Opening an upscale restaurant in the midst of a major urban-infill project is a risky proposition. But since he brought Trillium to Denver’s Ballpark district in December of 2011, Chef Ryan Leinonen’s Scandinavian-American fusion concept has hit a home run with professional critics, local foodies, residents, and visitors.
“Five years ago, if you wanted drugs, you came to this neighborhood,” says the 36-year-old Michigan native, who moved to Denver in 2003. “Even when I began looking at spaces two years ago, this block was still a little shady, but it gets better every year.”
Named for its proximity to the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, and situated adjacent to downtown Denver, the Ballpark district was for years a downtrodden industrial area. Now, through extensive renovation of its historic buildings as well as new construction, it is becoming a vibrant neighborhood with a growing number of high-end retail establishments and residences, including three multi-story, luxury apartment buildings.
Leinonen says he chose this area because he wanted to be part of the revitalization. With all of its promise, though, the area is still a work in progress, and he cautions that being a part of this kind of ambitious renewal program is definitely not for the faint of heart or the short of funds.
“Whatever budget you set for getting your restaurant up and running, add 50 percent to that [number] to make sure you can make it through the first year no matter what,” he says.
“No matter what” could be the stove breaking a week after its warranty expires, a prolonged lull in business that might go for several nights (or even several weeks), or a payroll tax hike. “With bank loans hard to come by, having a cash cushion is crucial,” he says.
Initially, Leinonen had hoped he could count on the city of Denver for some urban-renewal financial assistance, particularly because he was renovating a building that was more than a century old for his restaurant.
“Ten years ago when the economy was better, financial assistance would probably have been available,” he says. “But now just about every major city is cash-strapped, which means you’re pretty much on your own.”
Friends and colleagues warned Leinonen that, while Scandinavian cuisine might be trendy in New York and catching on in San Francisco, Denver had not yet been introduced to it. They also questioned whether his price points, with entrees ranging in the mid-to-high $20s, were too steep for the neighborhood.
“People told me I was crazy and that I’d be out of business in three months,” he says. Fortunately, he didn’t listen.
Leinonen believes that emphasizing familiar American proteins and produce, and preparing them using traditional Scandinavian techniques, such as pickling, and flavors, such as dill and aquavit, makes the cuisine seem less foreign and more approachable.
A “smorgasbord” section of the menu invites sampling at a moderate price of $7 per dish. Leinonen also offers discounts on select menu items during a 5 p.m.–7 p.m. “Happy Hour.”
Even the décor tempers the stark white walls and stainless steel architectural modernity of Scandinavia with the brick-and-wood warmth of an American hearth—and a cozy fireplace is the dining room’s central focal point.
“Trillium is a destination for three-quarters of our guests, who travel here from downtown Denver and the surrounding suburbs, but we want to be a real part of this neighborhood now and as it evolves,” Leinonen says.
To that end, he is an active member of the Ballpark Neighborhood Association, which brings together residents, business people, and the local police to keep the area on track. Leinonen also meets regularly, albeit informally, with adjacent business colleagues (including another upscale restaurant owner) to see how they can work together to bring more customers to the area.
Since it opened, Trillium has received an avalanche of media accolades, including being named one of Denver’s top restaurants. But Leinonen knows he cannot depend on this outpouring of positive press to keep his tables filled over the long haul.
To keep current customers engaged and prospective ones intrigued, he averages two or three Facebook and Twitter posts per day.
“I believe that one picture is worth a thousand words, so I shoot photos with my iPhone of a beautiful fresh fish that was flown in just this morning or some of our rieska [Finnish flatbread] as it’s coming out of the oven,” he says.