a little bit fancy when you walk in downstairs through the front door. We had wine glasses that we'd put out on the tables for every setting, and we've sort of taken those off at lunch since we've realized that people are walking by in Tevas, and shorts, and things like that, sticking their head in the door and going, "Uh oh!" So we kinda removed that. We put our servers into some nice logo t-shirts instead of the long-sleeve oxfords that we had on before that. We're giving it that little bit of a push towards a relaxed environment. Bring your kids in. We've got a great kids menu: fresh fruits, veggies, and things like that. We're seeing it become a little more casual and that's what we want because it's a casual kind of town.

Mainline is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. For reservations, call 970.449.5601.

· Mainline Is Now Dishing and Pouring in Fort Collins [EDen]
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125 S College Ave, Fort Collins, CO 80525