BY MONICA PARPAL STOCKBRIDGE
Unless you live or work in Denver’s River North Arts District (also known as RiNo), you may not have noticed the H.H. Tammen building — a former curio shop and Native American crafts store that operated during the mid-1900s. After standing vacant for years, the building was renovated, refurbished and reopened in September as Denver Central Market, breathing new life into the former manufacturing hub of the city.
Over the past several years, Denver has been steadily building its reputation as a sophisticated and seasoned foodie destination. In particular, RiNo and other neighborhoods north of downtown have seen a revitalization of new businesses, residences, arts and entertainment. Part of this renaissance includes the introduction of gourmet food and retail markets and food halls, a national trend reflecting European-style open-air markets and food emporiums. Concepts like Oakland’s Rockridge Market Hall and Grand Central Market in Los Angeles (which will celebrate 100 years in 2017), Manhattan’s EATaly (with more than three dozen locations worldwide), and Chicago’s recently opened Latin food hall, Latinicity (by Richard Sandoval), are just a handful of national market hall spaces gaining ground around the country.
Before Denver Central Market opened, the modern food hall concept had taken hold in just a handful of distinct places in the Mile High City: The Source, built in a renovated foundry in RiNo, offers a mix of retail and restaurant spaces, a central bar, and upstairs office spaces. The Highlands’ Avanti serves as a modern food court and restaurant incubator. About seven concepts rent space in former shipping containers, aiming to refine their offerings, generate a following, and create a new style of dining in the city. The Stanley Marketplace is another example, currently opening in an expansive 140,000-square-foot space housing more than 50 businesses.
Denver Central Market, however, aims not to hatch new concepts or simply capitalize on a trend. Instead, owners Ken Wolf and chef Jeff Osaka sought to bring fundamental amenities to an under-served neighborhood. “I’d walk the neighborhood and found that, even just a few blocks away, there were no basic services around,” Osaka says.
Jeff Osaka’s first restaurant, Twelve, was open for six years in Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood — just a stone’s throw from RiNo. The neighborhood was largely a commercial and manufacturing hub for many years. But Wolf had purchased the H.H. Tammen building nearly two decades earlier and had that very space in mind when he and Osaka connected.
Indeed, the two harbored a shared vision of bringing a market hall concept to the neighborhood — a place where people could purchase fresh fish, butchered meats, bread and produce, as well as sit down for a drink or a bite to eat.
“To be a true marketplace rather than a food hall, we needed retail aspects. We wanted a produce department, a butcher shop, a fishmonger,” Osaka says. “We wanted to cover all bases.”
The first step was to reinvent the space. Wolf and Osaka updated the building with elegant floor tiles, modern seating and mid-century light fixtures to illuminate the original brick and wood beams in the ceilings and walls. They organized cooking, prep, and handwashing stations for nearly a dozen vendors while keeping the space open, airy and walkable. They conjured a combination of original elements and modern furnishings designed to evoke a bygone era, achieving a sense of stepping back in time without sacrificing any of the modern comforts we enjoy.
Osaka understood that when it came to leasing the space, they needed a group of vendors firmly grounded in the Denver food scene. Justin Brunson was a natural choice for artisan cheeses and cured meats with Culture Meat & Cheese. Etai Baron of Izzio Artisan Bakery (formerly Udi’s) would provide the market’s bakery addition. Green Seed produce shop and restaurant would sell whole fruits and veggies as well as plated salads and fresh juices. Neighboring Crema Coffee House was a natural choice for the market’s java spot, and homegrown High Point Creamery was chosen to churn gourmet ice cream. “The Market really speaks to what we love most about Denver: amazing food, collaboration, and community,” High Point Creamery owners Chad Stutz and Erika Thomas write on their online vendor page.
In a feat of organization and collaboration, all 11 vendors opened for business at the same time on September 25, 2016, each bringing something unique, high quality and memorable to the market. “We put out a great product, whether a cut of beef or an ice cream sandwich,” Osaka says. “We’re very proud to be who we are and proud of the product that we put out.”
Providing many different options under one roof has proven successful at places like Avanti, The Source, and even the recently revitalized Union Station. And while the people living and working in RiNo tend to be part of a younger demographic, “we get people of all ages in the market,” Osaka says. “Just today there were little kids here, and elderly people. It’s a progression throughout the day. And while we thought a lot of people would walk here, we see people driving from all parts of town — even from as far away as Castle Rock.
With a minimum five-year lease, the goal at Denver Central Market is to create longevity among its vendors. “We want people to come back again and again and know the butcher will be there, or chocolatier will be there,” Osaka says, adding that he and Wolf purposely designed the building to reflect its mid-1900’s origins. “We want to be around for a long time.”
Visiting Central Market is, for some, a daily or weekly ritual for a fresh cut of meat or a morning espresso. For others, it’s an occasional excursion, a place to experience the sights, sounds, and flavors that define Denver’s evolving personality. In the early morning, when the windows filter sunlight through a patina of an earlier time, it’s impossible not to wonder about the people who used to roam the hall, and the things they found here. Luckily, that element of discovery — as well as an age-old appreciation of good food and vibrant community — is alive and thriving in the new Denver Central Market.