Chef and restaurateur Troy Guard’s newest restaurants, Los Chingones and HashTAG, were the first to be leased in Stapleton’s Eastbridge Town Center but they were the last to open due to delays with construction issues and city permits and licenses. “You start out with the best intentions,” says Guard, “but there are so many moving pieces and you just have to address each one as they come up.” With these two restaurants, TAG Restaurant Group has opened 12 locations in eight years, most with completely different concepts. There are plans for at least a dozen more down the road. Still, two things never leave Guard’s mind—the worry and the thrill.
HashTAG is Guard’s first breakfast concept restaurant. He refers to it as a “breakfast joint” with a menu built on everything he loves to eat for breakfast and lunch that he thinks others will like too, like pancakes and omelets, but with the “TAG Style” spin. For example, the most popular dish is a hash with braised pork, potatoes, chilies, caramelized onions, tomatillo salsa, topped with two eggs and a cabbage pico de gallo salad.
This is the third location of Los Chingones with the other two located in downtown and the Denver Tech Center. Describing the menu as “Mexico redesign,” the focus is on tacos such as the braised lamb neck taco on a corn tortilla with onion, cilantro and chili sauce. Although Guard likes to do different concepts, he says, “The Los Chingones concept has legs to grow because it’s a fun atmosphere and everyone enjoys tacos.” The restaurant may offer lunch starting in 2018 but for now, it is open mid-afternoon into the evening. There is an adults-only rooftop patio and another patio at street level that’s more conducive to families.
Two of Guard’s concepts, Sugarmill downtown and Lucky Cat in Lowry, closed before the Eastbridge restaurants opened, bringing his current number of restaurants in the collection to 10. “I’m not embarrassed. I’m not mad,” he says. “I’m a little sad because I really liked them, but it was the wrong time and place and some other issues for those restaurants. It’s all about growing and learning, but I keep pushing on.” Guard is proud of the fact that he was able to immediately place the employees from those two restaurants with his other restaurants so that no one was out of work.
The idea for opening restaurants in Stapleton started when Guard moved to the neighborhood five years ago, feeling that the area was underserved when it came to restaurant selection. He has ideas for restaurants in his head all the time, homing in on neighborhoods that he feels will welcome a restaurant and will provide the business needed to be profitable. “I think anyone can open a restaurant and make great food, but it is a business at the end of the day,” he says.
For Guard, it’s a 2½–3-year process from the time a lease is signed to the time the doors open on a new restaurant. He keeps a book handy in which he continually jots down ideas for menus and recipes. He starts developing a restaurant’s menu about six months before building starts for the new space, and might practice some of the dishes at home or at his other restaurants. About a month before opening, Guard gets closest to determining the menu, but it doesn’t get finalized until he has a chance to cook in the kitchen and spend time in the restaurant space. “I’ve got to be in there, feeling it, seeing it. It’s really all about the vibe of a restaurant and what I think will or will not fit on the menu,” he says.
Common problems Guard says he and other restaurateurs face in opening a restaurant include delays with paperwork; construction issues; prices of building materials and supplies going up because prices were bid years before; the need to customize furniture to fit in the space; and changes in staff and construction crews. “We all go through things and adapt, tweak and change,” says Guard, just like he does with his recipes. “Things change inevitably and you have to reposition yourself or readjust or you fail.”
Guard says the worry never stops even after a restaurant appears to be successful. When opening a restaurant and the staff is working 14–16-hour days, Guard says thoughts of, “Are people going to like it?” or “Is it going to go the way we pictured and planned for the last three years?” run through everyone’s minds. “Excitement, anxiety, stress—I feel it all, but knock on wood, it usually comes together the way I had it pictured and sometimes exceeds expectations.”
Despite the hardships, with more restaurants being planned, Guard shows no signs of letting the obstacles get in his way. “I like the challenges of it, starting with the deal itself to creating the look, to training the staff. I love the camaraderie of everyone working together. It’s thrilling. I’m excited to be doing what I love.”