When Chipotle Mexican Grill announced in 2018 that it was wrapping its office supplies in aluminum foil and relocating its headquarters from Denver to Newport Beach, Calif., it left a burrito-sized hole in the state’s business identity.

At the time, the company had more than 2,300 locations around the globe, all sprouting from one tiny shop that opened near the University of Denver campus in 1993. It went through some rough years following a major E. coli outbreak in 2015, setting in motion events that led to the relocation, but Chipotle’s meteoric rise gave it status as an iconic, Colorado-based restaurant brand.

Three years after Chipotle’s departure, Colorado hasn’t fallen off the quick-service restaurant map. If anything, the state’s continued strong population and economic growth, and food innovation have made it a better launching pad for ambitious brands with their sights set on taking their concepts regional, national or even global, experts say.

And despite what Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol said about needing to relocate to Southern California to find talent, restaurant executives in Colorado say they are finding the people they need to help them chase their goals.

“There is a lot of talent that is really interested in working with an aggressively growing company in the Denver market,” Michael Haith, owner and CEO of Teriyaki Madness, a company with plans to expand to 500 locations over the next handful of years.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

The Original Chipotle Location at 1644 E. Evans Ave., Denver, Colorado. May 24, 2018.

When HG Parsa looks at Denver he sees all the ingredients needed for a vibrant restaurant industry and broader business community. Those include a diversified economy, one of the world’s premier international airports, and land prices that are still a bargain compared to major markets on the coasts. Labor is scarce right now but the University of Denver hospitality professor believes the labor pool is here.

“Denver has all the potential to be the next great city like Dallas; plenty of land, a busy airport,” Parsa said. “And what we have what nobody else has: mountains.”

With 15 years of experience in the restaurant industry, including working as a regional training manager for Wendy’s overseeing 35 locations, Parsa said what encourages him about Denver’s place in the quick-service restaurant ecosystem is all the brands that are choosing to create a footprint here. Not just In-N-Out Burger either, but other brands like Austin, Texas-based Torchy’s Tacos.

As far as being a hub for growing chains, Parsa said being home to a company headquarters is good for the commercial real estate market and people who fill white-collar roles like lawyers and real estate professionals. But for him, the ultimate measure is how many chains get started here.

“Starting here means it’s fertile land,” Parsa said.

Teriyaki Madness may not have started in Denver — it was launched in Las Vegas in 2003 before moving its corporate headquarters in 2014 — but its owner and CEO Haith knows a thing or two about building food services businesses at a mile about sea level.

The Cherry Creek High School graduate founded Pour La France! Catering, a corporate catering business, in Denver in 1989. He sold the business in 2015.

Haith originally invested in Teriyaki Madness because he was attracted to the food: healthy, customizable Asian cuisine. But he also admired its simple business model and strong profitability. He sold all his other companies before buying out founder Rod Arreola and his family in 2016, immediately shifting his focus to building out the technology stack to power Teriyaki Madness’s growth.

Five years later, the company has 103 locations, including one in Mexico City and eight along the Front Range. The company’s first two Canadian locations should open in the next few weeks, Haith said.

Aided by an app that allowed for easy curbside pickup, third-party delivery services and food that travels well, Teriyaki Madness thrived during the pandemic, Haith said. It’s a trend that hasn’t let up in 2021. Year-to-date same-store sales are up 32%.

For Haith, it all comes down to talent and Denver is a hotbed for it. His company may have benefitted from going into expansion mode just as other established restaurant brands in Denver — like Chipotle, Qdoba Mexican Eats and Quiznos — were either moving their headquarters or be taken over by new ownership.

“My timing was just perfect where I was getting all these people that didn’t want to move to San Diego or wherever the brands were going,” he said. “Suddenly, I was talking to these veterans with 20 years under their belts that really wanted the adrenalin rush of working for a fast-growing company.”

Teriyaki Madness only owns one of its locations, a store near Denver Union Station that has struggled during the pandemic, Haith said. It is focused on franchising in suburban areas. That’s a strategy that has paid off with more people staying close to home over the last year.

FIRESTONE, COLORADO – MAY 12: Dylan McCurry makes a cooks vegetables to add to a spicy chicken Yakisoba style bowl in the kitchen at Teriyaki Madness on May 12, 2021 in Firestone, Colorado. DylanÕs father Tim McCurry owns the franchise in Firestone and plans on opening two more soon. One in Longmont and one in the Brighton area. The spicy bowl is a customer favorite that has hand trimmed, fresh, all natural chicken teriyaki, stir-fried in their signature house-made spicy sauce and comes with a choice of white rice, brown rice, fried rice or noodles and steamed or stir-fried veggies. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Tim McCurry and his sister Erin Brueggeman co-own the Teriyaki Madness that opened last February in Firestone, just off the Interstate 25, Colorado 119 interchange. The pandemic meant the store got off to a rocky start with sales falling 30% below their grand opening totals, but since then business has taken off, McCurry said.

“We were the fastest store in the history of Teriyaki Madness outside of Vegas to hit a million dollars in net sales,” said McCurry, who lives just a few minutes from the restaurant. “We pride ourselves on being part of this community and I think because of that it brought the local community out to support this business.”

McCurry and co. are reinvesting what they made in Year 1 back into their franchise agreement, aiming to open a second location in western Longmont this summer. A third shop, possibly in Brighton, could follow within the next year, he said.

“I think their business model is really what got me, knowing they have all these systems in place,” McCurry said of becoming a Teriyaki Madness franchisee. “If you want to invest and build a legacy for your family, you buy a franchise and get an instruction manual and you can build a successful business.”

It’s not at Teriyaki Madness’s level yet, but as Birdcall prepares to make its out-of-state debut this year with two locations in Arizona, CEO Peter Newlin is optimistic about the company’s trajectory.

Debuting in the Five Points neighborhood in 2017, the natural products-focused chicken sandwich chain opened its fourth store, in Colorado Springs, earlier this year. Four or five more could open before the end of 2021, Newlin said. The company is scouting locations in the Dallas area and aims to open a store there early next year.

“We’ve got an amazing Denver-based investor group that’s just focused on continuing to build Birdcall into something super unique,” Newlin said. “Our goal is to get up to 20 openings a year by 2023, 2024.”

Newlin launched the company with chef Philippe Failyau. The two met while Newlin was a grad student at the University of Denver who frequented Failyau’s Park Burger restaurant near the campus. The partners and their companies — Birdcall and restaurant company Gastamo Group — benefitted from lessons learned through EatDenver, the nonprofit membership organization dedicated to supporting independent restaurants in the city, Newlin said.

“It’s a place to share stories or hear from industry-leading people. More importantly, I viewed it as a place to find mentorship,” Newlin said, mentioning getting to learn from executives with brunch chain Snooze an A.M. Eatery. “People say, “Hey, why do all these restaurant groups come from Colorado?’ and I run it back to the community.”