When Denise Rice and her husband Joe arrived in Jackson Hole in 1989 they went looking for an opportunity to work in the valley. They found one at an outdoor taco stand.
Now Denise and Joe Rice are the owners and anchors of the Blue Collar Restaurant Group that includes the former taco stand, called Merry Piglets, which is one of the top downtown dining destinations.
Last summer Blue Collar opened Pizza Artisan and took over the management of Bubba’s BBQ, bringing the total number of restaurants in the group to five. The other establishments are Sidewinder’s and Ignight. And the Rices have plans to open one more eatery by the end of April.
Their daughter Nicole runs Pizza Artisan with her fiancee and has been involved in her parents’ places since childhood, serving as their “girl Friday.”
With Joe Rice out of town, his wife and daughter sat down during their lunch break at Pizza Artisan to chat about the business empire they helped build and the philosophy that has kept things running smoothly for 25 years of Jackson Hole dining.
Q: So first things first, how did your family get started here in Jackson Hole?
A: [Denise]: Joe was in the Marine Corps, and we moved here back in 1989 and purchased Merry Piglets and kind of just went from there. I think it’s just the restaurant was available at the time so we took it and kind of ran with it.
[Nicole]: But it was only a taco stand.
[Denise]: Right. It was a taco stand over by Haagen Daaz. It was just an outdoor restaurant with no indoor seating, so we were only open in the summer. We had it there for four years and then we moved it to our current location.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to own more than one restaurant? What was that decision like?
A: [Denise]: I don’t know, the opportunity was there. We enjoy the restaurant business. It just kind of happened. It’s nothing we planned, for sure. It’s just the opportunity was there, and the need for the restaurants that we do. Like this place. I think the town needed it.
Q: There is a lot of diversity in the kind of places you guys run. Is that intentional?
A: [Denise]: No. I think we look out and see what’s needed in the town. Like when we did Dolce, there were really no coffee shops in town at the time and we did one. And this one, we were just approached by the owners to help out at the old Giovanni’s. So we don’t seek stuff, it just kind of comes at us. It’s working. We’ve done well so — I mean we have great people that work for us and they keep us going. We call them the young guns.
Q: Once you’ve found one of these opportunities, what is the process like to get it up and running?
A: [Denise]: We get a lot of ideas when we’re traveling and see the need that’s popular and see the concepts that work in the metropolitan areas. They seem to work here.
We’ve got great managers, a great team and we get everyone together and the ideas kind of start rolling. It’s a concept, it’s everybody’s thoughts that come together. We put the menu together, we find a location and we see what works.
[Nicole]: We try to have monthly manager meetings with every restaurant. So even when we were starting to open this place you have your bare minimum down, your concept and your spot, and you get everyone together, and you start bouncing ideas off of each other and you just build it from there.
[Denise]: We learn from all our managers. We’ll sit there, and they’ll say something, and we’ll be like, “Gosh, that’s a good idea.” So it’s just everybody. Everybody’s helping. It’s not just us thinking of these ideas ourselves.
[Nicole]: It is like a big family. Most of the managers who have worked with my parents have been there for 15-plus years. I look at some of those guys almost like older siblings.
Q: Recently you have made a couple of bigger moves with opening [Pizza Artisan] and taking over Bubba’s. How has that been working out? What are some notable things that have been going on with that?
A: [Denise]: I think everything’s been going pretty good. Again, I credit our management team.
[Nicole]: I think they’ve been doing it so long now, you’re not surprised by anything. When we were opening this place one of us would be like, “That’s not going to happen,” and they’d say, “Well, don’t be surprised if it does.” It’s almost like they’ve been through it so many times they’re ready for anything.
[Denise]: It’s been good. Of course you have your ups and downs, but you just deal with it. Everybody’s a team player.
Q: Any plans to expand further?
A: [Nicole]: They say Liberty Burger is going to be the last one.
[Denise]: Just the new Liberty Burger that’s going to be coming in replacing Dolce. That was a concept that we created with a family in Dallas — a burger place, since Billy’s disappeared. Again it’s an opportunity we saw and it seemed like a good time. All of the restaurants serve good burgers, but they’re not a so-called burger joint. That should open at the end of April. We say that’s it.
[Nicole]: We’ll see.
[Denise]: We’ll see.
Q: Any last thoughts on what makes you work?
A: [Nicole]: From my side of things, growing up and seeing it all, I think one of the main reasons why they’re successful is the culture that they’ve built. The fact that we look at everybody as family and friends. Their big words are “we” and “ours,” not “I.” I think that’s one of the biggest things in why they’re so successful. It’s this big group effort, and they lead by example.
[Denise]: It’s in our blood, this business is in our blood. It’s just like anybody else being a banker, it’s what they know. It’s what we know.