Aspen restaurants overwhelmed with gratitude for gift certificate support

Gift card matching program inspires “hundreds” of responses to support local eateries

“I don’t even know where to start and end,” said Craig Cordts-Pearce, who co-owns the Wild Fig, Steakhouse No. 316, The Monarch and CP Burger with his wife, Samantha. “I am absolutely flabbergasted — there’s no words to even explain this.”

Well, maybe one word: “Un-freaking-believable.”

Cordts-Pearce has been on the receiving end of a restaurant gift certificate matching program launched by Meridian Jewelers co-owners Kenny and Robin Smith last week. The wildly successful initiative matches any local restaurant gift certificate purchase up to $200; the Meridian Jewelers team handles the logistics for buyers, then doles out the checks to the corresponding restaurants.

Cordts-Pearce expressed elation and gratitude as he described the impact of the program on his business: The funds from the gift certificates will help him support his employees (there are more than 160 on the staff roster) and maintain restaurant operations while indoor dining is closed.

“My whole body is trying to figure out how to give back now because of this one gesture,” he said. “I think there’s a massive, massive amount of appreciation that is going to come out of this from everyone.”

Waves of positivity, a tsunami of support

When Kenny and Robin Smith launched the matching program for restaurant gift certificates Friday evening, they were hoping the initiative could shift the tides toward positivity.

They got a tsunami of support in return.

In the past week, Kenny Smith and his team at Meridian Jewelers have received “hundreds” of requests to participate in the initiative — and “it’s growing every minute.”

“Every time I walk away from my desk there’s another piece of paper with a credit number on it” from someone looking to participate, he said. He initially sent the announcement to an email list of Meridian Jewelers clients, but word quickly spread beyond the initial reach.

The initiative was so popular that the number of requests had exceeded Meridian Jeweler’s capacity to maintain the matching program by Tuesday. Since then, the Aspen Chamber and Resort Association has committed to funding the matching program through Meridian Jewelers “as long as it’s needed,” ACRA President and CEO Debbie Braun confirmed Tuesday afternoon.

The association had been considering opportunities to provide support to struggling restaurants for several days after the Pitkin County Board of Health voted to voluntarily enter Red level COVID-19 restrictions last week. (Those restrictions closed indoor dining and moved last call to 8 p.m.; outdoor dining, takeout and delivery are still permitted.)

The gift certificate program was “exactly what we were looking for,” Braun said. “This was the perfect time for ACRA to step in with the matching funds.”

The funds from the tourism recovery program can support at least 250 gift certificate purchases, more if not all buyers utilize the maximum match of $200. But Braun sees a much larger picture in the future of the initiative.

“I think the program could potentially take on a life of its own,” Braun said. “Kenny’s taking that energy and harnessing it into a positive community effort … (which is) really what Aspen is all about.”

Light-bulb moment

That positive upshot was the goal for the team at Meridian Jewelers. Kenny Smith said he was inspired to launch the program after wading through a sea of negative Facebook comments on an Aspen Times article about the Red level restrictions last week.

“The light bulb went off in my head,” Smith said. “I just made a positive comment (on) that article … ‘Let’s all try to figure out a way to help here.'”

He and his wife, Robin, began discussing how they could “do something bigger” and translate a desire to help local eateries into concrete action. The matching program was born.

“We wanted to do something that was really positive to help at a time when there’s been a fair amount of challenges for the local community,” Smith said. “It was in the spirit of giving the community a new way to come together, and it’s working really well.”

The response was “overwhelming,” Smith said, with much of the support going to restaurants with deep roots in the Aspen community.

His clients are eager to contribute to hubs where they know the owners and return year after year, he said. Full-time locals and recurring Aspen visitors alike are buying into the program with plans to use the certificates in the future; Meridian Jewelers will deliver locally, mail the certificates or hold them at the shop for retrieval.

And everybody on the Meridian Jewelers staff is in on the process, Smith emphasized.

“This is a team effort for everyone that works here,” he said. “They’re getting this amazing feeling of community connection.”

“Everybody’s been waiting for this”

Restaurants are feeling that connection, too, after a tense week awaiting the Board of Health’s decision on COVID-19 restrictions.

“There’s finally a community lift,” said Gretchen Leary, who co-owns Aquilina and Duemani with her partner, Luigi Giordani.

“Restaurants have been feeling singled out and isolated from the rest of the community and businesses,” she said. “Their concept brings the community back — it’s like it’s reuniting (people), it’s making people reach out, it’s encouraging people.”

Leary said she was “full of gratitude” for the program that supports not only her restaurant but the “thousands in our community” who have connections to the restaurant industry.

She believes that many felt like they didn’t have a way to help after the Red level restrictions went into place; the program gave people what she sees as a much-needed outlet for actionable change.

“Everybody felt helpless, and then Kenny and Robin ignited this spirit to help,” Leary said. “It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s contagious” — the good kind of contagious, for once.

Craig Cordts-Pearce agrees.

“We’ve got this massive family that’s just dying for a way to say, ‘We love you guys,'” he said. “Meridian basically just gave everybody a gateway to finally help. … I think everybody’s been waiting for this.”

The simplicity of the program — buy a gift certificate, support a restaurant — is part of the success, he said.

“Simplicity is the key to beauty, and that’s exactly what this idea is,” Cordts-Pearce said. “It’s so beautiful, it’s so simple, because it gives everybody a way to just give.”

To participate in the gift certificate match program, call Meridian Jewelers at (970) 925-3833.

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