Magazine Feature / People

‘Snooze’ is a quiet success

If the story of the Denver breakfast restaurant Snooze were to be made into a Hollywood movie, the studio synopsis might read like this:

“Three DU fraternity brothers find meaning in marmalade, creating an over-easy, hash-brown ‘breakfast experience’ that turns pancakes and eggs Benedict into culinary magic.
“The film will star Nicolas Cage as Jon Schlegel, a 1997 HRTM graduate and varsity soccer player. After eight years of building a breakfast menu, enduring 23 bank rejections and 16 failed bids to land an investor, Schlegel finally opens his restaurant in a nondescript building across from a homeless shelter. The place is wildly successful.
“Starring Adam Sandler as Jon Schlegel’s brother Adam, the 1999 Daniels undergrad of the year and a former high-powered business consultant who gave up globe-trotting to be a breakfast business strategist with his brother.
“Featuring Seth Rogan as Scott Bermingham, a former DU lacrosse player and Frisbee golfer, who became Snooze’s fresh-local-foods-and-everything-needs-to-be-homemade chef.
“And, in a star-making turn, Jessica Alba as Brianna Borin, a spring 2009 HRTM graduate who becomes Snooze’s assistant general manager 10 days after getting her BSBA degree and only weeks before Snooze opens its second 100-something-seat restaurant.
“With cameo appearances by Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who are frequent fixtures at Snooze. Extras include the 450 or so restaurant guests who show up daily to dine in a casual, hip, artistic décor described as ‘Happy Days meets The Jetsons.’”

The jury is still out on Snooze’s film prospects, but as its third anniversary as a restaurant passed on April 2, prospects for business success appeared solid.

“In the last eight months we’ve tripled volume,” says Bermingham, Snooze’s chef. “And we don’t advertise; it’s all pretty much word of mouth.”

The Lodo eatery’s popularity has grown so steadily that about mid-summer Snooze will open a second location—at Colorado Boulevard between Seventh and Eighth avenues—in a building formerly occupied by a Boston Market.

The new Snooze will be similar to its parent restaurant at Larimer Street and Park Avenue West, but with a kid’s menu and the expectation of attracting families from the Cherry Creek, Hilltop and Mayfair neighborhoods.

“I don’t think it’ll be too far off,” says Jon Schlegel, who is still hammering out details. “They’re all coming for the same product, a great breakfast experience in a comfortable place.”

Which is what makes the original Snooze sizzle for the “loft kids” and “artsy folks” who inhabit the Ballpark neighborhood that surrounds the original eatery.

“During the week, I have families, pregnant women, power brokers,” Schlegel says. “5280 [magazine] just voted us the best deal-maker breakfast joint.”

That distinction could have something to do with Snooze’s pineapple upside down pancakes, steak and eggs benedict and molasses-infused challah French toast, among other exotic breakfast creations. Snooze also features organic coffee from their own producer in Guatemala, in-house jelly and English muffins, local baked goods, funky hollandaise and every recipe made from scratch.

Not bad for a kid from Littleton, who bused tables at 13 years old and cooked his way through high school in the food court at Southwest Plaza mall.

“Now I can pair a sauvignon blanc with the right kind of fish. But I started off flipping quarter pounders,” Schlegel laughs.

Schlegel’s first dream was to play soccer for Pepperdine, but he ended up staying in Denver when DU offered a better scholarship. He graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s in hotel, restaurant and tourism management after four years of soccer and fraternity life at Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

Among Schlegel’s fraternity brothers was his real brother, Adam, two years younger, and Bermingham. While Jon Schlegel was diving into the food and beverage business, brother Adam was pursuing business. Eventually, their paths converged.

“My old job was building telecommunications systems for people who’d never see them and never care,” Adam Schlegel says. “I don’t even like mobile technology. Now I give people pancakes and They. Are. Thrilled!”

Bermingham picked up cooking skills on the road after graduating from DU. Eventually he enrolled at the Cook Street School of Fine Cooking and honed his craft at Potager, a fine-dining restaurant in Denver.

“I loved DU. I had a great time there,” says Bermingham, who has managed to integrate his environmental studies degree with cooking by way of seasonal foods and urban garden concepts, which he now teaches in urban gardens around Denver.

The breakfast amigos still consider the DU campus home, exercising at the Ritchie Center, attending hockey and lacrosse games, and traversing the green for summer Frisbee golf outings.

Jon Schlegel also visits HRTM every quarter as a guest lecturer to share ideas he’s gleaned through food and beverage experiences at Hyatt Hotels, Café Japengo in Las Vegas, the Denver Chop House, Rock Bottom Breweries and Sushi Den.

At the heart of his message is what he says is the key to running a business: leadership and management.

“The secret to being a good leader is to go to the people who are doing the real work and say, ‘How can I make this better? Here are the issues we have; is there a way we can help solve it?’ Don’t separate manager and employee,” Schlegel says.

Borin, who will be Schlegel’s new assistant general manager in June and who already works at Snooze part time, sees Schlegel put his advice to work.

“It’s hard to blend a manager and a leader and hard to find someone who can do both,” she says. “He’s very proud of what he’s created and he should be. He has created a phenomenal business. He’s very open to others’ opinions . . .  and very, very open to what people have to say.”

Customers get the same consideration. Schlegel calls that “giving them a pickle,” or going out of the way to provide a high level of service.

When a customer asked for starfruit with their breakfast, Schlegel sent Borin to the grocery store so the unusual request could be fulfilled. When a patron’s cab was late, Schlegel had an employee take them to the airport.

“As the owner of the restaurant, I drive the concept,” Schlegel says. “But I’m one person. One person can’t feed 450 people. It takes a team to be able to do that . . . and a lot of personalities.”

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