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The Magic Formula Behind the Ten Year Old Snooze

A Denver-grown institution, Snooze got its start in Ballpark and quickly became a phenomenon

Snooze Ballpark
Snooze Ballpark
Adam Larkey

Adam and Jon Schlegel opened Snooze, an A.M. Eatery at 22nd and Larimer Street in April, 2006. The neighborhood was quiet at best, the Schlegels had no breakfast experience, and the initial idea almost broke them. Snooze was first open starting at 2 a.m., to serve the late night crowds and industry professionals a warm meal after a night of work or partying. Those plans were quickly scrapped by the brothers who, at the time, lived upstairs from their first restaurant. The bright morning venue grew into something of a phenomenon very quickly.

Today, there are three Denver outposts with an extra four in the surrounding area. Seven others opened in California, Arizona, and Texas, with four additional ones presently in the works. Eater sat down with Adam to discuss Snooze's evolution to a trendsetting chain, their signature style, upcoming restaurants and what keeps the lines long at the breakfast house.

How did Snooze come to be? It was my brother's idea. He had the restaurant knowledge and experience he had worked at Sushi Den for a number of years and restaurants all around the city. It was this thought of how does he do something in a business he actually loves and still try to figure out a way to live a life?

So the story goes: he's in bed, wakes, up hits the snooze alarm, goes back to bed; hits the snooze alarm again, goes back to bed and on the third time he hits it he's like hmm, that's a really interesting word. Let me think it over.

Did the name or the idea of morning strike a chord? The breakfast idea did. He was traveling a lot, spending a lot of time in Chicago and a number of areas that have forward thinking breakfast places. Living back here in a Denver, this idea of breakfast startied to grow as actually something that can happen in our city. But it took years for the concept to become reality.

Years of snoozing? Exactly. Five years of snoozing, getting rejected by banks, getting rejected by investors, having spaces and suddenly then getting the rug pulled out. 
We get rejected because we had nothing. We had nothing, no money, no collateral, no job with long experience on it.

And then it finally happened? Thankfully. We opened it on April 2, 2006. There's a loft above it my brother and I lived above in the loft for the first six months. He got married he and his wife lived there for another year.

Was it an immediate blockbuster? Not at all. I hear a lot of people who want to open up a business now and are bewildered that they don't have lines the first day they open. It took us well over a year to accomplish that. We had no idea if it ever would or not but we kept grinding and trying our best. We would open and we would close. We'd try to bring staff in only when we really needed them to keep our cost down. It was not at all automatic success.

What clicked? Where did the lines come from? We never did traditional marketing, we never did any of those things. But Jon and I lived, ate, breathed Snooze. We're big community activists; it was that involvement that was suddenly like let's figure out how to talk to the Downtown Denver partnership. Let's have them in for breakfast. Let's sit down and have those discussions and let's get to know the neighborhood. We started to get a little bit of press recognition - some good, some bad. And we started to fill seats on a consistent basis. We loved it that some people made us their spot, where they held court on a morning into the afternoon. We wanted that kind of individual emotional investment. We were becoming part of the community.

There are legions of Snooze believers now, who drank the Snooze magic potion, the Snooze kool-aid. How did that happen? There is a magnetic energy to certain places and certain areas. Years into our business, I moved Australia so [when] I came back a whole year later, I had less of a bias. I looked at it more objectively and that made even me wonder what is the deal with it? Everyone is so happy. If there is a secret, any secret, is the people who are there, who work there, who cook there, they are happy. It makes the place feel happy too.

How do you sprinkle happiness on a business? We brought a lot of great people in it and it continued to ripple. It is that adage of parents who instill values in their kids but at the same instance you can't really direct where they are. You can try to direct it all but you can't really control it. You want to do enough good things for the whole thing to take the right path but it isn't something you can force. One of our biggest things was talking to people, making sure they understood hospitality, and that they understood caring. Also, the message has always been just be yourself. Be as much of who you want to be.

We're very limited on rules and guidelines and those elements of traditional breakfast.
We think that it is bigger than business. Jon and I never woke up every morning like oh yeah, I want to make some pancakes! But Jon is like I want to give a guest a great experience. I'm like I want to change the world! We have the opportunity from a pancake house - how cool is that?

Many of our people feel like our restaurants fulfill their passions for a variety of reasons, including our constant encouragement for community involvement. They also feel like they can grow with us, they can be themselves, and let down their guard. Let their freak flag fly.

How do you build teams in which people stay for a long time? Some of the traditional things like wanting to be heard and to know that they can make a difference is really at the core of it. I'm a finance person so I do think about the numbers and these elements. I know what the cost is. I know it is worth it to invest in people from the get-go. The people who have been serving for 7 years are going to give you a phenomenal service experience.

People work more for a place and for passion rather than drive. That's something Jon and I really believe... it was never about money. This is experience. We are creating something and how lucky are we that we learned to open up a restaurant, open up a lot of restaurants.

When did you guys expand and how? We opened up on Colorado in July of 2009, three and a half years later. We had been looking for a while but were picky about what we wanted. It seemed like it was very close to the Ballpark but a totally different world. That restaurant has been on a wait at least some part of each day since it has been open.

I sometimes drive by: It's 11 on a Wednesday morning, it's raining, and there's a line outside Snooze. How did that happen? That particular location, the exposure to thousands of cars, to basically three ...almost four different neighborhoods, that matters. Just driving down, when you see throngs of people waiting outside, that's a wonderful billboard. That spot is such a good mish-mash of so many different areas.

Then what happened? Then we grew. Fort Collins. Boulder. San Diego. Over time, things made more sense. Locations made sense for who we are, what we think Snooze is, the kinds of communities we think our idea fit into. We got an investment group to support us and had a chance to step back a lot.

So what's the Snooze day to day or week to week work like for you now? We're definitely less day-to-day now... we're both on the board and see Snooze locations all the time. We're constantly interacting and doing it ,but we're not running the books. I don't know who runs our accounts payable right now. It is in a way blissful.

I help to shepherd our community into sustainable efforts. I like that aspect a lot. The people who support that are amazing. It is part of what makes them stay, why they want to be with Snooze.

What's next for Snooze? We have four restaurants opening in four months. One is on the verge of opening in Austin and there is one more to go there. There's one in Houston and one in Orange County also coming up. People are busy. By the end of the summer, we plan to have more than 1,000 people working for Snooze. It's amazing. Our hope is that we're in some really great areas where our brand fits well in the community. That always is the challenge to find meaningful places that we can have a background community and feel great.

Did you and Jon ever sit together, 2 in the morning, and say "we're going big"? We probably did in our own way, we probably won't remember those conversations. We might've had it the other night. But we always wanted to grow it and always thought that it if it was done right, it was something we could fold in and do more. For me, the best part has been watching what a positive force business can be in doing good. I never would have envisioned how many great people there are or who have changed our lives. I never would've envisioned that a pancake shop could give away a half a million dollars in a year in charitable contributions, donations, time, everything. I think we're one of the more sustainable restaurants to come out. I never would've thought we would've made the friends in the business industry and area that are really peers and mentors. It's been a crazy ten years and we are super excited for more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Snooze Eatery

3435 Del Mar Heights Rd Ste D3, San Diego, CA 92130 (858) 703-5300 Visit Website