Late on Tuesday evening, news broke that the beloved downtown restaurant, The Squeaky Bean, was closing. According to co-owner Josh Olsen, the decision stemmed from the notoriously razor-thin margins of operating a restaurant. “The overhead to run that space for us was difficult,” explained Olsen. He elaborated that the large 15th and Wynkoop space was too big for their niche attitude. Add in a boom of new restaurants near Union Station and you have a much more divided audience compared to when they moved from the Highlands to LoDo in 2012. But despite the ever-shifting tide of Denver’s restaurant scene, anyone familiar with the Bean was likely still shocked by the announcement.
The popular LoDo eatery was known for its many accolades — including being one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants of 2013. But more importantly, the restaurant was revered by the community for its philanthropic efforts — namely its work with vocational school Warren Tech and its annual Thanksgiving feast which feeds thousands a free hot meal for the holiday. Just last night the restaurant’s owners Johnny Ballen and Olsen received an award from the Colorado Restaurant Association for their contributions to the community. So when the pair announced the restaurant’s closure on the same evening the industry was celebrating their efforts, the sting of the loss hit twice as hard.
But unlike many other closures, there’s a silver lining to this story. And no, it has nothing to do with opening another restaurant.
For the last several years, Olsen has been toiling away on a passion project. However, unlike other restauranteurs, Olsen wasn’t plotting the expansion of his restaurant empire — he was wrist deep in soil. Starting in 2012, Olsen was operating a large garden in the heart of Denver that would supply produce for The Squeaky Bean in LoDo. At first, the one-acre plot was a small urban farm on the corner of Iris and Colfax. Space was limited though, which led Olsen’s brother Nate Olsen to propose an upgrade. Nate, a S2TEM (science, sustainability, technology, engineering, math) instructor at Warren Tech in Lakewood and knew the school had land for agricultural use. In fact, the former farm used to be the heart of the horticulture program that had recently gone defunct. With a lot of sweat and back breaking work the pair, along with a handful of students, transformed overrun land into a viable produce paradise.
“We want this to be the urban [agriculture] educational center for the Front Range”
From there, Bean Acres, as it was to be known, took off and became a bona fide urban farm and a crucial resource for Warren Tech — where Olsen is now an informal instructor. It also helped define The Squeaky Bean by providing unique heirloom varieties of different produce that are hard to find elsewhere. “Instead of just working with commodity [crops] all day long, we said, ‘Let’s celebrate the specialty goods because well these heirloom varieties.’ They’ve been around forever,'” said Olsen.
Bean Acres (now known as just Acres), didn’t stop with The Squeaky Bean. Overtime, Olsen welcomed more chefs and students to learn first-hand about urban agriculture (including STEM students that he helped grow food in space). Just recently, Olsen launched a Mobile Acres where the farm donates time to help other urban farms grow and develop. As a part of the program, Olsen has partnered with Alex Seidel of Fruition Farms (also known for award-winning restaurants Fruition and Merchantile & Provision) to supply helping hands for their operation. Olsen primarily works with their farmer, Ilse Meyer who is relatively new to produce farming.
“Josh has just been awesome with her [Meyer],” said Seidel. “Five years ago there weren’t as many farmers in Colorado, but the whole community of producers understand the importance of growing together, just like the chefs here Denver.”
With all this happening with Acres, The Squeaky Bean closure wasn’t all bad for the increasingly busy Olsen. He even describes it as “serendipitous” on some level because Olsen has big dreams for Acres.
“God willing, we want this to be the urban [agriculture] educational center for the Front Range,” he said.
Moving forward, Olsen explained they are working to grow their partnerships with organizations like Denver Public School, Colorado Aquaponics, Sprout City Farms and local restaurants like Bistro Vendôme, Bar Dough, Señor Bear to grow the impact of urban farming.
“We are really working as a cohesive team through the community to put a footprint out there of what our old farmers and new farmers are capable of regionally,” said Olsen.
The Squeaky Bean will serve its last meal tonight, June 28 but its annual Thanksgiving event FEED will also continue on with the help of Warren Tech, Acres and local restaurateur Dana Rodriguez. If you’re craving the Bean’s eclectic style you can also check out Ballen’s new restaurant Cochino Taco.
As of now, there’s no word on what will open inside the former space of The Squeaky Bean, but the one things for sure — the fruits of their labor will continue to be savored for years to come.
All photography by Kyle Cooper.