The Welsh Rabbit began as a cozy, little cheese shop in Old Town, developed into a wine bar, expanded into two separate businesses, and along the way created one of the most inspiring and entrepreneurial stories we’ve heard: a story that could only come out of Fort Collins.
“We’re owned by two brothers and a wife,” said Dean Hines, co-owner of The Welsh Rabbit. “Nate and I are brothers; we grew up in Dallas. I moved [to Fort Collins] in 1986 to go to CSU for my undergraduate, met my wife in ‘86 or ‘87, and married her in ‘89. She’s originally from Connecticut, but when we graduated, we decided not to go back to Connecticut or Dallas. We stayed here. I graduated in 1991 and got a job where I worked until 2008. In ‘08, what happened to everyone happened to me; I got laid off. In 2009, I went back to CSU to get an MBA in a program called Global, Social and Sustainable Enterprise.”
“During that whole time period, Nate had been a cowboy for almost ten years,” Dean explained. “Then he ended up going to culinary school to become a classically trained chef and worked as a chef for almost another ten years. He was in between restaurants and I had just finished my MBA when my parents treated us to a ski weekend up in Ski Granby with Nancy and my kids.”
And it was on the lifts at Ski Granby that The Welsh Rabbit was first sighted.
Dean continued, “On the lifts, Nate and I were talking about what he was going to do and what I was going to do. One of those nights, Nancy said, ‘Hey Nate, you oughta move to Fort Collins and you should open up a cheese shop because we think Fort Collins is ready for something like that.’ The way she tells the story is that she got up to go get another bowl of chili and she comes back and all of a sudden the pronouns had changed. It wasn’t ‘Nate, you should do this.’ It was, ‘We could do this and we could do that.’
That excitement carried the trio through the next week. Nate Hines extended his stay in Colorado while he, Dean and Nancy explored Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, finding other cheese shops, meeting other shop owners and learning about the communities.
Dean said, “Being the older, wiser brother, I said, ‘Let’s let the excitement settle and think about this for a couple weeks.’” So Nate went back to Ohio, but when Dean called him two weeks later, Nate picked up the phone and said, ‘The van’s packed. I’ll be there within a week.'”
“So he moved out from Ohio in March 2011,” said Dean. “We opened in March 2012. We went from idea to launch within a year.”
Long story short, Nancy was right. Fort Collins was, indeed, ready for a cheese shop. But very quickly, Dean, Nate and Nancy discovered they were creating something much more.
“The joke is, we thought we were opening a cheese shop, but really what we were opening was a little wine bar,” Dean laughed.
He went on to say, “After we had been open for a few weeks, we added a couple tables. For us, it was just a play to figure out what to do with leftover cheese. Some cheese shops just throw it away, but we couldn’t wrap our brains around that much food waste. So we thought we could take the leftover bits of cheese, arrange them artfully with Nate’s experience and serve it with a glass of wine. We had two tables and those consistently stayed full so we added more and more and more. One thing led to the next and we ended up being able to sit about 28 in that space. It was packed.”
But The Welsh Rabbit Cheese Shop, even while it was just a cheese shop and a wine bar, wasn’t just a place for cheese and wine. It was a space for people. “What we inadvertently created was this space that was both a retail space and a sit-down space,” Dean said. “It wasn’t a bar, it wasn’t about beer, and it wasn’t a space that we were trying to push people through. We went out of our way to make it easy for people to stay. We tried to provide a space where people had the time and energy so they could really connect eyeball to eyeball.”
And that effort has extended and exploded into The Welsh Rabbit Bistro. Now two separate businesses, both operating under the name The Welsh Rabbit, Dean, Nate and Nancy are both retail shop owners and bistro operators.
“What we’re trying to accomplish at The Welsh Rabbit is to reclaim beer, cheese and wine for the everyday person,” Dean said. “All these things have been elevated above what normal people used to eat all the time. Thankfully, in some cases, but it’s becoming intimidating. We want to remove all the barriers to enjoy cheese. That’s why we dress like this. We don’t wear the white; we don’t wear the hats; we aren’t cheesemongers. We’re on this cheese journey with you.”
And that journey is one they’ve carefully curated and crafted whether you’re on the cheese shop side or the bistro side. As an example, Dean explained, “There’s artisan cheese and there’s farmstead cheese. Artisan cheese would be like MouCo, a local cheesemaker who gets their milk and makes their own cheese on a small-scale. The owner is in there every day; they’re really close to the process. The farmstead takes that one step further; they’re the producer of the milk and they’re producing the cheese. And we buy both cheeses in the largest formats they come in, so if it’s a 44-pound block of cheddar, that’s what we’re bringing in. Then, we break it down and sell it. So, even though we might be selling some of the same cheese you’ll find at Whole Foods, we’re bringing it into the shop in its largest format and caring for it the way it needs to be cared for. You can taste the difference.”
And now that Dean has helped us tell the basic story of The Welsh Rabbit, let’s get into the part that makes Old Town, well, Old Town.
“I didn’t do this on my own,” said Dean. “You can be the lone wolf if you’re that talented and you’re that rich; I’m not that talented and I’m not that rich. But I know how to be kind and I know how to build relationships. Out of that, people have bent over backward to help me.”
That help has come in the form of building leases, co-hosting special events and even menu collaborations.
“When we were getting established at the shop, we would close on Mondays and do events: cheese pairings and stuff like that,” Dean explained. “Nobody was doing beer pairings at that time, so we talked to our friends at New Belgium and we did this beer pairing event. They threw their 900-pound gorilla behind it and they made us successful. They went out of their way for the little guy.”
As the story continued, New Belgium paved the road for a pairing with Odell Brewing and that was followed by a wine passport event with Wilbur’s Total Beverage. Speaking on the topic of collaboration in Fort Collins, Dean said, “We’re successful because of Wilbur’s. And the owner at Wilbur’s didn’t know me from Adam. We’re deeply grateful for the collaborative experience of Fort Collins.”
When we asked what makes that experience unique to Fort Collins, Dean said, “We’re a university town, we’re a beer culture. Odell, New Belgium and Coopersmith’s built the microbrewery business in Fort Collins, and they set the groundwork for collaboration. They compete with each other, yes, but they collaborated.”
And that collaborative atmosphere drove the growth of The Welsh Rabbit, too. “We didn’t build our first wine menus ourselves,” Dean said. “We went to the bartender at Ace Gillett’s and to servers at other restaurants. We told them what we were doing, gave them our parameters and said, ‘We want you to choose the wines.’ So they chose the wines for our flights then we gave them a bio at the top of the flight menu.”
Dean went on to explain, “People pushed back and said, ‘Why would you have your competitors choose your wine menu?’ I said, ‘This is what Fort Collins does. We collaborate.’ We were sending people back and forth. Are we competing? Sort of, but Fort Collins has something special in the collaborative standpoint.”
“The reason we’ve gotten where we are so quickly,” Dean said, “I absolutely attribute to people who have been willing to help us along the way.”
Today, The Welsh Rabbit operates in the heart of Old Town and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. “We’re now part of the fabric of Old Town,” Dean said. “People say Old Town and Welsh Rabbit in the same breath.”
But the team is still looking forward toward growth.
Dean explained, “The shop hasn’t flourished the way the bistro has flourished. The shop has maintained and grown incrementally, but I want it to take this quantum leap forward, so we’re looking at some new ideas.”
And one of those ideas involves local delivery. “There’s a growing percentage of people who want what Old Town has to offer, but they don’t want to come to Old Town to get it,” Dean said. “The people who have experienced The Welsh Rabbit know what their favorite cheeses are. So how do I make it easier for you to get those cheeses? I deliver right to your door.”
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