Where can Denverites and East Coast expats go to find an establishment serving hot sandwiches like sausage, peppers, fresh mutz or a twist on the infamous chopped cheese?
Five Points, of course.
On Welton Street, between 27th and 28th streets, near some other New York-inspired eateries, is Duke’s Good Sandwiches, a spot that recently opened on the strip run by Five Points residents Michelle and Dan Sawyer.
They don’t just have sandwiches. Duke’s is located at 2748 Welton St. in the rear. Up front, the couple also runs Scratch Family Bakery and Market. They have the regular goods: cookies, brownies, something for the vegans, something for the gluten-free folks plus Italian favorites, such as biscottis and cannolis.
The Sawyer’s moved to Five Points about six years ago and, according to Dan, about two years in the couple thought about opening a business in the neighborhood. It would be their way to further immerse themselves in an area they’ve grown to love. But the thought came and went, until about 2020.
Michelle Sawyer was a pediatric nurse for 28 years and later worked in Aurora Public Schools for four years. But one day she wasn’t into it anymore.
“I was reaching a point where I couldn’t give 100% and that’s what you really need to give working with children. So, if I wasn’t there, I knew I needed to step back,” Michelle said.
Dan Sawyer was going through a similar phase. He worked in the textile industry with digital printing equipment for 30 years. Throughout his career, Dan traveled across the country and his eating escapades gave him the idea for Duke’s.
“I go to places like the Philly cheesesteak place and Italian roast beef where they have walk-up window service and I love those places,” Dan said. “They are simple. They do a couple of things and they do it really well. And looking around our neighborhood, I thought it would go perfect here and Michelle called me on it.”
Michelle added, “He comes home with crazy ideas all the time and I say, ‘No, no, no.’ But this time, the timing was right and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ So I called his bluff.”
The next time Dan came home from a work trip, Michelle told him she had quit her job and they were going to move forward with the sandwich shop idea.
The bakery is Michelle’s baby.
“I always had the idea in the back of my head since I was younger,” Michelle said. “I’m not professionally trained. I’m just a home baker…I grew up baking with my mother and grandmother. They are Italian and taught me everything. We have a love of good sweets and feeding people.”
Once the idea was put into motion, the couple faced some challenges to get the doors open.
Similar to other local businesses on Welton, such as Melody Market, the back and forth with the city on permits and construction took up a large chunk of time. And in the pandemic, the couple said planning officials lacked communication.
“We don’t have a lot of experience working with construction and permits and all that,” Michelle said. “So, I don’t know in the past what it was like and COVID certainly didn’t help but I do think the city can improve the process.”
The couple said the waiting game cost them.
“We were paying rent every month that we weren’t open,” Dan said. “It kind of felt like smaller places like us and Melody Market got put on the back burner.”
Denver Community Planning and Development officials said the department doesn’t specifically keep track of small business permits but in general, there is a backlog of applications for permits.
The department also said it has seen an influx in permit requests. The agency is in the process of hiring more planners, implementing new ways to retain employees and changing how projects are assigned to speed up review times.
“Volumes today are much higher than they were pre-pandemic,” a recent CPD newsletter said. “As city staff continue working through the projects already in the queue, new projects will take longer than usual to complete.”
After about 18 months, Duke’s and Scratch opened.
Duke’s is simple like Dan intended. Three hot sandwiches, including a meatball sub, and one cold sandwich, a Caprese hero with a vegan option.
“We’re trying to use as many local products as we can,” Michelle said. “We found a really good gluten-free bakery in town and we sourced a good vegan cheese made locally.”
What is Duke’s main dish? The Denver chopped cheese.
“I didn’t want to do a Philly cheesesteak because the only place you can get a good Philly cheesesteak is in Philly,” Dan said. “Same with the Chicago roast beef. So, I had to find another unique sandwich that would fit here. I think this neighborhood has a New York vibe to it with the bagel place and New York pizza. So, I looked to see what kind of sandwiches were famous in New York.”
Brief (debatable) history lesson: chopped cheese is a bodega sandwich with chopped burger meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato and whatever else you want on it. Burger goes on the grill, gets chopped up and is covered with American cheese. Then, the cheese is chopped up with the meat. Chop. Cheese. Throw it on a roll or a hero. Done. It’s a Harlem thing that has gained popularity in recent years and like with all delicious obscure things, people put their spin on it and up the price.
Duke’s makes it clear though. This is the Denver chopped cheese. It has the essentials but with pepperoncinis. Another homage to Michelle’s Italian roots.
“We thought the combination of the crunch of the raw onion and a little bit of vinegar with the bite of the pepperoncini would be a good addition. Something different,” Michelle said.
“We don’t want to offend the New Yorkers. I’ve already had a couple of people from New York tell me it’s not the same.”
And that’s what Duke’s and Scratch are — homages to different experiences, cultures and communities.
And that’s what the Sawyers are looking to do, continue being part of Five Points.
“Larry at the auto shop and Fathima at the Welton Street Cafe… they’ve become not just our neighbors but our friends,” Michelle said. “It’s one thing for us to get started and open our business and be successful on our own but we want to see the whole community benefit from that with more businesses opening. Hopefully as each one comes in, it’ll spread throughout Welton Street and the neighborhood and the community.”
Dan added, “My original dream and hope was to be a destination… Come to Five Points, get a sandwich, get a cannoli, go to Cervantes to see a show. Go to Coffee at the Point…All I know about the restaurant business is eating the places I like to eat and interacting with the people who wait on you…I love that close interaction with the people who built the business and have their lives invested in it and make quality products. We’re trying to do the same thing.”