Restaurants tend to attract a splash of publicity when they open and morbid curiosity when they close, but scant attention in between.
Joy Maniloff makes a good pitch that it’s notable when a restaurant survives more than two decades in the tough and competitive Roaring Fork Valley market. Her restaurant, Bella Mia, is celebrating its 21st year in business this summer. Maniloff was the manager for 13 years and the owner for the last eight. Bella Mia has been a fixture all those years in a corner spot in the El Jebel Plaza building, visible from Highway 82.
Maniloff said her Italian restaurant has thrived because of loyal customers and veteran cooking and wait staff that, for the most part, have been with her for years. But making it in the restaurant business isn’t getting any easier.
“In this valley, we live for the high seasons, (and) we struggled through the offseason,” Maniloff said one recent day while preparing to open, “and the offseasons seem to be getting longer.”
She believes that the quality and consistency of Bella Mia’s food helped build a reputation after it opened in 1992. Bella Mia was entrenched in the midvalley when the restaurant scene exploded along with the migration of residents out of Aspen in the 1990s. She was able to purchase Bella Mia from former owner Howard Gunther in March 2005, when the valley’s economy was soaring to what then seemed to be unlimited heights.
She toughed it out through the recession, which hit the Roaring Fork Valley later but harder than much of the rest of the country.
“I think the recession totally changed it,” she said of the restaurant business and the busy days of the prior two decades. “It’s slowed down since ’09, and I’m ready for them to be back.”
Many people are going out less to eat than they did before the recession, she said. They are more cautious with their spending because they don’t know what to expect. The slow recovery of the real estate sales and development industry has a direct effect on the bottom line of higher-end, midvalley restaurants such as Bella Mia.
While there are fewer dollars to compete for, there are as many restaurants as ever competing for those dollars.
Maniloff is an upbeat person who believes in focusing on the positive, so she wouldn’t dwell on the tough times facing restaurateurs. She haltingly acknowledged that the presence of Whole Foods Market has added to the competitive bite.
A large share of the grocer’s business is prepared foods. It’s definitely drawing customers, but it’s hard to say if it is enticing people to spend more on prepared foods or stealing business away from restaurants.
Sales tax revenues from Basalt restaurants that have bars are flat from December through March this fiscal year. They have managed only a 2.17 percent gain over the same period last year.
Basalt restaurant’s sales remain down about 3.5 percent for the first third of this year compared to the same time period in 2008. Meanwhile, sales at Basalt’s three grocery stores are up 25 percent when comparing this year to the same period in 2008.
Maniloff is well versed to the changing tides of the restaurant business. She said she has worked in restaurants since she was 15. She moved to Aspen in 1976 and before long, got a job at Guido’s Swiss Inn. She was the bartender for 10 years at Aspen’s Wienerstube restaurant “back in the day,” she said.
She was working for former Aspen restaurant owner Howard Gunther at the Grill in the Park when he decided to open Bella Mia in El Jebel. Maniloff was hired as manager. She jumped at the chance to buy the restaurant in March 2005.
Maniloff has a knack for knowing what to shake up when the business atmosphere changes and what to keep the same. The food is homemade. Pizzas are made in an Italian fruitwood-fired oven. But in a nod to the times, she offers whole-wheat pasta on request as well as gluten-free pasta.
Maniloff is confident that Bella Mia will remain for several more years because of that adaptability.