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Bil Rieger, not-so-Easy Rider

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Lynn Goldsmith/Special to Aspen Times WeeklyBil Rieger on his snap decision to operate the fledgling Kenichi Aspen: "I didn't have a clue. But I was a restaurateur. Good bounce-back from chemotherapy."
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ASPEN -When Phil Pitzer wrote the character of a big-hearted, good-looking cook for his film, “Easy Rider: The Ride Back,” he wasn’t thinking, at least not consciously, of his friend, Bil Rieger. But he began to see that the fictional character, who feeds the needy out of a traveling school bus, resembled his off-screen friend. The real-life Rieger is known for serving food, having co-founded Aspen’s Kenichi restaurant 20 years ago and operated it ever since, and in 2009 adding the dive bar Bad Billy’s. Rieger had the character’s right overall persona – “the rough, cool vibe going on,” as Pitzer put it – and he is a motorbike enthusiast. And Rieger has earned a reputation for generosity; among organizations including Mountain Rescue, the Aspen Animal Shelter and the Extreme Sports Camp, which takes kids with autism skiing, Rieger is known as a soft touch in offering Kenichi for fund-raising events.Eventually, Pitzer took a gamble and cast Rieger in the role, changing the character’s name to Rieger Reynolds in the process. His associates put up some resistance, noting that Bil Rieger was a restaurateur, not an actor. But Pitzer, who has lived in the Aspen area since 1984 and known Rieger nearly as long, was adamant, and his instincts seem to be spot-on. When Pitzer handed off his film to a company that specializes in making trailers, they chose to spotlight some of Rieger’s scenes. Pitzer was left more certain than ever that he had made the right casting move.”It’s called charisma. You either have it or you don’t. He’s got it,” Pitzer said. “I was convinced it would come through on film. And it did. He nailed the part. It feels real. Because it’s Bil.”In the film (a sequel to “Easy Rider” that Pitzer hopes will be released in the fall), Rieger has only a small part, appearing for some three to four minutes. It is, perhaps, enough to portray his charisma, his look and his charitable side. But a few quick scenes isn’t sufficient to explore the various sides and stories of the real-life Rieger.

Cancer, obviously, does strange physical things, causing cells to grow rampantly, eventually invading and overwhelming other body parts. Not as apparent is the impact cancer can have on the psyche and soul. These effects can be positive or negative; there are people who refer to their cancer as a gift. For Bil Rieger, cancer has had both its up and downsides. Cancer was a guide leading him to Aspen and a wake-up call to alter his personality, and it gave him reason to take a business risk that dictated his career – all of which he regards as enormously beneficial. The cancer experience also left him with a sense of invulnerability, which proved to be a dangerous illusion.Rieger had no family history of cancer. At 27, he was fit and athletic, and building a successful insurance business in Denver, specializing in insuring athletes against disabilities. When he had some worrisome physical sensations himself, he got it checked out, and was declared healthy. But his father-in-law at the time, a prominent physician, sent him to Washington, D.C. for further examinations. The following morning, he found himself in a Georgetown hospital undergoing emergency surgery.”I was 27. I was looking over my shoulder saying, ‘Who are you talking to?'” he said of his testicular cancer diagnosis. He spent two years in D.C., most of it in the hospital. “The beauty of the story is, I had a lot of insurance. I became a poster child for the company.”Free of cancer, but weighing in at 118 pounds – down from 190 – and with his hair gone, Rieger rethought his life. He sold his insurance business, and with it, rid himself of the take-no-prisoners attitude he had built up.”I was a bitter, tough, corporate warrior,” said Rieger, now 49 and maintaining his California handsomeness and fitness (though he hails from Grand Rapids, Mich.) by being an every-day skier. “I was so focused on being successful; it was all about money, chasing stuff. And after that two years, all my stuff was in Denver, and it’s amazing how it really didn’t matter.”Rieger turned his attention to the things that made him happiest. One was skiing. As a kid, he would often cut school, head the few hours up to Boyne Mountain in northern Michigan, ski for the day, and get home in time for dinner, with his parents none the wiser. So back in Colorado, post-cancer, he started spending time in Aspen, where he took up competitive ski-racing. He raced some in Europe, and says he topped 100 mph.The other thing on his mind was restaurants. Rieger had attended the business school at the University of Denver, but most of his friends were in the hotel/restaurant program. He had put in some time cooking and waiting tables during college, and investing in restaurants afterward.Five days after relocating to Aspen, while playing squash at the Snowmass Club, Rieger heard from a college buddy about a deal being put together for a local sushi restaurant. The meeting was the following day at the Hotel Jerome, and thanks to his friend, Rieger got a seat at the table. That afternoon, he wrote a check, but also announced his intention to be more than one of the passive money guys behind Kenichi.”I told them about my passion for the business, that I didn’t want to just invest. I wanted to be an operator,” he said. That night, he drove to Denver and packed his duffel bag; 30 days later, Kenichi opened, with chef Kenichi Kanada in the kitchen, and a nervous but enthused Bil Rieger out front.”I didn’t have a clue. But I was a restaurateur,” Rieger said. “Good bounce-back from chemotherapy. Great bounce-back.” It took a year or so for the restaurant to find its footing, but eventually Rieger began buying out the other investors and establishing Kenichi as a spot known for Kanada’s Japanese cuisine and a happening bar scene.

Rieger’s next step was more stumble than bounce. He says his troubles with alcohol and drugs probably began in college, but no doubt being in the high end of Aspen’s restaurant business accelerated the descent. The eager-to-please Rieger became the host who was happy to join his guests in a few drinks. It didn’t help that the business was expanding, with Kenichi Austin opening a decade ago, and Kenichi Dallas added in 2007. (Another outlet, Kenichi Kona, in Hawaii, is owned and operated by Kanada, Rieger’s former partner).”It was running from one restaurant to the next, entertaining a huge list of VIP customers that included a lot of people in the music industry and movie industry,” he said, noting one of his career highlights – getting Texas bluesman Jimmie Vaughan to play at the opening of Kenichi Austin. “I loved entertaining. I loved throwing the party. That’s a dangerous lifestyle.”For Rieger, the cancer experience made him acutely susceptible to that danger. After being told he had maybe six months to live, and then surviving, Rieger said he felt “bullet-proof. And it bit back. It bit back hard.”Rieger’s alcoholism didn’t prevent him from running the business. He was, he said, “a functioning wild man, full-tilt. It’s an occupational hazard. I was working hard and playing hard.”Brent Reed, a local CPA who has worked with Rieger for 17 years, said Kenichi didn’t suffer for the owner’s problems. “The business has always operated well through his quirks, even if his health wasn’t good,” Reed said. “Bil has always hired smart individuals, always surrounded himself with intelligent individuals.” Two years ago, Rieger went sober. “I was just done with the pain,” he said of the moment he got on the wagon. “Done with the lifestyle, done with the image, done with being unhealthy. I was just done.” He has traded in late nights in the restaurant for early mornings on the gondola. He said that his experience has been relatively smooth: “My hours are just earlier, that’s all,” he noted.Rieger understands that overcoming addiction is not generally easy. But it has made a huge difference in his life: “It’s so fabulous. I feel very, very lucky to be on this side,” he said. So when he hears of someone battling what he has, he is willing to step in.”Cancer and chemotherapy is easy compared to that stuff,” he said. “Fighting those demons is pure war till you can find the other side. You’re resetting your moral compass – what you like, what you don’t like. Whenever someone at the restaurant grabs me and says, ‘Hey, I know someone who needs help,’ I’m there. Because I know. This industry, similar to rock stars – every night is Saturday night.”Rieger flinched only slightly before agreeing to speak to me about addiction. “If what I say can help one person, it’s worth it,” he said. “I am living testimony – anyone fighting the disease of drug addiction and alcoholism, you can change. And it’s so much better.”

When the space that had been the Cooper Street Pier became available in 2008, at least some Aspenites must have shuddered to learn who was taking over the spot. Cooper Street had been the town’s go-to dive bar for more than three decades, and it couldn’t come as good news to local barflies that the place was in the hands of the guy who owned Kenichi.But cheap burger-and-beer joints are as much a part of Rieger’s fabric as top-end sushi. When Rieger and his team took over Cooper Street, and turned it into Bad Billy’s, they didn’t follow the current trend of prominent restaurateurs taking a downscale concept – the hot dog cart, the British pub, the cupcake – and hauling it up the food chain. Under Rieger, the place was cleaned, the food improved, the prices went up a bit, but it remained a dive bar – with the darkness, the volume, the pool tables and the beer-drinking clientele. Among the regulars was Rieger himself, who once told me that running Bad Billy’s was the most fun he’d had in his career.”That’s the Michigan boy in me – western Michigan, hunting and fishing, the ski lodges/bars. That was my environment,” Rieger said of keeping the funkiness in Bad Billy’s. “All those seats that have been removed in this town, all the dive bars that have gone by the wayside … Most of my staff had their first drink at Cooper Street, or went there right after work.”After doing fine dining for years, in multiple units, it was very refreshing to go into an old, beat-up place, clean it up, and keep that vibe.” Rieger’s least refreshing restaurant experience was surely Noodles by Kenichi, a noodle shop that closed a year ago after a brief run a few doors down from Bad Billy’s. “We tried to do fast food – and ouch!” Rieger said. “The food we did well, but it took too much labor to drive the machine.”Bad Billy’s, alas, shut down two weeks ago, a victim of the impending demolition of the building. Rieger had hoped to carry on some aspects of the Bad Billy’s tradition in the Wheeler Opera House space currently occupied by Bentley’s. The city of Aspen, which owns the Wheeler building, put out a call for proposals for an eatery. Rieger’s pitch – a restaurant called Wheeler’s, which would emphasize the building’s history as a theater, while retaining such menu items as the Bad Billy burger and Shiner Bock fish & chips – made the final four, but this past week was dismissed by the city council. Rieger said he would likely retire the Bad Billy’s name, but continue looking for a spot that makes sense to carry on the legacy.”I was disappointed,” he said of not being selected for the Wheeler space. “There’s a reason for everything, and it will be interesting down the road to see what that reason is.”‘Spread joy’As a kid, Rieger announced that he was going to spell his first name with just one ‘L.’ His mother took that as confirmation that her son was dyslexic. Rieger says that he is not dyslexic. “Let’s just say I’m a horrible reader,” he said. “Reading and writing aren’t my strengths.”But he contends that he is a learner, nonetheless. “I learn a lot from people,” he said. “I learned a lot from other restaurants. I surrounded myself with professionals. I definitely get an A-plus in street smart.”Rieger credits Aspen as his primary teacher. “My real education was here,” he said. “This town gave me a great schooling. Kenichi and Aspen are one and the same – they both molded me. I got here after my 30th birthday, and I’m all of a sudden out of my zone. I never thought I was going to leave my world in Denver. But lucky me.”That’s why I’m so passionate about doing another place with a low price point for this town. I think we have a lot of fans, a lot of people rooting for us.”There are a lot of places Rieger has taken his lessons from – cancer and addiction, his past life as a narrowly focused businessman, posh Japanese restaurants and a low-end bar, his staff, some of whom have worked with him for 15 years, and which he thinks of as his family. Rieger, who has been married and divorced, has been in a committed relationship for more than two years. He credits his girlfriend, Julie Manning, who grew up in Aspen, as a source of his current happiness, along with Manning’s daughter, Olivia, who is autistic, and with whom Rieger has developed a close bond.But Rieger goes even further back in time to find what might be his most fundamental guide. He remembers his mother – “a wonderful Southern lady from Texas,” he said – had a custom of ending every letter with the reminder: “Spread joy.”Rieger says that, before cancer, chemo and Kenichi, he didn’t follow his mom’s words. “I wasn’t spreading much joy, I don’t think,” he said of the time when he was building his insurance business. Cancer was like the alarm ringing: “I think God came down and stopped me and said, ‘Time to change.'”It took time, but Rieger said he has listened. Overcoming addiction has been a big change.”I fought that horrible disease and I beat it and now I’m living a happy life,” he said. “I love being on the gondola at 8:45 a.m. I’ve done my share of night-time.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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