Basalt eatery owner knows his fans – and their food
August 10, 2012
BASALT – Aspen Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts love to brag about their customer-retention rates. They’ve got nothin’ on Scott Wirkler.
Walk into Wirkler’s midvalley eatery, Scottie’s, during the typical breakfast and lunch rushes to witness repeat business at its best. Wirkler greets the majority of his customers by name, and he usually takes an accurate stab at what they want to order.
Top-notch customer service, featuring name recognition and recollection of food preferences, is a key to Wirkler’s success. He celebrates 25 years in business Friday. That longevity is rare for a business in the Roaring Fork Valley, “especially a restaurant,” Wirkler said.
Wirkler purchased the former In and Out House restaurant in Aspen on Aug. 10, 1987. He moved from Dubuque, Iowa, in 1984 to manage the new McDonald’s restaurant that opened in Aspen. Three years later, he made the move to own and operate his own business when he saw a newspaper advertisement for the In and Out House, which had been in Aspen since 1971. Wirkler knew nothing about the place when he visited to check it out.
“There was a line out the door. It seemed like a no-brainer,” he said.
He paid the $35,000, rolled up his sleeves and started pumping out sandwiches and subs from the 150-square-foot space on Main Street, now occupied by Grateful Deli. The quarters were so tight that Wirkler wore his baseball cap backward to avoid smacking the bill on colleagues, cupboards and customers. That style of wearing a hat became his trademark look. It’s ironic, he said, because outside of work he rarely wears a hat.
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The Aspen shop boomed. It was a big hit with office workers. Wirkler estimated that 60 percent of his business at one point was deliveries to office workers.
The success led him to rent space at 45 Duroux Lane in Basalt in 1989 to bake bread for the Aspen business.
“Originally we didn’t think we’d do any business down here,” he said this week from his midvalley restaurant.
But customers kept dropping by from early in the morning, when the baking started, through noon looking for food. Wirkler added a small sandwich shop at the front of the space to see how it would go. It exceeded expectations.
He added a third shop to his growing empire in Glenwood Springs in 1994, but Wirkler eventually discovered that overseeing 18 employees in restaurants in three towns spread over 40 miles wasn’t worth the sacrifice. He and his wife, Sandy, had their first son at about the same time they bought the In and Out House. They added another son a few years later.
Wirkler worked 90 hours per week, scrambling from shop to shop, taking on everything from baking to banking and filling in where needed.
“It was just too much,” he said. “We had two little kids and three stores. I never saw my kids.”
He sold the Glenwood Springs shop in 1999 and Aspen in 2000. He retained the blossoming Basalt shop.
“The biggest reason was it was close to home. I didn’t have to travel,” he said. He missed the people in Aspen, not the commute.
After deciding to focus on Basalt, he remodeled the 1,000-square-foot space and showcased the pickup business more. There is a large counter where orders are placed and some additional counters with a few stools, but business is primarily take-out. He said he was never tempted to expand to a sit-down, waiter-served restaurant because it would have meant more expenses and headaches.
“I’ve always thought, ‘Keep it simple,'” Wirkler said.
And successful. He serves killer breakfast burritos, egg sandwiches and a variety of offerings in the morning and then hits full strike with lunches by late morning. He’s got a daily special, sub sandwiches and burgers for lunch.
While the majority of his business in Aspen was office workers, it’s 70 percent construction workers in Basalt. The recession hit his customers hard. He had his busiest years in 2007-08, when construction was booming. His business fell 30 percent in 2009 and has slowly been rebuilding.
His strategy has always been to offer good, consistent food at an affordable price that provides a good value. And he isn’t afraid of hard work. Wirkler said he still works 12 hours nearly every weekday because he prefers a hands-on operation. He’s got two employees, Edson Zuniga and Daniel Gomez, who have been with him for more than five years. Scottie’s is open 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Its website is at http://www.scottiesbasalt.com.
The only change in his recipe for success over the years has been the name. He got challenged by In-N-Out Burger over the name. Wirkler said he proved he had the name first and then amenably settled the dispute with the chain by selling them rights to the name in 2005. He initially planned to rename his shop Between the Buns but found the name registered to a hot-dog shop. He settled on a natural, Scottie’s.
The Basalt shop is now in its 23rd year. He relies on word-of-mouth for people to find him in a space that’s off the beaten path, on a side street off busy Willits Lane. Many customers are his friends, he said, some from his days in Aspen.
“It’s amazing how many customers filtered downvalley,” Wirkler said.
Sometimes he wonders if there isn’t more to life than doing the same thing. Then he reflects on how 25 years in business helped him and Sandy raise their two sons “in a beautiful valley that our family has come to know as home” and put them through college.
“Also, I’m very much a creature of habit, so it works for me,” he said.