Family combines love of food, travel in new Denver restaurant
Eastern Lincoln County has acquired a new culinary gem, an eatery that fuses the adventures of travel exploration with sweet and savory meals.
Located at 2495 North Highway 16, Sweet Destinations: A Travel Café operates primarily as a travel-themed dining experience, evident from the passport themed “boarding pass” menus to the dishes themselves, a few of which are named after popular vacation spots. The café features a breakfast menu of bagels, breakfast sandwiches, omelets and traditional sides, while their lunch and dinner offerings include salads, subs and wraps, all made on fresh, homemade bread.
In addition to the café services, co-owner Patti Merkel offers her planning services, having worked several years for both a travel agency and as the owner of Patti’s Travel Planner.
Merkel runs the business with her husband, Steve, who she said is the genius behind the café’s bakery creations. Their daughter, Ali, even opted to relocate from Wilmington to serve as the restaurant’s general manager.
The concept is relatively foreign in the United States, according to Merkel.
“As far as travel cafés go, we’ve only found one in Seattle,” she said. “We’re foodies and travelers, so we thought, ‘Let’s put them together and see what happens.’”
Patti and Steve Merkel are originally from Rochester, New York, and met while in college. It was not until their 20th high school reunion that the couple began to pursue a romantic relationship. At that time, Patti was living in New York City, having left her travel agency work for the food industry, where she worked as a manager and training coordinator for several years.
“I essentially traveled around and trained all the trainers, who then went back and trained all of the employees,” she explained.
Steve had relocated to Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating with a degree in physical education, he opted to go into a managerial position and, from there, to manufacturing gourmet cookie dough for a company known as The Chippery.
“He sort of fell into the cookie business,” Patti Merkel laughed. “After 21 years, he decided to sell the company to Otis Spunkmeyer. That was nine years ago, and he’s more or less been retired since then.”
Once the couple realized that marriage was in the cards, they opted to relocate to Denver in 1999.
With their three children raised and out of the house, the Merkel couple began brainstorming a way to incorporate their two passions.
“About a year ago, we realized that we really wanted to do something,” she said. “Steve really loves to bake from scratch, and I love the restaurant business, but I didn’t want to give up my travel agency. (In Denver), we have fast food and restaurants like Chill Fire, but nothing quite like us. And with the growth of Denver, we felt it was great timing.”
Over the past two decades, the internet has appeared to dominate vacation planning, visible by the decrease in travel agencies across the country. But for Merkel, business is still booming.
“I can customize someone’s entire trip,” she said. “It all depends on the budget. I have clients all over the country, and it’s primarily through word of mouth.”
Rather than paying a fee upfront, Merkel receives a commission from the resorts and airline vendors she works with.
“I book cruises, all-inclusive trips, from Europe to Alaska to the Caribbean and even domestic trips. I would say my niches are Caribbean and Hawaii trips and ski vacations.
“Sometimes, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime vacation for someone, and it’s my job to make sure that it’s the best experience possible,” she said. “Unlike online booking sites, I have relationships with these hotels and resorts, with their business development managers, and those relationships are so important. If you’re going out of the country, it’s important to use a travel agent.”
For information about Sweet Destinations: A Travel Café, visit www.sweetdscafe.com or follow their twitter: sweetdscafe.