By January, Karl Fallenius was done. After nearly two years of operating Owlbear, his popular barbecue joint at 2826 Larimer Street, largely as takeout-only, Fallenius announced that the restaurant would close after service on January 23.
But it never did open for that last day. On January 22, as a long line of Owlbear fans waited for a final taste of barbecue, Fallenius got a call informing him that one of his mainstays, Teven Hudgins, was in intensive care. Hudgins passed away on January 23 “from organ failure due to insufficient oxygen for an extended period,” with excessive alcohol, smoking, weight and undiagnosed sleep apnea listed as triggers in a statement released by his family shortly after.
The loss hit the tight-knit team hard, recall colleagues Juan Pablo Llano and Michael Graunke. “He was a great inspiration…as far as how to cook barbecue, but also how to break the rules a little bit,” Llano says.
“We had a couple other cooks that came through, but we were the core crew during the pandemic, which was really formative.”
So formative that Llano, Graunke and partner Esteban Gallardo will open their own barbecue restaurant, Pit Fiend, in the former home of Owlbear later this month. And Hudgins has inspired them every step of the way.
“That’s the biggest change. When people talk about how this isn’t going to be quite Owlbear, I think to myself, ‘Well, yeah, you’re right,'” says Llano. “But mostly because Teven’s not here anymore. That’s the biggest difference.”
While Hudgins, who moved to Denver from Texas, came to Owlbear with plenty of barbecue knowledge, Llano and Graunke had none. “We learned a lot and grew as barbecue cooks tremendously, because we were at zero. Karl helped with a lot of that, and we’re very grateful for that experience,” Llano says. All three started working for Fallenius right around when Owlbear’s brick-and-mortar location opened in May 2019; before that, it had operated out of Finn’s Manor and did a series of pop-ups.
“I always knew that when this opened, I wanted to be part of the team,” Llano recalls. “It was my first cooking job; I was just very interested in it from having tried the barbecue.” Before that, he’d worked a series of jobs, including health advising, pizza delivery and a short stint at 14er Brewing.
“[Juan Pablo] was a regular at Finn’s, and when we were building out the restaurant, he kept checking in, asking if there was a place for him on the team,” Fallenius says.
Fallenius had met Graunke, who was formerly a teacher in Wisconsin but had been doing hospitality gigs on the side for years, when both were working at the now-closed Bar Fausto before Owlbear opened. Like Llano, Graunke was vocal about wanting to be part of the team at the barbecue joint. “He very quickly became my number-one guy. He just constantly stepped up to every challenge in front of him — and even ones not put in front of him,” Fallenius adds, laughing. “I was super lucky to have both of them on my team from the get-go.”
Hudgins, it turned out, had likely met Fallenius years earlier, at a barbecue joint back in Austin. “He used to hang out at the Blue Ox — my first barbecue job — although we didn’t fully realize that until he’d been working with me for a bit,” Fallenius says. “He really cared a lot about Owlbear.”
So did customers, who quickly made Owlbear a go-to in RiNo.
But a year into the pandemic, Llano and Graunke, along with Gallardo, who’d worked in a grocery store in Florida and in the marijuana industry in California before moving to Denver, started thinking about starting their own food business. “The three of us were considering completely pivoting,” Graunke explains. “We were preparing to do our own thing, and didn’t expect it to be barbecue. We were just thinking Owlbear would go on without us.”
But then Fallenius called each of the Owlbear cooks to tell them that he was planning on shutting down for good—a decision driven by a number of factors, including operational challenges like food costs, but also mental health and burnout.
“The tipping point was when we heard [Karl] was considering selling the smokers,” Graunke remembers. “We started thinking, ‘We know how to use them….’ Honestly, Teven was a big part of that. Right at the last couple of days, we were talking with him about how we could possibly keep this going in some way, because none of us were ready to be done cooking barbecue specifically.”
While the details of the deal to take over the Owlbear space were being finalized, Llano, Graunke and Gallardo began putting on a series of pop-ups. “It’s been a really fun way to try out new recipes and ideas that, when you’re doing full-service barbecue, may not be practical. But it challenges us to expand our horizons as far as what we can cook and what we feel comfortable cooking, and we’ve gotten some good ideas out of it that may continue,” Graunke says.
“We want to expand beyond traditional Texas barbecue,” Llano notes.
“Or even just American barbecue. We have interest in Mexican barbecue and Australian and South African and Korean. There are a lot of countries that have barbecue traditions or similar live-fire traditions that we want to explore,” Graunke adds.
Pit Fiend’s first two pop-ups focused on hot dogs and sausages. Graunke and Llano “are the ones that started to do sausage at Owlbear,” Fallenius recalls. “I provided the ingredients, they provided the time. They’d come in and make it during their free time, which is a testament to how much they care.”
Making sausage is a way to use what would otherwise be food waste, but it’s also been a chance to explore new ideas that may make the Pit Fiend menu, like a Colombian blood sausage and an Argentinian choripán sausage served with chimichurri.
The partners have also landed on a new take on pulled pork, done mojo style with citrus and garlic instead of the Carolina style they did at Owlbear. They also want to continue to offer vegan options like jackfruit, something that resonated with Owlbear’s customers. “The sides will be all vegan and vegetarian, too, as much as possible,” Graunke notes. The plan is to have six or so meats and three veggies on the permanent menu, with other specials rotating frequently. Combo plates will also be a new offering.
While the trio wants to make Pit Fiend their own, there will be some other holdovers. “The Texas-style brisket from Owlbear is never going to change,” Graunke says. Nor will the mac and cheese, which will be dubbed Owlbear Mac. “That’s what we feel like we kind of owe to Owlbear.”
One of the challenges Fallenius says he faced was balancing rising costs with keeping menu prices affordable. And like their mentor, the Pit Fiend partners feel it’s important to use high-quality product like prime beef and Duroc heritage pork. “We don’t want to switch to a lower quality just because it’s cheaper,” Graunke explains.
So they’re going to be battling rising prices, too. “Even just since we did our first brisket pop-up three weeks ago, I think the price has gone up like eighty cents per pound. It’s significant,” Llano admits, adding that they hope the public understands that supporting sustainable practices comes at a cost
The team is keeping some things the same. The interior of the space hasn’t changed much; there’s fresh paint and some updates in the kitchen, but “we wanted to keep it familiar and comfortable,” Graunke says.
Also sticking around—even more prominently—is the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) theme. Like Owlbear, “Pit Fiend is a monster in D&D…so our joke is that Pit Fiend is the guy that makes the low-quality barbecue, so we want to try to rise above that and defeat the Pit Fiends,” Graunke explains . “It’s just a fun way to introduce our hobby into our cooking.” A line of willows in the works will also boast D&D monster names.
The logo, too, takes inspiration from the fiery Pit Fiend and will honor Hudgins. It’s being designed by Sam Kuhn, an artist at Copperhead Tattoo next door. “lastsummer, [Teven] had a bit of an accident on one of those Lime scooters and knocked out his four front teeth,” Graunke recalls.
“So we requested that [Sam] leave out the front teeth. It’s very subtle, but it’s very much an homage,” Llano adds. “A lot of what we do around here, we think of him. Not only because of what he already taught us, but also his voice in our heads telling us, like, ‘Ah, just try it, see what happens!’ Just encouraging. He was very encouraging…he really instilled confidence. That was one of his biggest gifts from him, and that’s what we’re trying to do in tackling this big challenge, is to live up to that confidence that he had in us.
Part of that challenge is moving on without Hudgins while reflecting on lessons learned at Owlbear. While Fallenius was the sole owner, this trio has the benefit of sharing responsibilities. “Holy fuck, I wish I’d had people with me,” Fallenius admits. “There was never a partnership like that. They’re in a place where they can really support each other and hold each other accountable.”
“We work as a committee, and we definitely check with each other on things and help each other out,” Llano says. “Cramming opening a business into five months has been a huge challenge, but we’re getting close to the end of it, and it’s exciting.”
Graunke, who started as the overnight cook at Owlbear, often working from midnight until noon or even later before returning at midnight to do it again, is researching alternative methods to ensure that the team gets proper breaks and balance in their schedules. “We’re trying to make the barbecue work for us instead of working ourselves to the bone for the barbecue,” he explains.
Another lesson: learning to accept support. “I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t know how to take help when it was offered,” Fallenius says. “They’ve learned a lot from my mistakes. At least I hope they fucking did.”
They did, the partners agree. “One of the things we want to learn from Owlbear is how we can take some of that burden off of ourselves by accepting help when it’s offered,” Llano says. “Because there are a lot of people who want to help us. It’s sometimes hard to accept that help, but we need to. We’ve seen that we can’t do it alone. We can’t do it without other people supporting us, so we’re really fortunate to have that.”
Much of that support has come from the community. “It’s been really invaluable how much encouragement we’ve gotten and how many people are looking out for us,” Llano adds.
Other barbecue joints have been supportive, too. “In Denver, in particular, it’s more collaborative than competitive in the barbecue scene,” Graunke says. “It’s good to be able to swap ideas and talk shop with people in the field and don’t feel like it’s a bunch of trade secrets, because barbecue is better when it’s open-sourced.”
Also rooting for Pit Fiend: Fallenius, even though he’s still grieving the end of Owlbear. “It’ll be really great to see what they can do there,” he says, adding that Llano and Graunke “really are some of the best people I’ve ever met. I have all the faith in the world in those guys, and I think they’re going to make something really special. … As sad as I am that it’s not Owlbear, I’m glad it’s something.”
And the team feels Hudgins rooting for them, too. “We spent so much time together in this space, so sometimes it’s difficult walking in here. But we feel really inspired and driven to think of [Teven] as smiling down on us,” Llano says.
“He had more to say,” Graunke concludes.
Pit Fiend is located at 2826 Larimer Street and is planning to open to the public on Friday, May 20; it will also be at Top Taco on June 23. For more information, visit pitfiendbbq.com.