Lessons from the Spicy Pickle and other Colorado-based chains

Categories: Cafe Society

closed spicy pickle.jpg
A former location of the Spicy Pickle.
Ask Kevin Morrison why the Spicy Pickle chain went belly-up, and the former executive of that company, who now owns Pinche Tacos, doesn't exactly mince words. "When you have people who aren't businesspeople or restaurant people trying to run a restaurant company, the writing's on the wall," he says.

In 1999, Morrison and then-partner Tony Walker opened the original Spicy Pickle at 988 Lincoln Street. Marc Geman joined the growing business in 2001, and the Spicy Pickle expanded through company-owned locations and franchisees, eventually infiltrating nine states and going public in 2007. But problems arose with the board. "Their vision and my vision were so apart, it wasn't even close," Morrison says. He left the company in 2009.

By early 2010, he'd launched Pinche Tacos, a food-truck concept that's since spawned a street cart and a taqueria. And he plans to extend that brand, albeit in a very different manner than the Spicy Pickle grew. "I want to grow it on a very small scale," he explains. "I want the locations to be in neighborhoods, and I'm taking a very mom-and-poppish approach."

After Morrison left the Spicy Pickle, that business went on a steady decline. Last week, it closed six of seven company-owned locations, leaving just one -- in Lone Tree -- standing. And tomorrow, the Spicy Pickle will auction off assets from those defunct restaurants, attempting to recover losses for lenders, who are owed more than $4 million. The fate of the franchises is also unclear, since those restaurants -- six in Colorado, including the original at 988 Lincoln -- continue to operate under the agreements they've already signed.

If nothing else, the saga of the Spicy Pickle provides a good study for any restaurateur looking to branch out into multiple units, whether in Colorado or beyond. "I loved my time there," Morrison says. "It was a great education for me; I learned a lot about branding and marketing and about how to do things the smart way and the not-smart way. I don't regret it at all. You live and learn and move on and don't make the same mistakes twice."

Here are some of the Colorado-grown chains that have done things the smart way in their expansions beyond state borders -- and a few that have done things the not-smart way, too.

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The only thing that mattered to me is that Spicy Pickle used to have the best sandwiches in Denver and they became mediocre almost overnight. A shame for sandwich lovers as well as for all the employees who are out jobs.

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