Donut makers Ray Ezz and Mouhcine Berrida had their eye on a little slice of Colfax Avenue for a very long time.
In 2020, Ezz told us, the business partners almost worked out a deal to team up with Capitol Pizza at Colfax and Logan Street. They’d serve pizza and donuts together, all from the tiny storefront sandwiched between City Grille and Fork and Spoon.
The deal fell through. Then COVID rocked the city. Then someone set fire to City Grille’s wooden patio, which blew up a power transformer and shut down the entire strip of businesses. The northeast quarter of the block would remain dormant for almost two years, and the eateries that once drew customers from the Capitol and the surrounding neighborhoods would never return.
But this presented Ezz and Berrida with a new opportunity. Once the power came back, the old pizza shop was available. They signed a two-year lease with the Archdiocese of Denver, who owns the property, and reopened the space as Capitol Donuts earlier this year.
Now they just need customers.
That has proven more difficult than they expected.
“Whatever we make here, it just goes into the bills,” he said. “We don’t get paid, so we’re losing, but we’re not to the point that we’re going to break down.”
There’s been little momentum to help donut shop get on its feet as the area struggles to bounce back from the pandemic. And while there is a Colfax renaissance around the corner, it might be a while before business booms again.
What was once a prime place to open, in Ezz’s eyes, hasn’t quite lived up to its promise.
When he and Berrida first thought about pairing pizza with donuts, the surrounding block was a lively place. Pre-COVID, City Grille was regularly packed for lunch, especially during Colorado’s legislative session. Sassafras, across the street, and Fork and Spoon had reliable brunch rushes. Capitol Pizza was sending lots of pies out the door.
“It’s a good location. Near the Capitol. Near downtown,” Ezz said. “Now it’s basically the opposite. The location itself became a problem.”
Beyond City Grille and Fork and Spoon, Sassafras, which became Exile Kitchen in 2021, also closed. Tycoon Ramen, across the street, shut down too. Of ten commercial spaces on the block, only four are currently open for customers: Capitol Hill Books, the Satellite Bar, the Good Chemistry dispensary and Capitol Donuts. City Grille is now an office for a nearby construction project.
Colfax has always had a rough edge, but Ezz said it’s become untenable. The vacant storefronts and alcoves leading to unused doors are attractive resting places for people with nowhere else to go, a common thing in a city that’s struggled to supply affordable housing and rein in homelessness. Visible poverty is often on Ezz’s mind.
“People come up the street, and when they get to Grant they see homelessness and they basically turn around,” he told us. “I’ve seen that with my own eyes.”
But the overall shortage of places to spend money is probably a bigger problem. If only the restaurants around him were open, he mused, their customers would see his shop and come back to try his sweet offerings.
“Next time, they would come in for a donut,” he said. “If all of (these businesses) came up, this corner would be different, definitely.”
The momentum problem might be more of a sign of transition, rather than a low point, but the biggest improvements will take time.
Frank Locantore runs the Colfax Avenue Business Improvement District, which stretches from the Capitol to the Carla Madison Rec Center at York Street. Though he said his district has been resilient in the face of a lot of recent challenges, this moment is a slump. There are 22 vacant storefronts in the 24 blocks encompassed by the Colfax BID, Locantore told us. 11 of them are concentrated in the five blocks closest to the Capitol.
“There’s an unusual number of vacancies in our district overall,” he said. “We had a really nice-looking commercial district prior to the pandemic. It fell off the wall during the pandemic, and it fell into a bunch of pieces.”
Locantore said there are a ton of changes that will revamp the local economy — eventually.
Officials are planning for a bus rapid transit line across Colfax, though that won’t open until (at least) 2028. There are housing projects on the way, like a renovation of the old Bourbon Chicken location at Franklin Street. The block where Smiley’s Laundromat sat for decades, at Downing Street, was recently scraped to make way for something new. There are plans percolating to repurpose the current home of Denver Police Department’s District 6 headquarters at Washington Street. Tom’s Diner will soon reopen as a cocktail lounge.
For business owners like Ben Hall, who took over ownership of Capitol Hill Books this year, the changes are good omens – if he can survive long enough to see them come to fruition.
“I do expect to see new things cropping up along the block over the next few years, but it’ll be dead ’til then,” he said. “A raise in rent is the thing that terrifies me most.”
Hall’s landlord hasn’t jacked up the rent, at least, but it has been an issue elsewhere on Colfax. Martha Valdez, who’s run a barber shop for 20 years a few blocks east, said she’s faced higher prices as her customer base dropped. Like Ezz, she’s struggled to find much to like about the neighborhood in the last few years. As businesses closed and poverty grew, she installed a latch to keep her door locked during business hours. Customers need to wait for her to let them in.
“Years ago, I could open my door. But now I have to lock my door because it’s so bad,” she said. “Now look at this. No children. No nice business for them. Only bars. A lot of homelessness.”
If Colfax was ever a place for families, she doubts that new bars and apartments will revive that vibe. But while development has fundamentally altered the character of other neighborhoods, Locantore said he’s confident Colfax will retain a sense of itself as it exits this low point and enters a next phase. Still, he said it’s clear some changes need to happen.
“Is this going to be without pain? Of course not. Is this going to change the look of the area? Yeah it is,” he said. “I look a hell of a lot different today than I did 30 years ago, and that’s just the nature of the beast.”
In the meantime, Locantore said the BID will do what it can to make sure mom-and-pop shops make it to the new era. Ezz and Berrida hope they’ll be around to see it, though nothing’s certain. For years, they and other business owners who’ve signed leases with the Archdiocese heard there was a chance the church might scrape the lot and build something shiny and new. The Archdiocese told us they have no plans to transform their parcel just yet, so their block will remain an image of old Colfax – until it doesn’t.