Designing Dining: Melissa Friday of Xan Creative

It's not just about the food anymore: Xan Creative has designed some of Denver's most eye-catching restaurants. The firm sees interior design as a key part of the dining experience, but function comes first.
Competition in the restaurant industry is growing increasingly fierce. As ambitious restaurateurs throughout Denver attempt to cozy into the stomachs and hearts of their customers, the experience involves more than just a tasty meal.
That's where Melissa Friday enters the picture. Since 2002, Friday, the Founder and Principal of Xan Creative has become one of Denver's most sought-after restaurant designers, working on popular projects from Snooze A.M. Eatery to Ace Eat Serve, Great Divide Brewery to Illegal Pete's on South Broadway. 
"Our customer base is much more educated and knows the difference between a good or great experience, food, environment or service," says Friday. The design of a restaurant is "key, especially these days. It is part of the experience that diners want when going out. It makes them feel cool to hang in a sweet space with the rest of the hipsters."
Recently, Friday dove into the RiNo neighborhood with sister acts opening in late 2013: Sugarmill, a bakery-lounge and Los Chingones, a Mexican restaurant and bar. She took on the ground-up, two-story redesign at 2470 Larimer St., for the project with Chef/Owner Troy Guard of TAG.
"Restaurants have to be functional first and foremost," Friday explains. "We want to create a better experience for the users -- the staff and the customers. I think a space needs to work well for everyone that interacts with it. Once we make it workable, then we can get to the aesthetic. There's definitely a blend."
Part of that blend entails open kitchens in both of Guard's new establishments, but "with Sugarmill, it takes it one step further," says Noah French, the dessert shop's Pastry Chef and Co-Owner. "There's really no back of the house, so talk about transparency. You can see the dishwasher and the prep cook. But people seem to like the theatrics. It's not like the crap you see on these reality TV shows. There's no editing."
Sugarmill's space seats 29 and, according to French, the chef's counter has been a real hit. The storefront successfully tantalizes window shoppers with its right-as-you-walk-in display case filled with alluring and delicate pastries. Chocolate-hued leather benches and bright blue metal chairs are parked at white marble two-seat tables along a muraled wall, as large bulbs scattered around the ceiling light the space when the garage doors aren't lifted to let in the sunlight.
Next door, Los Chingones greets patrons with a colorfully chaotic floor-to-ceiling splatter painting that beckons hungry visitors upstairs to a second-floor seating area and rooftop deck. Friday found then-New York-based Yatika Starr Fields' work online and couldn't envision any other artist for the project.
"I had really looked for a local artist, but it has to be authentic. I basically stalked [Fields] online and reached out," Friday says. "I assumed he'd charge a fortune to come to Colorado and do this, but coincidentally he was relocating to L.A." So along his cross-country excursion, Fields made a creative pit stop in Colorado.

A unique design firmThe chef's counter at Sugarmill has been a real hit.
It comes as no surprise that a restaurant's sense-stirring architecture, layout and design can go a long way in determining its popularity with the public and critics alike -- that the character of an interior is key to a restaurant's recipe for success, a vital component right there with the food and service. However, Friday says she has "no direct competition" in town.
"There are architecture companies that design restaurants, but we offer a different level of expertise and involvement throughout the project that sets us apart," she explains.
The design guru kicked off her career at Columbia College in Chicago, where she earned a degree in fine arts. Later, she edged toward the more "practical" side, studying industrial design at the Art Institute of Colorado. She soon found her way to the restaurant business, spending roughly 10 years in Boulder as a chef. Though she says she "purposely" left that line of work behind, "It was my mission to bring those two worlds together," notes Friday.
She found that niche while at Goog, a now defunct Denver design shop, where she worked for roughly five years. 
"That's where I really discovered my own resourcefulness," Friday says.
When she moved on to start up her own creative firm, she had projects and clients right out of the gate.  Hell-bent on avoiding the use of her "Melissa" or "Friday," she settled on "Xan," for the company name, shortened from "Xanthus," meaning "blonde and fair-complected," as she and her business partner both were.
Throughout her wide array of projects, she attributes much of her success and enjoyment to "the people."
"If not for them, I wouldn't have anything to show for my ideas," she says. "I try not to choose work based on the project, but on the people. My best work comes when I believe in their concept and get their passion."

A jam-packed drawing board
Los Chingones greets patrons with a colorfully chaotic floor-to-ceiling splatter painting.
Friday currently is in the thick of several projects, two of which include: a brand refresh for Mad Greens, recently acquired by AC Restaurant Group, a newly formed Coors family company; and the relocation and redesign of D Bar, set to move into the ground floor of the One City Block apartments in the Uptown neighborhood.
According to D Bar's Keegan Gerhard, "There's a symbiotic relationship between the front and the back of the house and [Melissa] understands that and designs accordingly."
With the Denver redesign, "We have a clear vision," Gerhard says. "We want to add a full bar, maintain the intimate, jewel-box feel, improve and separate our retail from the dining room. It's kind of a new ballgame, so I'm truly glad we met Xan, because I don't think we could have pulled this off the same way we did six years ago with the original."
Looking ahead, Friday hopes to move beyond her culinary niche with creative office environments, a boutique hotel and even some residential "if it's the right fit," she notes. 
But the Xan focus remains squarely on eateries, and with good reason. "It's really fun to be in Denver right now," Friday says, referencing roughly 200 restaurant openings within the last year. 
"Five, six years ago, people would say, Denver's not a food scene," Gerhard adds. "Now I think it's a great food city. There are very few cities in the country that generate more successful fast-casual options and now there's a huge community of privately owned restaurants. We want to keep Colorado our little secret, but from what I've seen the Denver food scene is changing and more and more becoming a part of the fabric of our city."
And Xan is helping stitch that fabric, making stylish and functional spaces that are venues for local restaurateurs, putting on nightly shows for Denver's ever-growing foodie masses.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
Signup for Email Alerts