Denver’s identity as a hub of fast-casual innovation is by now well-cemented, as the Denver Post reported last week. The Mile High City was the birthplace of Chipotle Mexican Grill, Qdoba and Noodles & Company, stars in the first generation of what has become the industry’s fastest growing segment nationwide.
One of those pioneers was Aaron Kennedy, the founder of Noodles and Company, who came up with the idea for an eatery serving noodles and pasta inspired by the world’s favorite cuisines in 1993, after passing a noodle shop in New York City, where he was living and working as a corporate marketer.
The idea was conceived the same month as his son, and soon Kennedy would move his young family from the the hustle and bustle of New York City to the mountains, wide-open spaces and laid-back lifestyle of Colorado. He opened the first Noodles & Company restaurant in Denver’s Cherry Creek North neighborhood in 1995 and spent the next 15 years perfecting the menu and steadily adding more units. The expansion pace picked up as the years passed, and Noodles had about 170 units in 15 states when Kennedy handed over the reins in 2008.
His resume also includes stints in marketing at Kraft and Pepsi, and all of his experience came into play in 2012 when Kennedy accepted a two-year stint as the Chief Marketing Officer for the state of Colorado.
I caught up with Kennedy last week, as he was heading off to California to visit his son, now a college sophomore.
Why state government?
It seems to me that if you’re frustrated about how government is working, a person can complain, abstain or jump in and try to make it better. I chose the latter and am glad I did. [Plus] Gov. [John] Hickenlooper is not only a persuasive person, but an honest, caring, genuine, smart (brilliant), driven guy. How could I say “no”?
Public service was a way to give back to the state of Colorado, which did so much to help me through the Noodles & Company years. It was something I was particularly well-suited to do. Our challenge was to figure out what we wanted to tell the world about Colorado.
The challenge was to design our message to the world. What do we stand for? What makes Colorado Colorado? We came up with five brand pillars.
It’s our nature, both the remarkable physical beauty — we’re the only place with 54 14,000-foot peaks — and it’s also the culture of the people, and the way we help one another succeed. It’s our independent spirit, that Western resolve. And it’s about economic opportunity. People have been coming to Colorado since the gold rush and even before that. Now, it’s about sustainable energy and traditional energy and natural foods and other economic opportunities.
We’re powered by nature — almost everyone in Colorado can see the peaks and draw inspiration from them. And we’re pretty close to being a sustainable state in terms of energy usage. We produce and use almost the equivalent amount.
There’s also the vitality. The people in Colorado have a certain sparkle in their eye. We are the fittest state in the nation, we have the lowest obesity rate. In the last Olympics, if Colorado were a country, we would have placed sixth in the world. World-class athletes train here in the high altitudes.
What was the job like?
It was thrilling. What an incredible opportunity to be given, to take a gem like Colorado, and to be able to travel all over the state for two years, seeing what makes Colorado Colorado, and finding those unifying threads that unite us all. I think in the beginning, people were a bit skeptical, because we are a diverse state, politically and geographically. But when you boil it right down to character and what motivates people here, there were five unifying threads that made a tight connection. I presented them all over the state of Colorado and there were always heads nodding. Hundreds of thousands of people participated throughout the process, we had a site called makingcolorado.com where people could participate.
We re-branded 25 state agencies and all the divisions within them, including vehicles, buildings, letterhead, Twitter accounts, every last item.
How did the job draw on your past experiences?
Well, it drew on all my professional experiences, going back even to the days of Kraft when I was in consumer research. I’m a classically trained market researcher and brand strategist, all the way back to grad school. Then I was at Pepsi, managing the brand.
Then I worked for a brand design firm in New York, and that was obviously a critical benefit.. Then there was Noodles & Company, where we were endeavoring to create this world-class brand from scratch.
Do you miss the restaurant business?
I am on the board of Modmarket and Lark Burger, so I am still getting a nice dosage of the restaurant business. Do I miss running it? I had 15 years of doing that, of building the restaurant business and running it. But I did miss it enough to want to join these two boards and put my shoulder into the next generation of fast casual.
The chains have about 13 restaurants each. Modmarket has 10 in Colorado and three in Texas. It’s farm-fresh foods, and it’s a very strong business model, and it was appealing to me personally because of the fresh salads and sandwiches, and there are a lot of organic foods.
From the time I left Noodles & Co. as chairman, I had helped Modmarket from the time it was just an idea. I watched them grow. I was really careful about who to align myself with. I wanted to select restaurants that really were going to be that next generation of fast casual, concepts that would be even more organic, or a real culinary forward chef-driven concept that would appeal to me personally.
I felt these were the most promising, and they fit my personal tastes the best. But then the last piece was the people behind them. The ones running them are every bit as high quality as the food, they’re genuine good folks. Both companies are based in Denver now, though Lark Burger Started in Vail and ModMarket started in Boulder.
Why has the Denver area become such a fast-casual hub?
Once you get kind of a core within an industry, like in Denver with Noodles, Chipotle and Qdoba, once you get that, it develops the mindset and the talent that works in those places will eventually go off and start others concepts. I think that’s a natural thing that happens, like with cars in Detroit.
Part of it is the consumer demand — we have healthy, active people and that’s the kind of food we like to eat. It’s a receptive market. But there are lots of receptive markets.
Do you think you’ll get back into the food business in the future?
I don’t really. My primary focus professionally now is to help leaders and entrepreneurs achieve their dreams. I’m doing that in three ways. I’m on five boards altogether. Second, I do specific engagements for companies. And third, I do impromptu meetings for people who already leaders or those who want to be, but I only do those on hiking trips, so I always get exercise out of the deal.
It’s funny how much appetite there is for that. Sometimes people are apprehensive, but I’ve done about 50 and almost every time we get out there, the blood’s flowing into your head, you’re out there in nature — it’s inspirational.
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