At first glance Alex Seidel doesn't look like the kind of chef who runs one of Denver's longest standing high-end restaurants. With blond hair and a constant sunny smile, the Wisconsin-born chef has more of a laid-back surfer vibe that fits in with his latest concept, Roca's Pizza & Pasta, and Chook, the fast-casual charcoal rotisserie chicken chain he's slowly growing. Yet it all makes sense after talking with Seidel about his mini-chicken empire and the new Italian-American eatery he opened in Lakewood, a suburb of Denver.
The path the chef took started with the lauded Fruition restaurant that he opened in central Denver in February of 2007. Then he opened Mercantile Dining & Provisions at Union Station in September of 2014, followed in December of 2018 with the first Chook, which debuted in Denver’s Washington Park neighborhood.
Seidel also had a farm where he made his own dairy products, among other items, called Fruition Farms, but he sold it in 2021.
On April 7, 2022, Seidel welcomed diners to Roca's, a true neighborhood spot that took over a 35-year-old pizza joint called Frontroom Pizza. Now the space taps into Seidel's love of made-from-scratch foods and local ingredients, and churns out fresh pasta, seasonal vegetables and, of course, pizza.
Why did you decide to open a pizza joint?
I grew up in a small town — Racine, Wis. There were like 90,000 people there. My family ate at Wells Brothers, Dino's, DeRango's, Mike & Angelo's, Brusha’s Club, and I know I'm missing a couple. We ate a lot of pizza, and I feel like I grew up in a pizza mecca. Even my first cooking job was in a trattoria. Then I moved to Portland, Ore., and worked in Italian food. I thought I would be in Italian restaurants my whole life. That's why pasta is always on my menu.
So why was Fruition, a decidedly not Italian spot, your first restaurant?
I had kind of moved on. Italian food is a very direct cuisine and I was in a place as a chef where I wanted more creativity. Also, I liked the seasonality of products and using different techniques. I could do pasta in that environment without making it a focus. We used to always have two pastas, a carbonara and agnolotti.
Fruition is also more of a fine dining spot, right?
I know Fruition is known as fine dining, but it is not fine dining. I hate that word, "fine dining." I left Mizuna [restaurateur Frank Bonanno's French-Asian restaurant in Denver], which I think is fine dining. My goal was to open a neighborhood place where there was never a white tablecloth and people could walk in in their flipflops and T-shirts, or have a special anniversary meal.
It's always been an affordable, good place. Like, steaks have been in the high $20s range. We never had a filet mignon or rib eye on the menu, it was always an off-cut like a bavette. I have never had halibut fillet, we had halibut cheeks. I was looking at a way to bring good food that was affordable. Though overall prices are over the roof right now, post COVID.
Why do you think people put Fruition into the fine dining category?
I don't know, though it could partially be because of the service. Typically when you go in and have good food and service it's not looked at as casual dining. But I never wanted it to be fine dining. Everything at Mizuna was high, like $30 to $40 for an entrée. With Fruition, it was about bringing good, accessible food to the neighborhood. Though we also do a tasting menu. I guess that throws people for a loop But, people order it a lot. You get five courses for $75.75.
That's not a lot for a tasting menu, but that is an odd amount.
Our prices are all weird because we give 1% to local farmers through Mad Agriculture
and Zero Foodprint. That's why you see menu items [like green goddess salad] for $14.14, [chicken liver mousse for] $11.11, and [dry-aged duck breast for] $34.34. We have been doing that for a while. It was an easy way to donate 1% of sales and create a talking point on the menu. It gives us an in to say, "You just contributed to local agriculture."
Speaking of local agriculture, why did you give up Fruition Farms and creamery?
I did a lot of thinking through COVID, and obviously the creamery was hit hard during that time. When restaurants closed it decimated our business. It wasn't decimated to the point that I couldn't keep it going, but the things that were in my future, like opening the fourth Chook, the Italian restaurant and the one in the airport, I wanted to focus on the things we do really well. Plus, it was getting harder to manage the farm from a distance. I used to go two or three days a week, but at that point [when I sold it] it was only three times a month.
We will continue to be part of it and support it, which made the end decision to sell easier. The gentleman who purchased the farm from me comes from the medical and health industry. He had me on a panel speaking to doctors about how food is health and how food is medicine. I told him I was thinking of selling the farm and he said he was interested. This was all a conversation we had at Mercantile's bar. We talked about food and making a place to have patients rehab with animals. He has more resources and people than I do, so he purchased the farm. It's going to a good place.
Are you glad you had the farm?
It was an amazing experience, I learned about Colorado agriculture and it put me in touch with people who inspire me in different ways. It's been a continued growth and learning opportunity, giving me ways to give back to the community. Plus it was something beyond a restaurant.
Back to Roca's, aside from always wanting to do Italian, why Lakewood? Why now?
It's not just about re-opening a beloved restaurant that was closing. For one, the pizza place is just three minutes from my house and there aren't many places to eat out there. At that conference [previously mentioned], I was talking about food access and someone called me out and said, "We love Fruition and Mercantile, but how is that accessible?" I grew up with a single mom and we wouldn't have been able to afford to eat at Fruition and Mercantile, that's why we ate a lot of pizza.
With Chook we leaned in that direction of how to give back to the community and feed the community. Being able to feed communities is a subject close to my heart.
With pizzas costing between $12 and $24, and entrees averaging around $16, aside from your affordable restaurant menu, how are you giving back to your community?
Pre Roca's, Frontroom Pizza was big on youth sports. There were pictures of teams all over the walls. For months after we took over people came in to collect them. I think our big focus will be to support kids, whether it's in sports or education.
What was it like opening Roca's in a former hot spot?
This has been the hardest restaurant opening in my life. For starters, no one is working in restaurants right now. Then, that previous restaurant was always supportive of having kids work there. My first job at 14 was washing dishes in a restaurant, but we have never had kids working at Fruition or Mercantile. Imagine teaching kids how to hold a knife, how to cut mushrooms and onions. Phew! But I wanted that for Roca's. Now, all the pizza guys are kids [of legal working age].
Is it working out having a younger team of newbies?
There's one, Amanda, who is a year out of high school and a rock star in the kitchen. She has been amazing and wants to learn. You teach her to cut one day and see the progression. I'm actually going to get her her first knife.
What's it been like opening a restaurant in your own neighborhood?
The process has been super awesome. When you are in Fruition or Mercantile you see the neighbors and friends. But at this place it's all my friends and neighbors. We have been in the area for 20 years. One day, in front of my house there was an envelope from one of my son's old classmate's mom, from like third grade. She said how much she appreciated Roca's being there and she left $55 in the envelope. She felt bad because she didn't pick up a pizza because she was so scared of COVID and wanted to make it right.
How has the community taken to Roca's?
Some will never like anything but Frontroom. Roca's is different. We aren't using pre-sliced, pre-cooked frozen chicken anymore, so there is some getting used to that. Not everyone wants real chicken. Does that make sense? But for the most part, the neighborhood seems to really, really enjoy it.
Any other challenges?
We struggle with service. We literally had lines out the door the first few weeks and we made some mistakes with some of the younger team members. But we are working on ironing out those things. I don't ever read reviews, but I did check out Roca's reviews. There were some pretty bad ones. My heart sinks, but I know we will get better. We are trying to make a great place with homemade pasta and pizza doughs and real food.
A lot of our team has never seen that kind of food. Some people would rather go to the Olive Garden, and that's okay. But, in general, a lot of the neighborhood has been stoked about Roca's. Overall, it's rewarding being there.