Drew Shader had no plans to own a restaurant, let alone nine of them containing two concepts inside. He started out wanting to be a football star, but injuries and other health issues led him to rethink his path. Then a bar fell into his hands.
"My passion outside of sports was food and restaurants,” said Shader, who at 21 years old took over a dive bar on a sketchy part of East Colfax Avenue in Denver after the owner went bankrupt in 2004.
The name of the space was Atomic Cowboy, and Shader jumped right in, serving college kids and local bar flies. The shift from dive bar to dive bar with food happened in 2008 when Shader brought in New York-style pizza. He said it was simple: He just converted the game room, which housed a Big Buck Hunter video game and a bubble hockey table, into a tiny pizza shop called Fat Sully's that only served slices.
"At the time, it was just Anthony's [Pizza and Pasta] for New York pizza and not much late-night food options or people serving past 9 p.m. in Denver," Shader said. "Fat Sully's was born from us having great New York pizza and serving late, and it took off."
The little pizza shop started with two ovens, and a month later Shader added two more. Six months after that Shader, inspired by the food truck craze of New York and Los Angeles, decided to launch his own mobile concept in Denver.
"At the time I couldn't find the Southern staples I grew up eating in Florida: grits and biscuits. So we developed the Denver Biscuit Company and built it around the biscuit bus," said Shader, who planned to roll around town serving giant gourmet biscuit sandwiches.
Unfortunately, that dream would take longer than he anticipated. The delay mainly happened due to the lack of people building food trucks at that time. Shader ended up buying an old DHL van to convert into the biscuit bus. But while he waited for it to be done he decided to go ahead and start peddling biscuits out of Atomic Cowboy.
"That's how Denver Biscuit Company melted into Atomic Cowboy and Fat Sully's," said Shader over the phone. "People could have biscuits in the morning, then drink and eat pizza at night, it just worked out the way it did."
Today the two concepts lie under the banner of the original name, Atomic Cowboy. Diners can come in for heaping biscuit sandwiches laden with bacon, fried chicken, eggs and gravy, ranging from $13.95 to $14.95. Sides include hash browns ($4.50), local meats ($5.95), house-made jams (95 cents each) and stoned-ground grits ($4).
Later in the day, 26-inch pizzas get dished out whole or sold in giant slice form, starting at $23.95 for the basic pie, available for dine-in only, and $4.50 for a slice. Toppings range from 70 cents to $4.25 depending on the pizza size. Other items grace the menu too, including a double smash burger with cheese ($9.95), a pound of wings ($14.95) and family-style salads ($5.95 per person).
The once low-brow bar has become elevated with breakfast cocktails and local beers, ranging from $4.75 to $14, with most fancy drinks in the $10 range. Plus there's a pour-your-own bottomless coffee bar for $3.50, allowing patrons to tip back cup after cup like they did with shots back in the days when Atomic Cowboy was just a dive bar with food.
"Back then, Atomic Cowboy had a lot of grit and it was a super-heavy drinking area and that was good for us," he said. "Now it's family oriented."
The style of each of the nine locations, seven in Colorado and two in Kansas City, feature a space-cowboy theme. It's laid back and fun, colorful and welcoming. Long gone are the signs of the original dive, though Atomic Cowboy held on to the moniker long enough to be featured in Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, as well as other food-focused shows.
Shader has more locations in the works, including one in the Denver International Airport. However, he said, the expansion feels organic.
Staff, too, is key to his success.
"We have a lot of great people and we have grown when we were ready to grow, not because we had to grow," he said. "A lot of folks have been with us for a long, long time."
While Shader isn't a chef, he tapped local talent to develop the pizza dough and sauce. The biscuit recipe came from a friend, and a food scientist helped perfect the fried chicken. Shader still has new items popping up, but overall the menu remains simple and approachable.
"Everyone knows what a pizza is, what a biscuit is, and we wanted to show it in a really good way," said Shader. "We are going to keep growing here locally, and we are just excited about where we are heading."