Aspen Times Weekly: Lifestyles of the Locally Famous
March 9, 2017
HOW NOT TO BE AN OBNOXIOUS CUSTOMER? BE POLITE, PLEASE.
“Pleases and thank yous go a long way. And eye contact. They’re gonna be reciprocated.”
—Chris Carmichael, bar manager, Campo de Fiori
“If I ask, How’s it going?…‘Iced Tea’ is not an answer. Everyone wants to be treated with respect.”
—Nick O’Hara, server,
Meat & Cheese
“Never wave your money. Never call me, ‘Hey, Bartender!’ Know what you want when you get my attention—or at least be willing to tell me what you like. Don’t waste my time on a busy night.”
—Keith Goode, head bartender at The Monarch; The Wild Fig
“One time bartending in Basalt, I was buried in the well. I see a hand—a guy snapping fingers under my nose. ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ he said. So I asked the rest of the bar if they knew who this guy was! Don’t be an a**hole.
—Louise Evans, server,
J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome
“Don’t tell me how some other bartender makes your cocktail. That’s everybody’s pet peeve. It’s a recipe for failure.”
THE IMAGE of THE ASPEN BARTENDER or server is steeped in ski-town swagger. Maestros of Aspen's vibrant social scene, they earn pocketfuls of cash and stories galore after successful shifts during peak season. Schedules are flexible—there's always a coworker chasing extra hours. Night owls may be luckiest: They sleep in then soak up the sun on the slopes, trails, links, or rivers all afternoon before clocking-in again around dusk.
Repeat this pattern a few times weekly until the lifts close in April or leaves fall in October…then gather stacks and travel for a month or two before returning to town to do it all over again. The cycle is intense, addictive, and enough to keep the rest of us wondering: Have service industry workers cracked the formula to Aspen living?
"I love the chaos, I thrive off it," says Campo de Fiori bar manager Chris Carmichael—one of the handsome, dark-haired dudes you've likely encountered at the Italian hot spot over the past 18 years. Recreation during downtime, year-round, has been his main motivation since moving here following college back East.
"I may not go to a lot of places (which I have), but I've met people from everywhere," enthuses Carmichael, 46. "These eccentric people bring exposure. I love that aspect: People come here to party, spend money, drink, and wear their winter outfits. Town can be jamming…and nobody's out on the hill! It's a win-win."
“People come here to party, spend money, drink ...”
No doubt about it, bartenders, servers, and other restaurant staff are crucial cogs in the wheels of Aspen's fast-spinning party machine. Call them merrymakers, conducting fun for cosmopolitan clientele seeking crazy shenanigans, night after wild night, for which our town is known. Fueled by wealth, luxury, camaraderie, and good times, the service industry affords workers ample opportunity to enjoy the fresh-air lifestyle we all covet while foiling FOMO.
"My social life is [at] work," Carmichael explains. "On nights off, I am home. I don't feel like I'm missing out anymore." While he might have felt stifled as an Aspen freshman, Carmichael quickly discovered a healthful tradeoff: clearheaded focus to pursue other enterprises, three days per week.
"I was able to remodel my home," he continues. "I work for Aspen Ambulance part-time and volunteer with Basalt Fire as an EMT two days a week." Currently he manages a bunch of rental units in Basalt, where he lives. Physical separation from Ute City, he notes, has been crucial to his work-life balance.
While it's hard not to feel a twinge of envy toward such perked-out professionals, many of us locals have lived that dream at some point.
"We know that the service industry has the highest number of employees," says Erik Klanderud, Aspen Chamber Resort Association director of member services, citing 2016 City of Aspen retail sales data (see graph, p. 23). "Look at the 'restaurants and bars' section: it's second to accommodations—$125 million, year-to-date (in December 2016)—that's huge!"
About 70 of the 86 total liquor licenses in Aspen currently belong to bars, restaurants, and clubs, according to city clerk Linda Manning. That translates to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of folks forgoing the 9-to-5 status quo so prevalent outside our bubble.
"I made a conscious choice to be in the industry—I wasn't built to sit behind a desk and get two weeks vacation a year," says Louise Evans, a J-Bar server for four years.
Previously Evans ran the bar and managed Tempranillo in Basalt for five-and-half years, after bartending midvalley for a decade. Before that she tended bar in Washington, D.C., for 22 years. She transitioned to serving six years ago—"I starting feeling trapped behind the bar," she explains—and hasn't looked back.
"I've been in the business over 40 years," Evans says. "Working at the Jerome is a dream job: We have a great crew, no turnover in almost four years, management is amazing. The money is part of it, but it's also the social interaction. You'll see CEOs of multibillion-dollar companies sitting next to ditch-diggers next to movie stars, talking about how they broke their first horse or what it's like to be on tour in a venue with 50,000 people. That's what this business is about."
Considering that the first thing many new residents do when craving connection is belly up to a bar, service workers may be initial points of contact. Three-year resident Tiffany Cook recalls her Aspen introduction, after beers at the historic Red Onion.
"At home that night, I'm flipping through Powder magazine, and I see a photo spread featuring [bartender] Pat Sewell! You have ski-bums—and pro-skiers—working there. They don't do it because they have to. They do it because they want to."
(Red Onion manager Brad Smith, local restaurant fixture since the 1990s, confirms: employees such as Sewell and Jordan White feed an important, though fading, Aspen image.)
And location is the ultimate motivation for most. "You point to the window and go, Look at my office!" Evans says. "At one point I had five jobs. You make it work."
Says bartender Alexis Kendall at Bosq, "'Our life is their vacation.' It's so cliché, but it's honest. [Visitors] come here, they're excited, you're excited, it reinvigorates your love for where you are. The people you meet here you might not meet in any other social circle. They're so…free. They become friends. You go to their homes in other places. You travel with them. It doesn't matter where you came from or where they came from, you have common ground."
Growing up the daughter of a restaurateur father and mother who owned salons, Kendall, now 34, split her time between Aspen and Naples, Fla. She entered the service industry in the Sunshine State, first as a line cook, then front-of-house. Once rooted in Aspen, she got a bar gig at Pacifica (RIP, 2013).
"I started to love bartending because it's essentially cooking with spirits," Kendall says. "I had a passion for it."
After launching cocktail programs at Bia Hoi and Ricard in Snowmass as a consultant for an L.A. restaurant group, and helping Grey Lady Aspen open, she took a brief hiatus. Hawking cowboy couture at Kemo Sabe, however, didn't resonate.
"It's great to have two months off each shoulder season, but it's this romance you have with it," Kendall explains of her job. "You hate the long hours, but you love the interactions. And the time after the restaurant closes. And before, when we sit down for family meal. Those things are so addicting that I keep getting drawn to it."
Aspen locals are hooked, too. Some bartenders and servers develop steadfast fans; often when they leave a venue, their customers follow.
"They're bar people," Kendall says. "Where's so-and-so? Let's go there."
On a recent Friday afternoon at L'Hostaria, that tight-knit family culture is in full force. At least 50 percent of the restaurant's 45-person staff has been on payroll six years or longer, says owner Tiziano Gortan. "They feel proud to be part of this team that can please 70,000 people a year."
Celebrating its 20-year anniversary all year, the L'Hostaria crew prepares for the inevitable crush of customers seeking popular $12 plates of homemade pasta. Bartender Kristin Pride notes that Gortan hasn't raised that price in the 11-plus years she's worked there.
"Our ticket averages in the bar are pretty low," Pride admits. "We have to turn and burn to stay above water, but he wants to keep it that way to take care of local clientele."
A bartender since college, Pride, 42, now fills just one shift weekly (an industry rarity), complementing her day job in commercial property management.
"It's such a busy restaurant that the way we work together has to be spot-on, otherwise we get buried," she says. "We pull together as a team."
Four-year L'Hostaria server Randi Trowbridge, 28, chimes in. "We're all on the same page of professionalism," she says. "And we hang out outside of work—mountain bike, dirt bike, go skiing together. That makes a stronger team."
Similar to Pride, Trowbridge has been in Aspen since age 19, working at Toppers, Gusto Ristorante, D19, Ellina, and Ajax Tavern. L'Hostaria is a career highlight.
"We may not make the biggest money in town, but we're definitely consistent," she says. "That means more to me [than] having those big nights then a really low night. I've worked at new restaurants in town and it's stressful to get rhythm going. L'Hostaria [has] a system that works."
That's why Jamie Contractor, 32, returned about eighteen months ago to become L'Hostaria manager. After hostessing for many years here, she went traveling. Landing a corporate restaurant gig upon returning to Aspen only made her miss Gortan's mom-and-pop method.
"The hardest part is finding and keeping good staff, especially in Aspen," she explains. "L'Hostaria has been lucky—everyone has worked here for so long." (Gortan's intolerance for cattiness helps foster security, Trowbridge adds.)
Contractor appreciates her boss's altruism, too: L'Hostaria hosts events regularly for area nonprofits and schools. "It's not just a restaurant, it's an active participant in the community," she says. That includes feeding local patrons. "We close Sunday/Monday, but stay open all offseason."
For his part, Carmichael welcomes the offseason lull. That's when he gets back behind the bar at Campo. "I could never hold this pace year-round, like Las Vegas or New York City," he says. "No way!"
Ditto for Keith Goode, head bartender at The Monarch. "I couldn't imagine working in New York or San Francisco, where you never have time to recharge," he says. Transitioning from Justice Snow's during its rambunctious heyday (2012-14) to the more subdued Wild Fig (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.) stoked his sanity.
"Not getting home until 3:30 a.m. was killing me," quips Goode, who serves on the City of Aspen Planning & Zoning Commission, a four-hour commitment every other week. "What's great about this town is that it allows you to recreate yourself so many times," he adds. "I was a bus driver when I first moved here. My mom was so upset—You have a degree [in English] and you're a bus driver?!" (Word is out on what she thinks now that he practices a craft.)
Evans mentions misperceptions, too. "We can be stereotyped to being stupid, uneducated, unmotivated," says the career bartender and server, who has three college degrees and endured a three-year stint at a D.C. law firm. "I had a 'real job' at one point. I just didn't like it."
A caveat: Seasonal inconsistency. "The ebb and flow of income," Carmichael says, "means you've got to plan accordingly." Trowbridge agrees: "You have to save your money," she cautions. "Being in the restaurant business, it's not consistent pay, but in the end I make as much as someone in an office at the end of the year."
Stay on a team long enough, at the right place, and you might find yourself in Japan during the slow months. That's where Jimmy Yeager, proprietor of Jimmy's: An American Restaurnt and Jimmy's Bodega and one of Aspen's most successful service-industry stories, took staffers on a research trip last fall.
For Jimmy's general manager Jessica Lischka, it's the icing on an unexpected career.
"I started at Jimmy's as a hostess in 2006, having moved from Wisconsin after college to be a ski bum for one winter," Lischka says. "Then I waited tables at Jimmy's, did a short stint at Aspen Magazine, and came back to Jimmy's as a manager. I never planned on having a career in a restaurant but 10 years later, here I am, owning part of one!"
While service industry work isn't all about the Benjamins, it's hard to ignore the fact that hustling a grand a night around Christmas is feasible. As for rumors about Aspen bartenders earning six-figure incomes, well, nobody will cop to that.
"I'm not that rich," says Trent Battle, a high-volume bartender at Bootsy Bellows and 39 Degrees at the Sky Hotel. "But the people that I get to meet are also my money. [I'm] networking with people all over the world."
After slingin' drinks in downtown clubs for a dozen years, would Battle ever consider a change of scenery?
"Is that a real question?" he counters. "There's only one Aspen. Come on now."
One-time bartender Amanda Rae accepts that she'll probably never earn $100 in less than a minute ever again. firstname.lastname@example.org