Gwyn’s High Alpine a true family business
February 4, 2014
Editor's note: "Their Generation," an ongoing series profiling longtime residents of the Roaring Fork Valley, runs every other week in The Aspen Times.
Like many people's career choices, starting an on-mountain restaurant in Snowmass was an unexpected opportunity for Gwyn Knowlton and George Gordon.
Gordon, from Montana, met Knowlton, of California, in college and moved to Aspen in 1969. Now 63, Knowlton followed a couple of years later, planning to take one summer off and go to grad school, she said. However, life had different plans, and 34 years later they are still the co-owners of Gwyn's High Alpine, the restaurant at the base of the High Alpine lift at Snowmass ski area.
The pair, who were married at the time, started in the restaurant business at Aspen Highlands, where Gordon had been running ski-racing programs and working in marketing. After he'd been doing that for a few years, Whip Jones, who owned the ski area at the time, needed someone to run his restaurants.
“The reason we have been so successful is because of our employees. We’ve got a lot of long-term employees for consistency, and they really somehow, for some reason, are dedicated to making it fantastic.”
Owner, Gwyn’s High Alpine
"He called me in and told me I was going to run the restaurants … but that I would have to have Gwyn work with me," said Gordon, 65.
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"What were we, 23 and 24 when we started the restaurants at Highlands?" Knowlton said. "It became — it was — really fun so I deferred."
Knowlton ran the Merry Go Round, and Gordon ran a restaurant at the base.
"It was very casual back in those days," Knowlton said. "I was always there before the patrol or anybody else, so I turned on the lifts, loaded, went up — there was nobody at the top — and we just got off and went right to the Merry Go Round."
At first, Gordon and Knowlton ran the restaurants with the Peirce family, who had operated them for a few years and wanted to train the couple during that first season.
"Right after Christmas I can remember Everett (Peirce) … sitting us down and saying, 'You know, you guys, you know what you're doing. We're going to Mexico,'" Knowlton said. "So they took off and left. That was our very brief training."
In the late 1970s, Aspen Skiing Co. decided it wasn't going to honor a four-mountain pass. Jones also changed the terms of his lease with the restaurateurs, so Knowlton and Gordon looked to the growing resort of Snowmass.
At the time, Skico was looking for new operators for one of its restaurants. Skico didn't want to be involved, but the Forest Service didn't want a separate lessee on the land that Skico already was leasing from it. So Gordon and Knowlton entered into a long-term lease with Skico, opening the eatery in the 1979-80 season and expanding it the following year.
Today, Gwyn's High Alpine is a family affair. Whitney Gordon DeLuca, one of Knowlton and Gordon's two daughters, is the manager. Her husband, Willy, is head chef, and their son, James, rides up with them on a snowmobile every morning. Even though Knowlton and Gordon are no longer married, they remain good friends and business partners.
"We wanted to stay really good parents for our children, and this was what we knew would kind of be their legacy," Knowlton said.
Their relationship also works from a business standpoint.
"He couldn't care less about food," Knowlton said. "I love food. He does a lot of the business end of it, and from that standpoint we work really well as a unit."
Several employees, including kitchen managers Norm Sattler and Karen Kunzer, have worked at Gwyn's High Alpine for decades. Every season, about 50 percent of employees return, which is high for a seasonal restaurant, Gordon said.
"The reason we have been so successful is because of our employees," Gordon said. "We've got a lot of long-term employees for consistency, and they really somehow — for some reason — are dedicated to making it fantastic, and it's really up to them. We may direct them and help them and give them some direction, but they're the ones who do it."
Gordon added that there are hundreds of people still living in Aspen who have worked at least a season at Gwyn's.
Another key attribute he noted is the variety of the food offered. New items are incorporated into the menu, and Sattler and Kunzer's daily soup creation — one veggie, one meat — are different every day. During football season, they're also inspired by teams playing that day. The staff currently is running a contest, allowing guests to submit their most creative Broncos- and Seahawks-inspired names for a chance to win champagne breakfast for two (visit the Gwyn's Facebook page for more information).
Another reason they stick around the area is that it allows them to follow their passions, Gordon said. In the mid-70s, they both started flying gliders and planes, and now Gordon spends his summers flying around the country. Knowlton still likes to ski, and she enjoys other mountain activities in the summer.
The restaurant's lease with Skico has been renewed every 10 years, so this current installment won't expire for another six.
"I still remember Everett Peirce looking at us and saying, 'You'll do well, but people can only last about four to five, maybe six years in this business, so you need to make plans for what you're going to do afterwards,'" Gordon said. "So when you say are we surprised to be here, yes."
Gordon said Skico has been an excellent landlord.
"Their goal, and ours too, is to make sure all the food on the mountain is as good as possible," Gordon said. "It wouldn't do any good if we were the only good restaurant on the mountain and everyone else was terrible, and vice versa."
Each time Skico upgrades one of its restaurants, Gwyn's High Alpine does feel a drop in business, but the same happens when a restaurant opens in Snowmass Village, he said.
"It really does make a difference to the guest that they have really good choices," Knowlton said.