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Cote’s Colorado: Smoking through the recession

On a warm Saturday in February, a lunch crowd builds at The Rib House in Longmont’s Prospect neighborhood. The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin” wafts through the dining room, and the scent of smoked meat hangs in the air. Tucked away several blocks from U.S. 287 in the “new urbanism” development, the Kansas City-style barbecue joint has become a local destination.

Tracy Webb would say “international.” When the restaurant is open you can usually find the bearded barbecue evangelist greeting customers from behind the counter as he has for the past eight years. Webb, who operates the restaurant and catering business with his wife, Merry Ann (“merry” like Christmas), tells stories about business executives flying by private jet from Minneapolis to indulge in a slab of dry-rubbed pork ribs with beans, slaw and mashers on the side. And he notes the many foreign languages scrawled in the Rib House guest book by patrons who heard about the restaurant from a magazine, TV show or through word of mouth.

The Rib House may not be ready to go global, but the Webbs are about to take the plunge with a second restaurant in April, when they plan to bring their barbecue to the upscale One Boulder Plaza development in downtown Boulder. Boosted by a loan from the Small Business Administration, they’re going to take over a 5,600-square-foot space that seats more than 200 people inside and as many as 80 outdoors – altogether nearly a third more than the Longmont location can hold. And for the first time, they’ll be using wait staff and operating a full-service bar.

An Italian restaurant, Prima, failed in the One Boulder Plaza locale, and the space has been vacant for a year. But Tracy Webb is confident he and his wife will succeed. “Five years ago when they built One Boulder Plaza, they built it for the Rib House. They just didn’t know it yet,” the 56-year-old Kansas City native says. He and his wife, who have lived in Colorado for 20 years, had long careers with auto dealerships before making their love of cooking their business. “You had better be good to go to downtown Boulder, but we have a reputation that stretches across the world.”

Restaurants have a notoriously high failure rate, and the sagging economy prompted Colorado to shed 2,400 restaurant jobs last year. So why expand now? “You don’t notice a recession in Boulder,” says Webb, whose new restaurant will be just a block away from the tourist-heavy Pearl Street pedestrian mall. “Boulder eats out. I don’t care if it’s a Monday afternoon at 2, a Wednesday at dinner time — those popular restaurants are jamming with people.”

The restaurant trade remains as volatile as ever —  even downtown Boulder isn’t immune; the Orchid Pavilion Chinese restaurant closed in January after 20 years — but that hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs from opening new eateries. Oskar Blues, a brew pub in Lyons, is scheduled to open a new restaurant in Longmont in April or May. Restaurateur John Davis made headlines in the Sunday Denver Post in February for opening three new restaurants in the shells of three that failed in Parker.

The Webbs first started thinking about coming to Boulder last summer, when they spotted an empty restaurant in the Twenty Ninth Street shopping center formerly occupied by the Railyard, one of three restaurants and nightclubs that have failed in the development since the successor to Crossroads Mall opened in late 2006. Webb inquired with mall owner Macerich about taking over the space and was surprised by how affordable it was.

But while the Webbs were contemplating the offer, a leasing agent from the Reynolds Group heard about it and invited them to see what One Boulder Plaza had to offer. The Webbs fell in love with the space and expected to close on it last month. They’ve been able to negotiate with vendors for good prices on equipment. 

“Now’s the time for entrepreneurs. It’s time to get people to make deals,” Webb says. “You need to take advantage of this stuff. It isn’t always going to be like this.”

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Mike Cote

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

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