Merry-Go-Round takes a big turn | AspenTimes.com

Merry-Go-Round takes a big turn

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Merry-Go-Round restaurant at Aspen Highlands has seemed trapped in a time warp for the last 30 years.

Walk into the building and it could easily be 1975, complete with photos on the wall of Phil Donahue and a youthful Gene Hackman.

But by next winter, the restaurant will be nudged, at least a little, toward the 21st century. The Aspen Skiing Co. is assuming the operation of the midmountain restaurant as George Schermerhorn’s lease is up after 21 years.

“People seem to think that it is a personal issue, that the ski company is taking another business away from a local guy,” Schermerhorn said. “But I don’t look at it that way. It is just a business decision. I could be Martha Stewart or Wolfgang Puck, and they would still take it.”

The Skico has been gradually assuming the operations of its on-mountain restaurants as the leases come up. On Aspen Mountain, the Skico now runs the Sundeck and has shuttered what was once Ruthie’s restaurant.

In recent years, Bonnie’s has been run by both Skico employees and leaseholders. This season, Brigitte Birrfelder had a lease to operate Bonnie’s but the situation next winter is unclear.

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At Buttermilk, the company leases out Bumps, the base area restaurant, to Real Restaurants, a California company that also runs Ajax Tavern at the bottom of Aspen Mountain. Elsewhere at Buttermilk, the Skico operates the Cliffhouse and has turned the small restaurant at the bottom of West Buttermilk into a warming hut.

At the Snowmass Ski Area, the company runs the Sam’s Knob restaurant, Up 4 Pizza, the cafe at Two Creeks, the Cirque restaurant on the mall, and the catering operations at the Burlingame Cabin, the Lynn Britt Cabin and the Spider Sabich Picnic Palace.

Individual leaseholders still operate the Ullrhof, Gordon’s High Alpine restaurant and Cafe Suzanne at Elk Camp.

And at Highlands, the Skico operates the Cloud Nine bistro.

New personality?

The Skico’s business strategy of both owning the restaurant buildings and running the food-service operations in them is not viewed positively by everyone.

“I do think it is a bad business decision, in one respect,” said Schermerhorn. “I think there was a time when all of the restaurants were privately held, and there was this friendly competition between them. And it drove us all to be better.

“And people who came to ski here would comment on that and say how nice it was that there wasn’t that kind of Vail cookie-cutter thing going on.”

Schermerhorn said guests could tell when a restaurant was run by an “owner-operator,” someone who who really cared about their product, developed close relationships with their customers and became personally associated with the restaurants.

“It is a whole different idea when you take that away,” he said.

But the Skico’s Mike Kaplan, senior vice president for mountain operations, sees it a bit differently.

“We would like to own and operate restaurants that we think we can own and operate profitably,” he said. “And we want to do it where we can protect the quality.”

He points to the success of the Cloud Nine bistro at Highlands as a counterpoint to the “cookie-cutter” argument. The small and funky bistro, which was once the ski patrol headquarters, serves hearty and rich fare created by Chef Andreas Fischbacher. It has proven to be a hit among skiers who are seekinga unique sit-down dining experience.

And it’s Fischbacher who will take over the Merry-Go-Round next season, applying his experience from Cloud Nine as well as his prior chef experiences at the Aspen Meadows, the Grand Hyatt in New York, and five years with the Cunard cruise ship line.

He said he plans to bring fresher and lighter food to the Merry-Go-Round while keeping some of the restaurant’s favorites on the food-service line, including the key lime pie.

If a capital budget is approved by the Skico’s owners, Fischbacher hopes to make some physical changes to the kitchen and the service area, perhaps bringing in individual food stations instead of the traditional cafeteria line. He also plans to combine the operations of the Merry-Go-Round and the Cloud Nine bistro and cross-train staff to work in both locations.

But the new operator of the Merry-Go-Round does not expect to make significant changes to the restaurant’s spacious eating areas or the outside deck. As to the interior and the old photos on the wall, well, we’ll have to see how things evolve.

From Park City to Highlands

For George Schermerhorn, this weekend will mark the end of an era. He first got a lease to run the Merry-Go-Round in the 1981-82 ski season with his partners Robert Cronenberg and Jim Gilmartin.

The three had worked in restaurants in Park City, Utah, together. While there, they made a bid to run a mountain restaurant at the Park City ski area. Schermerhorn contacted Gretl Uhl in Aspen to help put the bid together, but the opportunity didn’t pan out.

Two days after Schermerhorn called Uhl to give her the news, she called to tell him about an opportunity at the Merry-Go-Round.

So the trio and Uhl put together a proposal and took it to Whip Jones, the late founder of the Aspen Highlands ski area.

“In the meeting, Whip asked `How do I know that I can trust these men to be able to do this?'” Schermerhorn remembers.

Then Uhl, well-known for both her charm and her determination, leaned toward Whip Jones. “She looked him right in the eye and said `Because I said so.'”

Her word was enough. Two days later, Schermerhorn and company learned they’d gotten the gig. Uhl signed on as a “full-time consultant” for the first year, planned the menu, rearranged the food line and taught Schermerhorn the ropes in the kitchen.

“I had done everything in the restaurant business except the kitchen,” Schermerhorn said. “So she and I worked side by side for one whole season. And that’s how I learned, standing right next to her. She taught me everything.”

Except for her famous apple strudel recipe.

Gretl’s on Aspen Mountain had become known around the world in the 1970s for Gretl Uhl’s strudel, and the dish became a popular item at the Merry-Go-Round as well. Uhl made the strudel dough for years and then retired in 1990.

“When she retired, we had discussions about everything,” said Schermerhorn. “And we said, `What about the strudel recipe?’ And she said, `Well, you guys can figure it out.'”

The restaurant operators had been watching Uhl make the strudel dough for years, and that fall they brought her a batch of their own to taste. She tried it, thought they’d nailed it, and said, “Well, I never would have gotten involved with you guys if I didn’t know you were smart.”

And so “Gretl’s strudel” has been served at the Merry-Go-Round ever since. It will be on sale this weekend at 1982 prices.

For his part, Fischbacher, a native Austrian, is a big strudel fan. He plans to offer an apple strudel – if not exactly Gretl’s – and other types of strudel dishes. He’ll also continue offering skiers the restaurant’s hugely popular key lime pie.

Cheeseburgers and powder days

Margie McNamara, the restaurant’s general manager, says key lime pie is among the restaurant’s most popular items. And she should know.

McNamara, a redheaded Australian, has worked the food line and the grill-order station at the restaurant since Dec. 30, 1982. She’s perhaps best known as the “cheeseburger girl” at the Merry-Go-Round for the way she takes a customer’s order and yells “cheeseburger!” to the grill cooks with her still-strong accent.

And she’s never tired of it.

“I love the contact with people and seeing different generations come through and remembering bits and pieces about people,” McNamara said. “And I just love being up here. I’ve never regretted being here all those years.”

McNamara has interviewed with Fischbacher but isn’t sure if she’ll return to the Merry-Go-Round next year.

“I would love to be up here,” she said. “But it is going to be different, so I don’t know. But I’m not sad, it’s just that’s it. And George has been the best. He’s a great businessman, and he’s been very kind to everyone through the years.”

For 19 years at the Merry-Go-Round, it was the trio of Schermerhorn, Cronenberg and McNamara who could be found at the restaurant.

The three also worked together at other local restaurants through the years, including Cloud Nine, the Highlands Cafe at the base of the mountain, the 10th Hole Bar and Grill at the Aspen Golf Course, and the Dugout next to the softball fields at Iselin Park.

Cronenberg stepped away from the restaurant two years ago and is now a contractor specializing in high-end home remodels. While at the restaurant, he put his engineering background to good use.

“I took apart and put back together every piece of equipment in the restaurant,” Cronenberg said. “And every year we built something new as a summer project.”

Those projects included the grill house on the outside deck and the concrete slab for the deck itself, which had been wood. Cronenberg was also in charge of making all the baked goods.

It was hard work, Cronenberg said of his nearly 20 years at the Merry-Go-Round, but he had some special days up on the mountain.

“I lived up there for six years,” he said. “That was a fantasy come true. Doing things like skiing in the moonlight and listening to the elk in the summer and fall. I have good memories of it.”

One thing all three principals in the restaurant remember fondly are the hundreds of young people who have worked for them through the years, many of them from other countries on a year abroad.

“It’s like the League of Nations up there,” Schermerhorn said, who has gotten pretty good through the years at distinguishing between accents from New Zealand, Australia, England and South Africa.

And they’ve all heard every powder-day excuse in the book.

“One year I put a pad by the phone and I wrote down every excuse that season,” Cronenberg said. “One day I got a call saying `I can’t come to work today because a plane hit my house.’ And it was true – a Fed Ex plane hit a house in Holland Hills. That was probably the best excuse ever.”

Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com

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