Stone: The tragic curse of Little Annie’s
October 23, 2013
Like anyone who cares about Aspen, I'm sad that Little Annie's is going down.
It's a very local tragedy.
But I find myself reluctant to place the blame on my usual go-to guys for all that is drastically wrong with Aspen: the Hecht family.
Certainly, blaming the Hechts would be easy enough, and I'm always glad to take the easy way out.
To start with, there's great circumstantial evidence: They're the landlords.
It's like finding a rabid dog on the scene of a sheep massacre. Who else are you going to blame?
But there were more than a few dogs in this fight.
To start on an odd note: Little Annie's is kind of cursed.
Yes, I know, it's been a brilliant success for 40 years — but it's still cursed.
When I moved to Aspen, Little Annie's was brand new, but friends told me it was just the latest tenant in a building that had already seen several restaurants come and go.
The spot was seen as one of those cursed locations, as if there was an old Ute Indian burial ground beneath the building.
But Annie's was an immediate hit — good food, good portions, good atmosphere (in a cheerfully funky way) and, of course, good prices.
But the joy of that success was shattered when Little Annie's owner, Dave Topol, died horribly and very publicly in a glider crash when a wing of his plane snapped high above Aspen during (if I recall correctly) Ruggerfest, with crowds staring up in horror as the plane spiraled down.
Dave's widow, Judy, fought through that tragedy, took over the restaurant and ran it well for years, with the very able assistance of manager John Hamwi.
In 1991, Judy Topol retired and sold the restaurant to Hamwi and his brother, Paul.
That opened the door to bizarre tragedy once again, when Paul Hamwi was arrested in 1993 on suspicion of hiring a hit man, a decade earlier, to kill his wife and infant daughter.
Although John Hamwi, an impeccably honest man, swore that his brother could not have committed that crime, Paul was convicted of the double murder and sentenced to life in prison.
John took over full ownership of the restaurant and, after a successful decade, sold it in 2005 to Ed Dingilian and the Dingilian family.
The Dingilians were not newcomers by any means. They were the longtime owners of the vacant lot just down the block from Little Annie's — and that lot had long been an Aspen real estate mystery, as people wondered how it could sit there, undeveloped, at the hot, pulsing heart of the town's land-rush frenzy.
Apparently, the Dingilians were just very patient investors. According to an Aspen Times story, Ed's parents bought the lot in 1967, and the family was glad to sit and wait while the property value rose.
Later on, the Dingilians acquired Little Annie's and the Benton Building, giving them three properties in a row.
And then the family decided to sell out for about $40 million — just a little too late and maybe a little too greedy: The property went on the market in mid-2007, and before anyone showed interest, the financial world went kablooey.
After that, everything turned into the standard mess: lawsuits, bankruptcies, foreclosures, nasty accusations — the usual.
It is interesting to track the property values of that block. According to news stories, Tom Benton bought the lot on which he built his home and studio for $3,000 in the early 1960s — which would indicate that the Dingilians paid something in that general range for their lot right next to it.
Over the next 40 years, prices soared to the $40 million the three properties were listed for, and then — as noted: kablooey! — that $40 million crashed to less than $20 million. And the Dingilians had borrowed almost $14 million against the value of the property.
And it was then that, sure as a crocodile will eat a baby tossed into the waters off the shores of Darwin, Australia, the Hechts gobbled up the bloody morsel of land at the bargain price of $17.75 million — adding it to their Walk of Shame, which now extends along Hyman Avenue, almost from the mall clear to the corner of Spring Street, where the damnable Aspen Art Museum serves as the cherry on top of their blood-lust sundae. (And yes, since you ask, I am sick of bitching about that damn museum — but if they're not going to stop building it, I'm not going to stop pointing out what a blot it is.)
And now all of that brings us to our final tragic mystery: How the heck did the high-flying, multimillion-dollar-deal-making Ed Dingilian wind up running a brilliantly successful Aspen business into the ground?
And, more puzzling yet, how did he wind up losing everything because he failed to pay a little less than $50,000 in taxes?
That question may or may not ever be publicly answered.
But for now we have two items to consider.
The first is that out of all the early tragedy that surrounded Little Annie's — and I hope you'll forgive me for delving into all those strange and sad details — a wonderful bar and restaurant emerged. There were great times and happy crowds (and, let us not forget, a lot of nasty hangovers, too — that's the nature of the business).
And the loss of that great place is almost the final tragedy of Little Annie's.
Because the tragedy that is still unfolding is the raw deal that the Annie's employees are getting.
Ed Dingilian — who was wheeling and dealing for tens of millions of dollars and suddenly went bust over tens of thousands — is now saying, "I do care about the restaurant and about the employees," even as he locked them out without warning, without their wages and, apparently, without unemployment insurance or health insurance.
"It's not an easy time for anyone," he says.
But I'm guessing it's a lot harder for the people he's left holding the bag.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.