In the last 10 or so years, hotels have tried, with mixed results, to open locally relevant restaurants that strike a balance between attracting locals and serving guests staying on the property.
Sage Restaurant Concepts has found that balance, injecting hotel properties across the portfolio of Denver-based Sage Hospitality Group with dining outlets that meet the need of travelers and the community. The Hospitality Group manages about 60 hotels across the country — including independent brands, luxury hotels, and soft-branded Marriott International, Hilton Hotels and Hyatt Hotels properties.
Sage’s proprietary restaurant concepts include Departure, Hello Betty, and Emporium, among a number of others. But one Sage restaurant brand has now set up shop in several locations: the Urban Farmer steakhouse.
It began in Portland and spread to Cleveland, Philadelphia, Denver, and now Nashville. But it’s no corporate cut-and-paste concept. Urban Farmer’s farm-forward model is designed around local sourcing and sustainability specific to each market
For example, the Portland location in The Nines Hotel emphasizes sustainable sourcing from the Northwest, including Oregon beef, an extensive list of regional wines, Portland beer selections, and Oregon spirits.
After utilizing the talents of Oregon native Chef Ryan Rau for seven years at Urban Farmer Portland, Sage dispatched Rau to Denver to apply his skills in butchery, slow foods, and fusion cuisine. From the ground up, Rau was involved in the opening of Urban Farmer Denver in 2017, adjacent to The Oxford Hotel, an historic property next to the city’s Union Station.
Sourcing from Colorado
“When we come out to a new place, we set up a lot of farm tours and create relationships, which was a ton of fun,” Rau, left, said. “And we try to do those periodically and take our staff out, so they can see where the food is coming from.”
Extensive research and immersive visits narrow the field to help determine which local vendors’ stories align most closely with Urban Farmer’s ethos — which means using as close to zero waste as possible and being focused on the smaller community, Rau said. The approach nets an evolving spectrum of 10 to 15 partners at a given time that are small in size, including individual vendors for specialized, seasonal ingredients.
Urban Farmer Denver features a mushroom terrarium, displayed in the dining area, in which the team grows some mushrooms in house — provided from local Hazel Dell Mushrooms in Fort Collins, Colo.
They also use microgreens from Mountain Man Micro Farms in nearby Franktown,Colo. When Rau takes the team to visit the farm, team members are able to harvest the greens themselves. “The microgreens go on just about every dish in the restaurant, so we’re able to tell that story whenever possible.”
And the story only resonates when it’s tied to the local terroir. While the Portland property dives deep into creative seafood dishes, Urban Farmer Denver’s armspan includes beef from Bootheel 7 Ranch’s location in Parker and Cedar River Farms in Greeley, Colo. Lamb comes from Boulder Lamb & Meats in Longmont, Colo., and Rebel Farms in Denver.
“COVID had its challenges for continuing to find new relationships with purveyors, but we got to really focus on the ones we were keyed in with from day one,” Rau explained. “So, in a way, it strengthened those relationships.”
For the last couple of years, Rau has become a beekeeper on the Oxford Hotel roof, using bees from Highland Honey near Longmont. Menu items incorporate the honey, and the restaurant sells Highland Honey.
As at the other Urban Farmer restaurants, Rau’s Denver team gets the most out of composting, recycling, and properly handling trash to operate as sustainably as possible.
Though extensive local sourcing could work against cost-efficiency and consistency, serving local flavor is the top priority for Sage. However, some comforting consistencies help balance the fare across multiple properties.
The menu does include dishes that should be the same at every restaurant, even if the sources of the ingredients may differ. After all, the brand is “Urban Farmer steakhouse” at each of its five locations.
“Each Urban Farmer, because of the nature of the brand, has to be a little bit different,” Rau said. “You keep consistency and a good idea, but you focus on bringing this big operation into more of a smaller community mindset. You don’t come in like a corporation and do quantity over quality. From the chef perspective, it’s a really cool thing to be a part of. We have a foundation for what we have, but we encourage creativity and originality from location to location. That’s why we’ll continue to grow and be a landmark for Sage Restaurant Concepts.”
During the pandemic, Denver shut down indoor dining. But when the city reopened dining rooms in May, the traffic was “fast and furious,” Rau said. “You coop everybody up for so long, and they are all going to come out at once.”
Weekend business at mid-year was comparable to 2019, if not busier, he said. The pandemic may be far from over, but in emerging from a more restricted time, one parting gift restaurateurs have enjoyed is a new set of tools.
Even as service is back to something resembling normal, Urban Farmer Denver, too, will capitalize on a lesson learned.
“One thing that COVID did shed light on was our to-go program we did last year,” Rau said. “During the holidays was when the indoor dining shutdown happened, right before Thanksgiving. So, other than on our patio, we were doing exclusively to-go offerings. We’re excited to now have a busy restaurant (indoors) day to day. On top of that, into the holidays, we’ll do the to-go catering offerings that we did last year.
“It’s been a tough year, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Tad Wilkes is former editor of Hotel F&B Magazine, Nightclub & Bar Magazine and other hospitality industry publications.