As is obvious from reading this blog, I like to eat. My kids like to eat. My friends like to eat. Makes sense, really, because not only is it a basic human need but we also live in an amazing time for foods with more varieties, more foodstuffs and fresher food than ever before in the history of humanity. Apples? We’ve now got over 650 varieties. Tomatoes? Hundreds of varieties. Lettuce? It’s positively weird how many lettuces and lettuce substitutes we can find for salads.
As a result, when St. Louis-based Crushed Red invited me to help celebrate the opening of their first Colorado store in Westminster, I was pleased to see it fit neatly into my schedule and RSVP’d yes. The main course is chopped salads, but they also feature individual pizzas and a full wine and beer bar. It’s what the food biz calls “fast casual”, an attempt to bridge the gap between fast food (ewww) and “casual dining” which has a waiter or waitress taking your order, sending it back to the kitchen, and you waiting and waiting while it’s being prepared.
The restaurant is casual, with TVs showing various sporting events, and a nicely appointed dining room with proper plates, cloth napkins and glassware. No plastic here, thanks:
Crushed Red sits between fast and casual, which is smart because restaurant demographic analysis clearly shows that fast food places are facing decreasing customers while healthier and/or more upscale alternatives are doing fine.
No surprise, the founder of Crushed Red is twenty-year restaurant veteran Chris LaRocca. He’s one of these guys who is obsessed with details: his first step once he settled on chopped salad and pizza as the main offering? To spend three months with a food chemist perfecting their proprietary pizza dough that features a heat-triggered yeast. Chris was in attendance at our meal and shared all sorts of interesting and entertaining stories about his past in the biz and the development of the Crushed Red concept and store.
As VIP guests, we actually got to make our own salads, which was rather fun and easy.
I started by putting gloves on – which was surprisingly tricky! – followed by being coached on the most important part, chopping up that darn lettuce for my Chipotle BBQ Chicken salad:
Once the lettuce was chopped up, it was time to add all the other ingredients that comprise this particular combo: roasted corn, black beans, pepper jack cheese, cilantro, tortilla strips and bbq chicken.
Looking a bit more closely, you can see that not only did it come out rather well, if I say so myself, but it also looks darn tasty in the festive red bowl:
I can report that the Chipotle BBQ Chicken salad was indeed quite good, and I have to say that it might make me sound a bit lazy, but I actually like having chopped salads when they’re fresh as they end up easier to eat. Extra benefit: since they’re easier to mix up, you get more of the different ingredients and flavors in each bite of a chopped salad when compared to a traditional salad. I had been warned that it was spicy but I found it relatively benign, even with me having (shhhhh) snuck some extra spiced chicken onto the bowl. Your taste may vary, of course.
So we could try more of the options, the Crushed Red host team brought out a sampling of appetizers (the Warm Herbed Goat Cheese was fabulous and the Urban Zest mix was the most intriguing) and a sampling of five of their most popular pizzas. I tried everything, of course:
This pile-up represents four different pizzas, the five cheese, Yukon Gold Rush, the Mushroom Medley and a seasonal special, the Urban Harvest, which had turkey, stuffing, cranberries and various other Thanksgiving-esque toppings. Rather to my surprise, it was really excellent and quite tasty!
We also enjoyed a selection of wines served by the gal who supplies the restaurant with their wines, including two whites and a red. All were good and I was glad to have some food to soak it up because after the second small glass I was starting to feel it! But all good, and it was nice to have salad and wine as a pairing, even if my wine expertise can fit in the small end of a thimble.
The owners shared that they plan to open five of these Crushed Red restaurants in Colorado, with the second slated to be opened in the Denver Tech Center at the beginning of January, then possibly one in Boulder (hurray!) and others around the state. That’s good news when it’s good, healthy food.
There were two other things that struck me about the restaurant too. Turns out that Chris designed his own custom pizza ovens designed to be far more energy efficient than the usual high-temperature pizza oven while also being custom sized for the smaller pizza crusts:
This generation has a circular stone cooking surface that’s slowly rotating within the oven. The next gen unit will feature a stainless steel wheel that’ll allow similar 90-second cooking times but save a lot of energy in the cooking process. In fact, Crushed Red is a Green Dining Alliance restaurant that’s 100% sustainable and generates almost zero waste, something I definitely appreciate and wish more eateries paid attention to attaining.
One more thing: It’s not necessarily pleasant to consider, but people who work at restaurants are, well, people, and so restaurants always have “employees must wash their hands” signs in the bathroom. Crushed Red takes it to the next step, requiring all employees to wash their hands when they start a shift and at least hourly while they’re on-shift (in addition to bathroom breaks). How do they track it? Staff verbally log their hand washing in the machine adjacent to the soap dispenser:
Employees who don’t attain and keep a 100% cleanliness record aren’t eligible for raises and promotions, so if you are a bit of a germaphobe, you should very much appreciate this attention to detail.
I really enjoyed everything at Crushed Red Urban Bake & Chop Shop, from the salads to the pizza to the modest but tasty wine selection. With kids in tow or for a pre-movie dinner with your date or partner, it’s a winner that deserves a place on your short list.
Learn more about the menu and locations at Crushed-Red.com.
Disclosure: I was invited for a blogger event and was given a free meal, along with some fun goodies afterwards. I also won a beautiful “mezzaluna” salad chopping knife, which I think we’re going to enjoy when we make our own salads, stir fry, etc.