I had a wonderful opportunity to talk to three of the co-owners of Fusions Bar and Grill out on Brighton Blvd. This authentic spot seemed to have a rough start at the very beginning of Covid but managed to overcome with wild tenacity. On the eastern side of the Industry complex, right next to Will Call, this Mongolian restaurant/gay club has an open invitation to anyone and everyone. The owners go out of their way to make sure everyone feels welcome and enjoys themselves. Ideals aside, Fusions boasts a patio, two floors, an open kitchen, and Mongolian recipes that are sought after around the nation! While it is a restaurant in the day, in the evening they ditch the seating and open the floor. Below I ask some questions about what it was like to open during Covid, how they thrived, and what they’re all about.
Q: What are everyone’s names and positions in the Restaurant?
A: Ryan Baca is one of the Co-owners/Managers, Miguel Chavez is one of the Co-Owners/Managers, Oscar Santana is one of the managers/Co-Owner of Fusions.
Q: So where is everyone from?
A: (RYAN) Miguel and I are both natives of Denver. We’re kind of from the same neighborhoods. I was in Northwestern Denver (what is now the Highlands area).
(MIGUEL) I’m originally from Northern Denver.
(OSCAR)Oh man, all over. I’m originally from California but then I moved to Hawaii and now Ryan and Miguel have brought me to Colorado!
Q: How did you meet? How long have you known each other?
A:(MIGUEL) So basically in 2005, I took a family trip to Hawaii. While I was out there I decided to go to one of the gay bars. I bought Oscar a drink and we just started talking about life and what was going on in our lives. That started our friendship. I went back in 2007 with another friend and introduced him to Oscar. That is when I learned that Oscar owned and operated a Mongolian grill place. How long were you doing that?
(OSCAR) Todd and I started our first store in 1998 in Thousand Oaks, California. It’s kind of between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. We went on to open 3 more Mongolian Grill restaurants when we were offered to get bought out. We didn’t want to sell but the money was great so, I was like I guess we are moving to Hawaii.
(MIGUEL) I went to culinary school and business school, so I always had the dream to open a restaurant. I knew that he was successful and the food was great (because of course, I tried it). So for the next ten years, I was trying to get Oscar out here to help me. Yeah, know because while we are all friends they (Oscar and Todd) helped mentor me. So it was perfect.
(RYAN) Miguel and I have known each other for about nine years though we started officially dating 3-4 years ago. We actually got engaged a year ago on New Year. I met Oscar and Todd through Miguel basically. I was always going to help with the restaurant side of things but when we found this amazing space we realized we could hold shows here. While we get that going I’m just running around doing whatever needs to be done.
Q: So this isn’t your first business? What else did you own?
A: (OSCAR) We’ve owned Mongolian restaurants, Mexican restaurants, and a hair salon at one point… We started flipping houses around 2008, 2009. When the economy crashed we took a hit. We had taken profits from the restaurants and the houses we were flipping and invested them into commercial properties. When the crash happened it wiped everybody out it even messed the banks up. That’s what took us to Vegas. Let’s go to Vegas, kinda restart ya know? We opened about 17 stores nationally. They can’t use our name but they could use our recipes. We did a lot of the build-out and would train everyone.
(MIGUEL) This way they couldn’t mess with the name but I know stores are still doing well, selling thousands of bowls a day. There’s a well-known store in Vegas called Stir Krazy, that’s one of our stores.
Basically, Fusions came to be because when we found this space it just happened that we could all put forward what we were really good at. Originally it was going to be kind of like Stir Krazy. But because we found this great space we knew we could expand the idea. We wanted to create a safe place for our community. Everything just came together and that’s also how we came up with the name.
Q: How did you define yourselves? What were you aiming for when you made Fusions?
A: (OSCAR) We’ve always been interested in working with not just gay men but gay women, Trans men, and we want to work with trans women. Some people do get upset, saying ‘ you only have drag queens’. We want to bring the kings in as well! Any performer we want, we want to be welcoming of anyone.
(MIGUEL) We want everyone to feel at home. Even with our staff, we’ve hired people to make us better and more well-rounded. I can’t speak for a lesbian for example. So It’s great having someone around to provide that kind of input. I just don’t want to ever feel like I’m trying to be the voice for somebody. Just because I have trans friends doesn’t mean I get to say what trans people like. Whether we are doing events or it’s another day we are finding those voices and people that feel isolated or unheard and give them a place to be themselves.
(MIGUEL) There are a lot of people that come here ad say the gay community itself has isolated us. They don’t even wanna go out anymore so they will have their own barbecues and parties or this and that and the other. They feel like specific people are being catered to or they are being ignored. It’s great to bring those people into this space and have them feel comfortable.
(MIGUEL) Everyone wants to feel a part of the community but don’t because businesses have these set points of what they like and what they don’t. They won’t budge from it. It’s important for us to also provide a safe place to provide a safe place for youth. We are one of the only places to provide a safe place for youth till 10 o’clock. Ryan and I are second-generation Denver natives. We want our uncles, and nephews to feel just as safe and welcomed here as anyone else. We want this to truly be an inclusive space and anytime that isn’t apparent we want to hear about it so we can grow and fix it!
(RYAN) We are one of the only restaurants in this neighborhood and except Tracks and Triangle, we are the only gay bar here. It’s nice because we’re kind of becoming one of the gay-berhood bars. We’re the only one in the area that serves food. We’re also the only place that is family-friendly. There is no age limit up to 9 o’clock. You can come with kids or if you are one. Our patio is dog-friendly. We are definitely trying to bridge the gaps between the main establishments. Our allies in the community are also welcome. Straight people who have never seen a drag queen were able to come over later in the night and experience something new.
Q: Shortly after you opened, COVID struck. How did that feel? What were your first reactions?
A: (RYAN) We opened Pride weekend on June 25th, 2021. We opened a week earlier for a private event. We signed the lease pre-Covid, February 2020. We signed the lease and were getting ready to open. We were putting our first food order, liquor orders, and getting ready for the soda guns. Then China shut down. We sort of looked at each other and said maybe we should wait a week, just see what happens. We kept waiting and that’s when everything shut down.
(OSCAR) That really hit us in a few ways. Coca-Cola wouldn’t come out to install the guns. Anything we needed to get that needed a specialist no one would come. We basically kept waiting and fixing until Pride of the next year.
(OSCAR) Well since you’re asking, once we signed…. It’s a big space. It’s two levels with a patio. So obviously it’s not the most affordable space but I still feel we are going to do great. It is still the right space for us. Once Covid hit, I got very nervous because of the kind of people we are and the ambitions we had set. We had to change so many things. We could have opened earlier. We could have done the 25 percent and had all the customers wear masks. But we only got one grand opening and we wanted everyone to be able to explore and use the space. I’m glad we waited.
(OSCAR) Industry (the complex Fusions is located in) offered us the ability to chop our rent into really manageable payments. We weren’t in here using anything most of the time. We built the bar, painted the walls, and Todd made all the tables.
Q: Did you hire any staff for the opening?
A: (OSCAR) We did have our friends come out to help us. Solomon was one of our friends that came out and helped us with upgrades.
(MIGUEL) We had a few friends like Rigo that came out from Vegas to help us for opening weekend. It really helped that the four of us are very capable people that were willing to make it work.
(RYAN) We didn’t want to hire a lot of people because we weren’t sure how long we were going to be able to keep people. We did hire 4 bartenders and a barback.
(MIGUELl) We kept it there until we got confident about the choices we had made. We felt good about the space and our product. We were just worried about leading people on. We were incredibly fortunate for the timing.
(RYAN) We hired people a week before opening so we didn’t have to leave anyone in limbo while covid was going on. If anything the wait built up a ton of anticipation during the year and some change of the lockdown. A lot of that was Oscar on Facebook
(OSCAR) We’re new but our social media has really taken off and we have a five star rating on Google. While we are new no one is saying anything bad about us. They like our service and they like the food. Our staff is a great team.
(MIGUEL) We’ve asked our employees why they wanted to work here and they said it’s because they were excited to be here and be a part of this. We always tell our staff to enjoy themselves and to be themselves. So you’ll see servers walking around, singing and dancing just having a good time.
Q: How did Covid change your business plan?
A:(RYAN) In an odd twist of events the time we got from Covid helped us make improvements.
(OSCAR) We were originally going to have everything be self-serve. We were going to give customers the option of all you can eat if they wanted. Customers would put everything into the bowl then give it to the chef and he would cook everything in the sauce they chose. After Covid we knew we couldn’t do that. We weren’t sure if we were going to still open.. March, April, May, everything was just getting worse and worse.
(MIGUEL) No matter how we restructured everything. It still seemed like such a liability. We realized that we would have to make everything so it was all safe.
(OSCAR) We had opened express stores before in malls and other convenient places. We still wanted this to be a sit down casual restaurant. So now the customer picks everything and we cook it for you and bring it out to the table.
(MIGUEL) It definitely helps make everything safer and cleaner too.
Q: So I get its Mongolian grill but what does that mean?
A:(RYAN) The first time I ate at their restaurant in Las Vegas I didn’t know what I was doing. I put a bunch of random stuff in it and it still tasted good but it wasn’t as good as when they would pick for me. They actually know how to piece it together.
(MIGUEL) So we have pre-made bowls. These are bowls that have been favorites from our other establishments. You can add anything and substitute anything as well. We wanted to make a good range of premade items because we have had customers tell us that the full list can be overwhelming. If they feel up to it though they can, of course, build their own from scratch! This way is just more customer-friendly.
(OSCAR) I’ve been to about 50 Mongolian businesses around the country to see what they were doing. The common thread for a lot of them was they had too many sauces, too many powders, add this and add that…. We wanted to offer a lot of veggies and meat without overwhelming anyone.
(RYAN) Yeah, eating out shouldn’t feel like taking a test!
Q: I’m impressed that you have been consistently giving to the community. What are some of the ways your company is helping the community?
A:(RYAN) The first week we opened we raised about 1000 dollars for Feeding Denver’s hungry. Last year we gave away backpacks. We put all sorts of stuff in there, candy, a mask, pride flags, and some hand sanitizer.
(MIGUEL) We are looking for more businesses to be a part of our Pride giveaways. So this recent Pride it had a free meal for us. Hopefully we’ll have a lot of dantions next year. But all the money we get from the bags goes directly to whatever organization we’re working with. We really want to make sure that our actions are matching our words in the community. When we couldn’t open we raffled off a bunch of goods: a florist and a tattoo artist donated services.
(OSCAR) We gave out certificates to the Center on Colfax and Rainbow Alley. We really wanted to give specifically to gay and trans youth. I met a mother who had a trans son.She noticed my rainbow shirt and told me that her kid never wanted to leave the house because he felt like people were staring at him all the time. I gave her a certificate and they came down and had a blast! We are all about love here.
Q: Your business is still expanding and getting its cabaret license soon, correct? Got any plans for the holiday season?
A: (Oscar) We really don’t wanna give anything away but once that goes through we will really be moving! We started doing wings and they have been really well-liked. People will have to stay tuned for more!