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Fuel & Iron Food Hall is bringing Pueblo’s

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As commercial brokers specializing in food and beverage properties, Nathan Stern and Zach Cytryn were itching to develop their own project. 

It would be a food hall, they had decided.

They searched up and down the Front Range for the perfect building, the perfect community. 

“We knew we’d only get one shot at this, so we didn’t want to settle for a building we didn’t want,” Stern said.

They considered Denver, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Trinidad.

In midwinter 2020 they found the shot they were looking for: a cavernous brick building on the edge of the Union Avenue Historic District in Pueblo that had sat vacant for at least three decades. The old Holmes Hardware building was for sale.

Big enough for the food hall they envisioned — and much more. Their plans grew.

They had development partners lined up and on March 3, 2020, went under contract to buy the old hardware store at 400 S. Union Ave. and some adjacent parcels.

Ten days later everything was shut down by the COVID pandemic, and their partners bowed out. 

Stern and Cytryn worked with building owner Mike Escobado to salvage the deal. The two 30-somethings weren’t ready to see their shot slip away.

LEFT: Patrons enjoy the airy, industrial interior of the Fuel & Iron Food Hall June 23 in Pueblo. RIGHT: Fuel & Iron Food Hall co-founder Zach Cytryn (above) and Nathan Stern gesture during a June 13 interview. The two spent millions of dollars renovating Pueblo’s long-dormant 100-plus-years-old Holmes Hardware building. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

TOP: Patrons enjoy the airy, industrial interior of the Fuel & Iron Food Hall June 23 in Pueblo. BOTTOM: Fuel & Iron Food Hall co-founder Zach Cytryn (above) and Nathan Stern gesture during a June 13 interview. The two spent millions of dollars renovating Pueblo’s long-dormant 100-plus-years-old Holmes Hardware building. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We had to put the money together,” Stern said. “They waited 14 months for us to put the money together.”

They cobbled together 17 funding sources — from foundations, banks, state, local and federal government — and bought the property for $2.73 million on May 21, 2021, Cytryn said. That was an intermediate step. The full funding for the $16 million project wasn’t finalized until five months later.

Three years later, in late April, seven businesses opened in the Fuel & Iron Food Hall, and most of the 28 workforce apartments on the two upper floors were rented. More pieces of the project — a farm, a packaged food kitchen, an event space, more workforce housing — are on the horizon.

Community leaders say the project has infused a new vitality into the Union Avenue Historic District, and plans are bubbling up for other vacant or underused buildings. The adaptive reuse of part of the historic building for housing is helping fulfill one of the city’s goals.

Stern and Cytryn sat at a table in the light and airy dining area recently as a Tuesday lunch crowd filtered in for tacos, spicy chicken sandwiches, ramen bowls, po’boys or bison burgers. Maybe a coffee from Solar Roast or a milkshake from Nick’s Dairy Crème — two long-time Pueblo establishments now co-located in Fuel & Iron. 

Or a Colorado brew or special Pueblo-themed cocktail from the central bar.

Fuel & Iron — its name a nod to the history of the Steel City — was no longer a project they were laboring to bring to fruition. It was real.

When the certificate of occupancy came through April 17, Cytryn said he had “nothing to compare it to.”

“We were not the most well-funded and not the most experienced developers,” he said.

“It’s been an evolution. We’ve tried to stay focused on what’s important, what our goals are. We care a lot about Pueblo, and this is first and foremost a community space.” 

Diners are seated among the works of local artists in Fuel & Iron’s Loading Dock area. Co-founder Nathan Stern said the food hall wants to foster relationships with communities like artists and hopes the space can showcase their works on a consistent basis. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Why a food hall

A food hall is not — or at least shouldn’t be — simply a collection of places to eat or drink. It’s not a food court, Cytryn explained.

It’s a community of businesses — entrepreneurs working together to try new concepts, hone their recipes and business management skills, and guide apprentices in the food and beverage industry. 

Here’s how it works:

  • The food hall includes a large central bar surrounded by seating areas — high tops, tables, couches — a children’s play area and restrooms. Fuel & Iron manages the space and hires the bussers and dishwashers. A dining area along one side — the Loading Dock — can be reserved for small special events.
  • Solar Roast Coffee & Nick’s Dairy Crème is expected to remain as a long-term anchor. It’s next to the front door and opens at 8 a.m. daily.
  • Five restaurants, each with a 288-square-foot kitchen, ring the food hall, opening at 11 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on the weekends to serve their specialties. They have short-term leases, with each expected to rotate out within three years to make way for new restaurant startups.
  • Entertainment has started with trials of live entertainment Thursday evenings and trivia Wednesday evenings. Fuel & Iron is working with local artists and arts organizations to have rotating and permanent art displays.

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The idea is to give the restaurateurs a chance to develop their concept before opening their own brick-and-mortar shops. There’s a food truck owner, a former culinary instructor, a chef who has worked on five continents but never in his own place, an established owner testing a new offering and an award-winning Denver chef dipping his toe into Pueblo.

“This is the fastest growing concept for our industry right now,” said Richard Warner, the long-time owner of Pueblo-based Bingo Burger. “I love being here.”

He and his wife are experimenting with Diavolo Pueblo Hot Chicken, and though he says it’s the smallest kitchen space he’s ever worked in, the benefits of starting in a food hall include little capital investment and lower labor costs because of shared services.

“Everyone is trying something new,” he said. “That’s what’s nice. There’s never going to be an Orange Julius in here.”

He noted that in a food hall, other owners are part of the success equation. Everything must run well to keep people coming back.

Fuel & Iron has weekly tenant meetings to ensure everyone is talking, and the support among business owners has been phenomenal, several said.

“There’s a whole ’nother culture in the back hall,” said Chris Doose, owner of Mosh Ramen. “We’re all doing this together.”

LEFT: Ed Tracey is head chef at Fuel & Iron’s Steel Crescent restaurant that features cajun cuisine. Tracey has worked as a chef on five continents and is a former culinary instructor. RIGHT: Chris Doose is head chef at Mosh Ramen. He said the food hall concept and friendly lease terms, coupled with strong doses of social media interaction, have made his dream of operating a restaurant a reality. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

a man in a white apron standing in a kitchen.
a man in a purple shirt and black hat standing in front of a menu board.

TOP: Ed Tracey is head chef at Fuel & Iron’s Steel Crescent restaurant that features cajun cuisine. Tracey has worked as a chef on five continents and is a former culinary instructor. BOTTOM: Chris Doose is head chef at Mosh Ramen. He said the food hall concept and friendly lease terms, coupled with strong doses of social media interaction, have made his dream of operating a restaurant a reality. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The former Pueblo Community College culinary instructor has wanted his own place since graduating from culinary school 11 years ago. His restaurant is not Asian and he’s not offering typical Japanese ramen. It may not even continue to be a ramen restaurant.

Fuel & Iron Food Hall

  • Diavolo Pueblo Hot Chicken: Owned by Richard Warner and Pueblo native Mary Oreskovich, who own Bingo Burger and previously owned Hopscotch Bakery and Steel City Diner.
  • Mosh Ramen: Owned by Chris Doose, who taught culinary classes at Pueblo Community College.
  • Santa Fonda: Owned by Jose Avila, an award-winning Denver chef and owner of La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal.
  • Solar Roast Coffee & Nick’s Dairy Crème: Owned by Mike and David Harktop, who invented a solar roaster for coffee.  Nick’s Dairy Crème has been an ice cream stand on Pueblo’s east side for about 50 years, and was bought by Solar Roast in 2020. The stand remains open with much of its original menu (coffee was added), and the two Pueblo businesses come together at Fuel & Iron.
  • Steel Crescent Kitchen: Owned by Ed and Dorothy Tracey. Ed Tracey grew up in Pueblo and has been a chef on five continents and worked as a culinary instructor at PCC
  • The Hungry Buffalo: Owned by Charles McKay and Sue Ray, who started the business as a food truck.

“I want to gear what we do to what people actually want,” he said, bubbling over with enthusiasm. Feedback is essential. New ideas are essential. Experimenting is essential.

While he’s been “deep in ramen” for two years, he can’t let go of his idea for a so-called Fat Sandwich shop. He proposed it to Fuel & Iron and they convinced him to stick with ramen.

“They are totally unhealthy, totally fast food,” he said of Fat Sandwiches. “It’s shameless munchie food. Do people want that?” 

Next door, Ed Tracey is trying out some New Orleans-style sandwiches in the Steel Crescent Kitchen — his third stab at owning his own place. He’s been a chef on five continents, including in Antarctica. 

“This is so awesome,” he said. “It’s hard work but the exhaustion is tempered by the fact that I don’t have to answer to anybody. I can do what I want.”

He and his wife, Dorothy, made a trip to New Orleans last fall to ensure their recipes were “on point.” Ultimately, he wants a sit-down restaurant, but this experiment is allowing him to learn the business side of restaurants. He’s confident he’ll get his own brick-and-mortar place.

“I’ve spent 40 years in kitchens,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a lifer.”

Cytryn said he’s pleased with how well the food hall is running and how the business owners have become a team.

“We were so focused on getting it open and now we need to focus on operating it,” he said. “It’s seven businesses but they all have to work together to make this work.”

How it came together

After Stern and Cytryn realized they would have to figure out a new investment strategy to buy the Pueblo building, they set about learning everything they could about tax strategies, foundations, grants and loans.

“We ended with a total mix of funding sources, and I didn’t know about any of it,” Stern said. “We had worked as commercial brokers — we were good at evaluating space for a food hall.”

They talked to other developers, including their original partners who left the project because of pandemic constraints but were helpful in pointing them to potential tax credits. They talked to city and state development departments, community development organizations, historical societies, bankers and investors.

Stern rattles off a list of loans, grants, tax credits: Money from three foundations, including two now-paid revolving loans from the Colorado Historical Foundation; loans from four banks; a community revitalization grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade; tax increment financing; a grant from the American Recovery Plan Act; and state and federal historic preservation tax credits.

And then, breathlessly, he said: “I really knew about none of them when I started.”

He called the pandemic itself a “mixed bag.” It slowed the initial purchase and caused some supply issues, but it also brought lower interest rates on loans and nearly $300,000 in Pueblo COVID recovery funds.

Assistance came from people such as Sara Kappel in the State Historic Preservation Office. She knows the ins and outs of tax credits and other incentives when it comes to historical preservation. Plus, she has an affinity for Pueblo.

“Pueblo has the most beautiful building stock in Colorado,” she said. “My goal is to start activating those upper floors of the buildings, increase economic development and bring people downtown.” 

Which is precisely what Fuel & Iron is doing.

Holmes Hardware

The original hardware was built in 1910 by Alva Adams and George Holmes, but it was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt in brick in 1915 and survived the flood of 1923 that washed away much of downtown Pueblo and killed dozens of people.

It remained a hardware until 1980. 

It was listed as an aluminum products facility from 1980 to 1995, although many people don’t believe it was an active business during all of that time. 

After the Escobado family bought it in the mid-1990s several projects were proposed, but nothing was developed.  

Source: Pueblo Historical Society  

The wide-open upper floors of the Holmes Hardware building were relatively easy to convert to apartments under historic preservation rules because they were not finished spaces, Kappal said.

Tax credits are fussy though, and the state and the feds each require their own application process. But the bottom line: Before Fuel & Iron was granted nearly $4 million in tax credits (about half from the state and half from the federal government) it had to prove it had the potential to make money. It needed that certificate of occupancy that came through in April.

Renovation began in September 2021, and it took about 19 months to complete the 28 apartments on the upper floors and the food hall. There’s more to come on adjacent lots and elsewhere in the city, but Stern is hesitant to attach dates. 

“We’ve been wrong about every timeline we’ve set so far,” he said.

More Fuel for Pueblo

With the opportunity to develop more than a food hall in the hardware building and on adjacent land that was part of the purchase, Stern and Cytryn considered what else Pueblo might need. Hotel space? Housing? Event space?

They settled on what Cytryn calls “mission-driven projects” including two spaces to provide workforce housing. The upper floors of the hardware building were divided into 18 one-bedroom, eight two-bedroom and two studio apartments, and those have mostly been leased through the Pueblo Housing Authority, which manages the units.

A kitchen with a stove, sink, and refrigerator.
In addition to its ground-level restaurants, the Fuel & Iron Food Hall leases 28 apartments on its second and third floors in partnership with the Pueblo Housing Authority. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Like much of Colorado — and the nation — Pueblo has a shortage of affordable housing, according to a 2021 Pueblo Housing Assessment and Strategy report. About 55% of renters were considered cost burdened — spending more than 30% of their income on housing — in 2019.

The report specifically encourages adaptive reuse of vacant buildings for housing, such as the apartments added at Fuel & Iron.

The second project will be a stand-alone apartment building with 24 units on a parcel east of the parking lot behind the food hall.

Stern said the additional housing will have to wait until two other projects — the Fuel Kitchen and Fuel Farm — are up and running, but he expects it to come to fruition. He said they anticipated working with IndieDwell, a Pueblo modular home builder specializing in tiny and affordable housing, but that company shut down in April because of cash flow problems.

“We’d like to work with them but we don’t know if they’re going to come back or not,” he said. “We will figure out another contractor if needed — there are others out there — when the time comes.”

Already underway and expected to begin operations this fall is the Fuel Kitchen on Pueblo’s east side. Fuel & Iron is leasing a 26,000-square-foot former cold storage warehouse to develop a commercial kitchen that up to 60 entrepreneurs can use to package food.

a brick building with graffiti on it next to train tracks.

TOP: Fuel & Iron Food Hall Culinary and Education Director Mo Montgomery is the former Director of Hospitality and Culinary Arts at Pueblo Community College and has developed a culinary apprenticeship program at the food hall. BOTTOM LEFT: Having completed the renovation of the Holmes Hardware building, Stern and Cytryn hope to create an event center and organic garden on properties to the west. BOTTOM RIGHT: The two are also developing a rentable kitchen facility, Fuel Kitchens, on Pueblo’s east side that will allow chefs, food trucks and pop-up restaurants. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

a brick building with graffiti on it next to train tracks.
a sign for a fuel kitchen in colorado.

ABOVE: Fuel & Iron Food Hall Culinary and Education Director Mo Montgomery is the former Director of Hospitality and Culinary Arts at Pueblo Community College and has developed a culinary apprenticeship program at the food hall. MIDDLE: Having completed the renovation of the Holmes Hardware building, Stern and Cytryn hope to create an event center and organic garden on properties to the west. BELOW: The two are also developing a rentable kitchen facility, Fuel Kitchens, on Pueblo’s east side that will allow chefs, food trucks and pop-up restaurants. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Among those already on the list awaiting a space are a father-daughter cookie-making duo, a cider producer and makers of jelly, Sriracha hot sauce and tortillas.

Stern said plenty of people want to make food products but can’t afford the commercial setup required. Fuel Kitchen can fill that need and help launch more small businesses.

Next up is Fuel Farm, a nonprofit that will be tucked on vacant land between a building adjacent to the food hall and the railroad tracks that run through downtown Pueblo. The land was part of the original site purchase.

It’s about a quarter of an acre, but the greenhouse will provide vertical growing space and aquaponics and they anticipate producing about 8 acres worth of food, said Mo Montgomery, Fuel & Iron’s culinary education director. 

Stern said the farm should be ready by the next growing season.

Those two projects will provide additional apprenticeships — one in farming and one in food manufacturing, Montgomery said. 

The three-year culinary arts apprenticeship launched in January and the apprentice will walk away with 11 professional certifications, she said. Their first 1,000 hours will be spent working with the food hall restaurants. 

The plan is to secure grant funding for 50% of the apprentices’ pay, with 25% coming from Fuel & Iron and 25% from the restaurants, Stern said.

Further down the road, Stern and Cytryn plan to turn an existing building — the warehouse between the food hall and the planned greenhouse — into an event space. 

The Fuel & Iron effect

After the glitz of the grand opening and the excitement that new bars and restaurants bring to a community came another realization — that the impact would reach beyond the front doors. 

“They needed something like this in Pueblo,” Cytryn said. “Here it’s more game-changing than it would’ve been in Denver or Colorado Springs.”

Pueblo Senior Planner Wade Broadhead said he’s seeing renewed interest in some other old buildings, including the McLaughlin Building directly across the street from Fuel & Iron.

There’s a shop on the street level of the McLaughlin Building, but the upstairs could be converted to housing, Broadhead said. The same is true in many buildings along the historic Union Avenue.

55%

How many Pueblo renters who were cost burdened — spending more than 30% of their income on housing — in 2019.

“They have shown a path of using creative funding resources for historic buildings,” he said. “We’re really excited. It’s a good PR (public relations) tool that we can use to point developers to success stories.”

Kappel said she is talking with a couple people who own historic buildings in Pueblo but nothing formal is underway. Depending on the building and historic preservation restrictions, it can take time to come up with a plan.

The state of Colorado made tax credits more accessible in 2020, so that helps when it comes to adaptive reuse, she said. 

“There’s a positive atmosphere about preservation right now,” she said. “This is one of our examples now, this project. Pueblo is doing it. Trinidad’s doing it. And we’re getting more affordable housing.”

Warner too has noticed an uptick in interest in some of Pueblo’s other vacant buildings, and an appreciation from other Pueblo business owners about the renewed interest in downtown.

He opened his first restaurant, Steel City Diner, in Pueblo in 1999. Then in 2009 came Bingo Burger, which now has a location in Colorado Springs too. His wife also ran the Hopscotch Bakery in Pueblo.

They love being part of Fuel & Iron.

“This has been great for the community,” he said, sweeping his arm toward the new restaurants and noting the workforce housing overhead. “It brought together more progressive-minded people. 

“Some people from out of town saw the beauty and the opportunity in a

building that had sat empty for 40 years.” 

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