A Vanishing Vibe | AspenTimes.com

A Vanishing Vibe

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Just past Prada and only a door away from Dior, the Roaring Fork Tavern certainly has tony neighbors. But customers won’t mistake the RFT, as the bar is popularly known, for a high-priced Aspen hangout.

“Most of the tourists nowadays will walk down and run up,” laughed bar co-owner Mike Kaiser, pointing to the stairwell that leads from Galena Street to the basement bar. “But about one out of 10 of them will stay for two weeks.”

The tavern is one of Aspen’s remaining small, funky businesses – one of only a handful left that haven’t fallen victim to high rents and a changing clientele. In a town where wealth and celebrity are the norm, “funky” can be hard to come by.

In fact, a visit to the Roaring Fork Tavern or a similarly styled business is like a trip through time to the “old Aspen” that flourished before the millionaires came to town.

The RFT is so proud of its reputation that it passes out bumper stickers that proudly proclaim the pub “A Classic American Dive Bar.”

“People started calling us a dive bar, so we went with it,” said Kaiser with a shrug.

The RFT rejects the interior design ideals of its high-priced competitors. Instead of complementary colors and overstuffed furniture, the tavern is stocked with tables and chairs collected from defunct peers – Zo’s, the Tippler, the long-shuttered Hard Rock Cafe. Mirrors and posters donated by suppliers like Budweiser and Jagermeister take up the wall space that isn’t occupied by one of the bar’s dart boards, video games or 13 television sets, which, depending on the time of day, are tuned to satellite sports, news or, on one recent Thursday afternoon, Jerry Springer.

“It’s kind of like being in my own basement,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser and his partner, Scott Farrell, had a specific vision in mind when they bought the RFT in 1995. The St. Paul, Minn., natives wanted to make the tavern “a nice place to talk, drink and hang out with the normal people.”

“The neighborhood me and Scotty both came from had a lot of little neighborhood bars. When we bought the place we wanted to make it as much like that as we possibly could,” Kaiser said. “We like keeping it that way, even if there isn’t much of a neighborhood left.”

The tavern keeps busy with the local flow – “so local, it’s scary,” Kaiser laughed – but it’s not as busy as it was just a few years ago. The locals are leaving town at an alarming rate, according to Kaiser – even he plans to leave the valley in the next year to take over a bar in his old college town.

The RFT might be on its way out, too. The bar’s lease is up in July 2004, and Kaiser isn’t sure what will happen to the space when Farrell takes over.

“I’m sure he’ll keep it the same – if he wants to keep paying the landlord’s bills,” Kaiser says.

In Kaiser’s opinion, the RFT is “one of the four corners” of funky Aspen left – a designation he also gives to the Red Onion, Bentley’s and Cooper Street. But the tavern is “the last of the Mohicans,” Kaiser admitted. “We’re not proud of the fact that we’re the last funky place in town, we’re just proud of the fact that we are one.”

Aspen seems to have scared off most of its small, down-to-earth businesses – blame the changing economic landscape and aging population for that, Kaiser says – but it’s a market that still is needed in a resort town.

“A lot of the tourists stay at the Mountain Chalet and the Limelight and the Snowflake, those little places on Main Street, and they’re looking for places like this,” Kaiser said, gesturing to a board filled with his daily drink specials. “When I go on vacation, I look for places like this too.”

But Aspen’s current configuration makes the hunt for a funky hangout a bit difficult.

Building local loyalty

“My thoughts are the town as a whole has forgotten how to cater to the middle class,” said Charles Wolf, manager of the local bar Cooper Street.

Cooper Street, nonetheless, has created a sanctuary for this forgotten demographic in its 25 years of operation. Cheap drinks, fast and affordable food and an easy atmosphere have made the two-story bar a popular stop for the price-conscious.

“It’s a unique place – the kind of place that Aspen needs to keep desperately,” Wolf said.

It’s a wonder Aspen has kept Cooper Street this long. Luckily, both the business and its building are owned by Wolf’s father, Heinz – which could be considered an essential combination, in light of the city’s burgeoning real estate prices.

The bar’s enviable location and strong local following could earn Heinz a nice wad of cash, if he ever decides to sell the place.

“[Heinz] is the one that could cash in – I would be unemployed,” his son laughed. “He could cash in and say, `I don’t have a worry in the world anymore.’ But he wants to keep it in the family and keep it running. It’s the best thing for his own family; he enjoys the town, and he’s proud of the place.”

Locals make up more than 60 percent of the bar’s business, according to Wolf. So while the store next door offers $200 sweaters, Cooper Street continues to draw lunch crowds with its daily special: burger, fries and a beer for $6.50.

“We make sure that we offer good value for what we sell. Cooper Street has that strength,” Wolf explained. “I’m serving really nice food at an unbelievable price – and I don’t make a lot of money on that.”

The bar also offers that little something extra to keep customers coming back, including giveaways on busy nights of Broncos tickets, ski passes and snowmobile trips.

Cooper Street also considers itself a sports bar, with regular showings of NFL and NHL games. A recent renovation also included the installation of pool and foosball tables as well as a small selection of video games – a draw for younger customers alienated by pricier clubs.

“We [as a town] have less and less to offer for young people,” Wolf said.

Between regular food and drink specials, and the occasional live band, Cooper Street has developed a partnership with its clientele – a smart move, considering the current economic climate.

“Specials hopefully bring in the locals and create some loyalty in return,” Wolf said. “It’s important for us to keep that. In this environment, only the very strongest places are going to survive.”

Pickles for the people

Cheap food and local loyalty have helped turn a small sandwich shop into one of the busiest joints in Aspen.

“For half of our existence, we didn’t have any tourists at all,” said Terrence McGuire, co-owner of Johnny McGuire’s.

When the deli – named for McGuire and his partner, Johnny Hoffman – opened in 1990 at the Aspen Airport Business Center, it was one of the only restaurants located on “the other side” of Maroon Creek Road. It quickly became a favorite of ABC employees and traveling construction workers.

Johnny’s moved to its current location on Cooper Avenue in 1993 and took its growing customer base with it. It now shares a building with Mhendi clothing, Domino’s Pizza and four upstairs apartments – on a block otherwise crowded by $1 million condos.

The small, funky lunch spot looks a bit out of place when compared with its high-priced neighbors – after all, the shop’s parking lot contains its delivery car, an orange VW Bug topped by the Johnny McGuire’s mascot, a 200-pound pickle. And the restaurant participates in every parade so its employees can clamber onto a float and throw pickles at passersby.

But wealthy second-home owners don’t hesitate to stop by for a cheap sandwich and a little atmosphere.

“The lady who lives there is pretty cool,” said McGuire, gesturing to the multimillion-dollar, two-story stone edifice next door. “She comes in here all the time.”

In fact, McGuire’s clientele – at one time, “just the ski bums,” he recalled – has unexpectedly expanded in recent years. Bellman and concierges at, say, The Little Nell now point their wealthy visitors in the deli’s direction.

“We do deliveries to Red Mountain now,” McGuire laughed. “Some of them are construction workers, but a lot of them go to second-home owners. It’s really a mix of everybody.”

In addition to the food – the deli features more than 25 “specialty” sandwiches – the ambience is a contributing factor to returning customers. The shop’s ceiling and walls are littered with ski and snowboard memorabilia, funny photos, faded postcards, newspaper clippings and customer autographs.

“When people come in here and it’s busy, there’s enough stuff on the walls to look at,” McGuire said.

Johnny McGuire’s is yet another Aspen institution that might have been lost due to rising real estate prices. However, the shop enjoys a 100-year land lease – and, therefore, lower rent. “That’s the main reason we’re still here,” McGuire admitted.

But the deli has also stayed in business due, in part, to its status as one of the last “funky” shops in Aspen – the kind that creates loyalty among customers.

“It’s all word-of-mouth – in this town, it’s huge for us,” McGuire said. “The longer you’re around, more often, you’re going to be mentioned as the place to go.”

Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is jenniferd@aspentimes.com

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