Community profile: From dishes to development — Roaring Fork Valley real estate broker began career in uncle’s kitchen
A young man working in his uncle’s pan-Asian restaurant around the turn of the millenium, Mike Mercatoris was prepping to-go orders and listening to his headphones when the kitchen’s head chef nabbed his attention.
Mercatoris pulled back his headphones, and in broken English, the chef said, “You, me, we’re going to start our own restaurant.”
“I was just like, ‘OK, man,’” Mercatoris recalled, explaining he blew it off as kitchen staff banter.
But, true to his word, Chef Ming “Henry” Zheng opened the first Zheng Asian Bistro with Mercatoris in a little El Jebel strip mall nearly a decade later.
“We had no idea if it was going to work,” Mercatoris said. “But I saw strip mall restaurants work in Florida, so I believed we had a chance.”
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The strip mall wasn’t their first choice. Initially, the pair looked at a riverside location. Their real estate agent said he could probably get them the picturesque spot but not without a caveat.
“He had us stand outside the riverside building at 6 p.m. on Friday for about 10 minutes,” Mercatoris said. “Maybe three people passed by.”
The agent then took them to an available strip mall location, and repeated the experiment.
“Forty or so people passed by in 10-20 minutes,” Mercatoris remembered, his eyes lighting up as he retold the story.
“I was like, ‘We can do this.’”
Zheng Asian Bistro, which later opened a second location in Glenwood Springs, was just one stone on Mercatoris’ path to commercial real estate and entrepreneurialism, but more importantly, it was the first.
Born in State College, Pennsylvania, Mercatoris, 49, grew up near a lake and still nurtures a love for water.
“It was my junior year of college, and I was looking forward to one last summer on the lake with the boys,” he said.
Although his uncle, Doug “Merc” Mercatoris, 71, offered Mike a job working in Snowmass Village at Merc’s pan-Asian restaurant, Mountain Dragon, Mike initially shot the idea down.
Arriving home from Mount Union University on a Wednesday, Mercatoris’ dad asked if he was ready for a great summer.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t wait to see everybody,’” he recalled. “My dad said, ‘Great, here’s your plane ticket. You leave for Colorado on Saturday.’
Mercatoris’ mirthful laughter filled his sparsely decorated office Thursday as he conjured memories from his first summer in Colorado.
“They literally shipped me out,” he said, smiling. “They knew I was going to be all trouble that summer.”
Previously, Mercatoris had only visited his uncle’s place during the winter for family ski trips. Having never viewed the Roaring Fork Valley in the summer, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I mean, I just fell in love with it,” Mercatoris said. “I went back to college and graduated with a major in psychology and a minor in business management, then I packed my things and came back as fast as I could.”
Leaving the nest
Even with a degree in Mercatoris’ hand, his uncle Merc wasn’t going to just hand over his business to the young upstart.
“When he came back, I realized he might be serious about pursuing a career as a restaurateur,” Merc said. “So I started him out in the kitchen, because every successful restaurateur should know their business back to front.”
It was during Mercatoris’ time in the kitchen that he struck up a friendship with Zheng, who, at 21 years old, was Merc’s head chef.
“I don’t know if it was because we were the same age or what, but we hit it off,” Mercatoris said.
For the next eight or nine years, the pair discussed plans for their own venture. Mercatoris, the charismatic businessman, would work the front, and Zheng, the ambitious chef, would work the back.
Merc and other restaurateurs from around the valley helped the two get their plans off the ground, but that’s where Merc drew the line.
“I told them I wanted to be the uncle who helped with the kids, not the uncle who helped with the bookkeeping,” Merc said.
Mercatoris and Zheng opened Zheng “One,” as Mike called it, around 2000. Business picked up, and they opened a second location in Glenwood Springs around 2007.
“We got to this point where we wanted to do more, but we had surrounded ourselves with people like us — people with their own ideas,” Mercatoris explained.
Rather than expanding Zheng into more stores, they explored partnerships with their employees, which led to creation of Grind and the revitalized Riviera Supper Club between 2014 and 2016, Mercatoris said.
Business was good, if not a little too good.
“I worked myself out of a job,” Mercatoris said, grinning as he shrugged his shoulders.
Finding his niche
With about two decades of restaurant management and entrepreneurship under his belt, Mercatoris turned to consulting.
Rather than building new restaurants from the ground up, he wanted to help others learn how. He created ZG Consulting, an ode to both the Zheng and Grind restaurants as well as a clever throwback to the license plate prefix “ZG,” which denoted a person’s local status.
During one consulting project, Mercatoris said he was approached by a friend who worked at Sotheby’s International Realty. If Mercatoris were to secure his real estate license, he would have a job with the company.
“After we sold the Riviera Supper Club in 2018, I did have time (to pursue real estate licensing),” he recalled.
Mercatoris enjoyed the work, but Sotheby’s was focused on luxury residential real estate, and Mercatoris discovered his interest centered around commercial ventures, specifically in the restaurant industry.
“There wasn’t a lot of people in brokering that knew both sides of the business,” Mercatoris said. “I had written checks for 90 employees across four restaurants, and I had that inside knowledge that I could use to help both tenants and landlords. I saw a niche that I could fill.”
In 2019, another acquaintance from the valley, Krista Klees, introduced Mercatoris to Slifer, Smith and Frampton Real Estate, and asked if he would like to head up the company’s new commercial division.
“I said yes, so long as we could re-imagine it as the commercial and entrepreneurship division,” Mike said.
Mentoring the next generation
Several people approached Mercatoris over the years with questions about how to start their own restaurants, including Altai Chuluun, who later partnered with Mike Lowe to create GlenX, a co-working space and business incubator.
Mercatoris followed Chuluun’s and Lowe’s project with interest, and after the idea was rebranded as Coventure, Mike said he convinced Slifer, Smith and Frampton to sponsor the initiative.
In a small office tucked into a back corridor on Coventure’s third floor, a sign with Mike’s name is set atop a mostly empty bookshelf.
“I work out of my backpack most of the time,” he said, throwing up his hands at the office’s lack of decoration.
Nowadays, Mercatoris handles commercial transactions across the valley, advises and mentors new entrepreneurs at Coventure and helps the next generation negotiate and understand lease terms, helping them avoid the pitfalls his uncle once pointed out to him.
“I think it is incumbent on every generation to help the next find their place in the world,” he said.
It’s been a long journey away from the lakes of his youth, but when the workday ends, he still finds his way back to the water.
“I was big into kayaking when I first got to Colorado,” he said. “But now, my wife and I own a Centurion wakesurfing boat. We spend every weekend we can out on the water with our two kids.”
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at email@example.com.
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