Joe Campana doesn’t do anything halfway. So when he hit bottom about 10 years ago, it didn’t just mean losing his business, his house and his fiancée.
He also lost his hips.
Yes, his hips.
“I was diagnosed with avascular necrosis,” Campana says, referring to a condition defined by a shortage of blood to the bone. “And then I had a double hip replacement, so I couldn’t walk for six months.”
So there he lay, $50,000 to $60,000 in debt, popping painkillers and nursing the loss of his first restaurant, the Metropolitain. Campana was only in his mid-30s, but he recognized the precariousness of his situation. “I don’t know what happened,” he says, “but I decided, I’m not going out like that.”
He got healthy, learned to walk again and begged his way into his old bartending job at Phantom Canyon Brewing Company. He paid some bills, read some books and found an investor. Then, finally, Campana got back in the game.
Today, he rules it. In 2011, he launched The Rabbit Hole in the chic underground space that formerly housed the Metropolitain. Since then, Campana, now 44, has opened three other restaurants. There’s SuperNova, Colorado Springs’ first barcade; Bonny & Read, downtown’s only dedicated fresh seafood restaurant; and as of August, Stir Coffee & Cocktails at the Bon Shopping Center. (See “The Culinary Collection.”)
Come spring, there will be yet another. Campana says he’s signed a lease for part of the old SouthSide Johnny’s building, which is slated for a complete overhaul as Denver-based Atomic Cowboy takes over the main space on South Tejon. He’s calling it Cork & Cask. “We’re going to have 200 to 300 bottles of bourbon and scotch, probably close to 50 to 100 bottles of wine—20 to 25 by the glass,” he says.
If Campana’s concepts seem all over the map, well, they are. Though he cut his teeth in country clubs where his mom worked as a bartender, he is in no way persnickety. He talks openly about having worked in corporate environments like TGI Friday’s, Red Lobster and Houlihan’s in his native Florida and in the Boston area. On the subject of craft cocktails, he quips, “In my opinion, drinks are drinks.” Despite having just opened a coffee shop, he says, “I don’t like coffee. I don’t need the caffeine.”
What he does like is helping to build a city. And he does it with a dam builder’s eye: Where is there a hole? Where could we use some reinforcement? With a zeal that other East Coast transplants can appreciate, Campana sees Colorado Springs’ built-in advantages—the mountains, the weather, the relative affordability—as full of untapped potential. “I want to see this city grow,” he says.
It was Campana’s vision and enthusiasm, says Jerry Flesher, that convinced him to invest in the Rabbit Hole concept back in 2011. A longtime business owner and the father of Campana’s best friend, Flesher liked the plan for a slick downtown space with a full late-night menu. Plus, he says, “It didn’t require a lot of tenant improvements or a lot of investment in new equipment. It was basically all there.”
That’s because Campana had laid the groundwork a few years before, when starting the Metropolitain, “I chipped off the floor,” he says. “I did demo, design. It was nine months of 16-hour days.”
Ultimately, Campana says, it was a bad partnership that submarined the Metropolitain. So today, he is obsessed with creating a healthy work culture. That starts at the top, where Flesher remains a happy silent partner at both The Rabbit Hole and Bonny & Read. (Campana bought him out at SuperNova.) But Campana also revels in having recently seen one of his chefs and a server purchase their own homes.
At Stir, former SuperNova manager Amber Stull has signed on as partner and operating owner. From behind the bar of the gleaming new space, Stull today says people like working for Campana because he doesn’t ask his employees to do anything he wouldn’t do. “He’ll come in, and if it’s busy, he’ll hop behind the bar and start washing dishes or go bus tables,” she says. “He does that at every single place he owns, and it makes a big difference.”
Campana insists that he’s actually scaling back his work schedule—for the good of his health and a new relationship. But he admits to talking with some investors about possibly franchising The Rabbit Hole. And then, of course, there’s Cork & Cask. And this nagging idea for an authentic Italian place downtown … or a unique Asian concept …
“The problem,” he says, “is that I can’t sit still.
The Culinary Collection
A rundown of Joe Campana’s restaurants, listed in order of their opening dates.
Joe’s Take: “It’s an eclectic, Alice in Wonderland feel. We have a lot of game on our menu, from lamb to buffalo to trout to seafood.”
Owner’s Order: Bacon-wrapped rabbit meatloaf, $17.
101 N. Tejon St.
Joe’s Take: “Just get a roll of quarters, OK? … You can drink an old classic shot of Mad Dog 20/20 for $1, or Boone’s Farm, have a burger and play Donkey Kong.”
Owner’s Order: SuperNova burger, $12.
111 E. Boulder St.
Joe’s Take: “We hand-cut all our fish daily. We get a tuna that’s … bigger than you. And everything is 48 hours out of the water.”
Owner’s Order: Yellowtail snapper for two, $35.
101 N. Tejon St., #102
Joe’s Take: “It’s just a cool little hip restaurant. It’s got the garage doors, full patios; it’s got a great coffee from Barista Coffee in downtown Colorado Springs and Corvus Coffee in Denver.”
Owner’s Order: Colorado club, $9.
2330 N. Wahsatch Ave.
Cork & Cask
Coming in 2018.
528 S. Tejon St.