story

7 Denver Restaurant Families You Need to Know

Meet the clans behind some of the city's greatest hits
April 24, 2017
·
by Ruth Tobias

Whether they run an empire or a neighborhood storefront, these restaurant families have done it together — and they've got some stories to tell about their struggles and successes alike.

The Osei-Fordwuos of African Grill & Bar
Born in Ghana and raised in Nigeria, Theodora Osei-Fordwuo has been cooking since she was seven; with two working parents and five siblings, she says, “I didn’t really have a choice.” But when she had a chance to pursue it her way, she and her husband-partner Sylvester Osei-Fordwuo spent years making financial sacrifices so she could one day run her own kitchen. Now it's a Green Valley Ranch favorite where their kids help out on weekends. At 16, Nana Efia Serwa works as a server (“She’s so mature,” Theodora observes proudly), as younger sister Maame Antwiwaa answers phones and nine-year-old brother, Oheneba, busses tables and washes dishes. And it all came together through determination and faith, says Theodora. “We decided, ‘We’ll take the risk, take the challenge and trust in God.’” (Check out some of their specialties here.) 

18601 Green Valley Ranch Blvd., Ste. 101; 303-375-7835

The Zoes of Zoe Ma Ma
The name says it all: Edwin Zoe’s mother Anna is not just the eponymous head chef of his beloved Chinese kitchens in Boulder and LoDo, she’s their heart and soul. As Edwin explains it, when his father died, he convinced Anna to move to Colorado from Missouri on one condition: “I thought it would be good for her to have a project. Otherwise, I would become her project,” he jokes. That the venture would be a restaurant was only natural — she'd run one before. “It’s very common for immigrant families to work in the restaurant industry, and we were no exception,” says Edwin, who admits that as a teen he helped out at his parents’ establishment only while “kicking and screaming.” This time, though, he was fully invested, encouraging his mother to forego Americanized fare in favor of Taiwanese home cooking. Fast-forward seven years, and there’s no stopping her, he laughs: “She works 12 hours a day, seven days a week to make sure everything lives up to her high Chinese-mother standards.” (That includes the scallion pancakes you can order off-menu at slow times, by the way.)

2010 10th St., Boulder, 303-545-6262; 1625 Wynkoop St., 303-545-6262

The Monettes of Flagstaff House
At any given time, you may find as many as 13 members of the Monette family, spanning three generations, on the job at this fine-dining destination in Boulder. “It’s in our blood,” says GM Scott Monette, whose father Don purchased Flagstaff House in 1971 and raised his kids — including Scott and Mark, the executive chef — right next door. Now many of the grandkids work there on and off too, with Mark’s son Adam serving as dining-room manager. Granted, such closeness wasn’t inevitable. Scott, who worked in hotel management before returning to the restaurant, admits jokingly that it took time for he and his brother to "figure each other out." He says, "Our schooling was so different. Mine was human relations–oriented and he learned to throw plates at people in Europe.” But in time, “We learned to trust each other. He looks to me and I to him.” After all, Scott points out, they grew up taking chances together: “After school, we’d run over here, make ourselves bananas Foster and try to get out before anyone else showed up. We’re in middle school, and we’re firing up the rum.”

1138 Flagstaff Road, Boulder; 303-442-4640

The Heitmans of Cafe Jordano
After 26 years, Elisa Heitman’s Italian fixture in Lakewood is still going strong — so strong, in fact, that she’s about to relocate to a much larger space next door. Her success has as much to do with family ties as food. When the Neapolitan native and her ex husband first opened the restaurant they named for their son Jordan, Heitman says, “We were young. We had no money. We had no clue. The only reason we made it was because money was never the goal.” That showed in their homey approach to business. Heitman laughingly remembers how a four-year-old Jordan “would sit in a booth and draw, then go around to the customers and sell his drawings for a dollar.” As he got older, they installed a Nintendo in the kitchen to keep him occupied — and “he’d bring all the kids in the dining room to come back and play with him,” she says. “Some of those kids are in their 30s now and come here with their kids.” Jordan works the front of the house to this day (he's also a teacher). So do his 18-year-old brother Alex, his aunt Patrizia and his cousin Viviana. Still other employees are old family friends, and even Heitman’s ex is still there in spirit: Cafe Jordano’s most popular dish, chicken in wine-cream sauce with asparagus and cheese, is called Bob’s Favorite in his honor.

11068 W. Jewell Ave., Lakewood; 303-988-6863

The Nuñez and Lopez family of El Chingon
Many restaurateurs talk about the importance of community. Far fewer manage to cultivate it the way the El Chingon clan has. No matter how busy the dining room, owner Lorenzo Nuñez Jr. seems to know and have time for everyone in it. In turn, regulars often greet his mother Gloria, a familiar presence at the restaurant, as abuelita — much to the delight of her grandson, chef David Lopez (pictured with her). Nuñez traces such hospitality back to his father, a wholesaler of Mexican groceries for some 60 years: “At Christmas, my dad would bring other families to our home who perhaps weren’t in a position to celebrate. Sometimes he would bring random people off the street, literally. We had a small house in North Denver and there would be 30 of us packed in — but everyone was happy.” So when he and Lopez decided to open El Chingon, he says, “We wanted to share that culture. It’s about hugs and smiles as well as food.”  At the time, he was concerned about pulling his classically trained nephew away from a fine-dining career. But ultimately, he says, “We’re family, We’re joined at the hip in so many ways, and we have our moments where we clash, but I wouldn’t trade him for the most famous chef in the world.”

4326 Tennyson St.; 303-248-3641

The Barons of the U Baron Group
As the founder of Udi’s (today owned by Boulder Brands) and the bakery/cafe chain now known as Etai’s, Udi Baron is a local icon. But according to Udi’s son and co-CEO, Etai Baron, it was Udi’s brother who especially inspired the family business. During stints at their catering company in Israel, the Baron family spilled “much blood, sweat and tears” on a schedule that was “borderline insane," Etai recalls. "We frequently worked 24-hour shifts.” Still, his uncle "taught us a lot about hospitality, great food, hard work and dedication — lessons we carry with us daily.” In running their own wholesale and retail empire, father and son are joined by daughter Robin Baron, the executive chef, and head baker Maurizio Negrini — for whom the company bakery, Izzio, is named. Though they don’t share blood, Etai explains, “The level of trust and commitment between us is definitely familial.” Noting that there were times when “we would be screaming and yelling at each other in ways only family can,” he adds that now “we embrace the idea that our organization has multiple leaders,” who meet for breakfast nearly every day.

Etai's Cafe: multiple locations; Izzio Artisan Bakery at The Denver Central Market2669 Larimer St.

Brandon and Aaron Foster of Project Angel Heart and Cafe Terracotta
The Foster brothers don’t themselves own a restaurant — but they’re an integral part of the tight-knit family that is the local hospitality industry. From The Fourth Story to Adega to Fruition, Aaron’s résumé reads like a history of fine dining in Denver; today he serves as GM and wine director of Littleton staple Cafe Terracotta. Meanwhile, former Vesta chef Brandon now heads up the kitchen at Project Angel Heart, which delivers food to Coloradans in need with grave illnesses. But it’s a path he may never have traveled without Aaron, who got him his first gig at a Best Western in Summit County almost 20 years ago, when Brandon was struggling in college: “He said, ‘Hey, if you’re that miserable, you can come stay with me and I can probably give you a job bussing tables,’" Brandon recalls. "I packed a couple of bags and my skis and rode a Greyhound from Tucson to Silverthorne.” Not only did he like his new job, he fell in love too. “I forged my career and met my wife in the same place — and probably never would have done that if he hadn’t been there.” Now, there’s no better time to find them both in action: April 27 marks Project Angel Heart’s Dining Out for Life campaign, and Terracotta’s among the participating restaurants. (We suggest booking a table on its beautiful patio.)

Cafe Terracotta: 5649 S. Curtice St., Littleton; 303-794-6054

berkeley
boulder
lodo
littleton
lakewood
udi baron
project angel heart
green valley ranch
african grill
flagstaff house
cafe terracotta
el chingon
cafe jordano
zoe ma ma