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Posted: March 01, 2012

Cote’s Colorado: Pancakes, soup and street talk

A "Power Lunch" with the governor’s chief of staff and an upstart restaurateur who hires the homeless

Mike Cote

Letting your lunch partners pick the restaurant usually means little more than trusting them to pick a place with great food. So when Roxane White — Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff — chose the original Snooze in Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood we figured that’s just where she liked to plot strategy over a cup of soup.

To kick off "Power Lunch," a new ColoradoBiz TV interview series, we asked White to choose the locale. White chose Snooze, arguably the hippest breakfast place in town and now six restaurants strong, because she shares with founder Jon Schlegel a passion for helping the homeless.

Back when Schlegel and his brother, Adam, opened Snooze at Park Avenue and Larimer Street in 2006, the area north of LoDo was a destination point primarily for those who had no particular place to go.

"Most of my brokers looked at me like, ‘That is the worst location for a restaurant. You’re an idiot. What are you doing going down to this neighborhood?’" Schlegel said while nestled in a booth with White, sipping a macchiato. "I needed someone to give me a shot."

Schlegel was able to rustle up enough financing, including a small loan from the city’s Office of Economic Development, to open in the corner building he had chosen after five years of developing the restaurant concept and scouting locations. For the first two years, he lived in an apartment above the restaurant.

And he got to know his neighbors.

"We have this store in the Streets of SouthGlenn, and our big anchor tenants down there are Whole Foods and Macy’s. I joke that in the neighborhood up here my anchor tenants are the Rescue Mission and the Samaritan Shelter," Schlegel says. "That’s the draw toward this whole neighborhood."

A few months after opening Snooze, Schlegel walked over to the Denver Rescue Mission to find recruits to work as dishwashers. Within minutes, he was staring at a line of a dozen people and began assigning them shifts. Some of the workers have come and gone quickly, but a few have stayed as long as two or three years, he says.

"As I was struggling to make sure this operation was working, I would have this guy next to me, and I’d be thinking, ‘This guy just got off the streets, man. I have nothing to worry about. My stresses are not a big deal,’" says Schlegel, who also has hired workers through Urban Peaks, a nonprofit that helps homeless and runaway youth. (White previously served as its president.)

White has long worked on homelessness issues both in San Francisco and in Denver – where she oversaw Denver’s Road Home plan to end homelessness in 10 years.

"When we first started working on Denver’s Road Home, one of the obstacles we were having was homeless people couldn’t get jobs. Snooze was a leader in coming forward and saying, ‘We are located by shelters and by places where people are having to live on the streets, and we would like to provide a job for somebody.’"

And providing jobs to such workers comes with risks.

"Not only did they provide a job and work experience, but when the person relapsed and went back to the streets, they told him, ‘You still have a job; you’re still expected to show up for work,’ White says. "They worked over and over and over on not just contributing money but living the vision that you can help someone return to work."

White, who took in a teenager when he was 15 and is now watching him work through his second year of college, knows firsthand the effort it takes to make such arrangements work and the benefits it brings when someone is able to turn their life around and find a path. "As I have foster kids, I’ve tried to model that same thing of how do you live out that vision that you can do more to help someone," she says.

Just idle chatter over pancakes and soup at a trendy lunch spot. Watch the complete four-part interview with White and Schlegel at cobizmag.com.

 

Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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