Business Monday: 7908 Aspen, a supper club and a social experiment
May 6, 2018
It's a local story that's become tiredly formulaic: A restaurateur comes to Aspen vowing to blow the roof off the town's dining scene by producing a happening scene like no one before it.
A year later, or maybe two or three, depending on cash flow, the restaurant closes, hamstrung by high rent, low revenue, overrated food and bad word of mouth.
Just don't tell that to Roger Wilson.
Wilson understands when things don't go according to script — he's an actor with such credits as '80s teen romps "Porky's" and "Porky's 2" to his name — but he also knows when he has found the right stage.
And that stage, he believes, is at 415 E. Hyman Ave., a subterranean space of roughly 6,000 square feet that's being turned into the 7908 Aspen supper club.
"I'll put it this way, if you look at everything my investors do, it is being done in a way with such taste and such divine consideration of detail that this will be an exact reflection of that," he said.
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Wilson, 61, is hardly parachuting into Aspen, site unseen with dollar signs in his eyes. The New Orleans-born resident of Los Angeles and New York was a visitor here in the 1970s and '80s — a time when, locals from back then will say, your tax bracket didn't determine who you rubbed elbows with.
He is partnering on 7908 with the Souki business family, having known Charif Souki since the '70s, Wilson said.
The fine-dining supper club, set to open sometime in July, will aim to bring back those Aspen days when pretense was scarce, the atmosphere was lively, and people weren't judged by their portfolios.
"I would hope this place could be a bit of a theater that suspends the reality of how different Aspen is now than it was 35 years ago," he said. "I want to bring that wonderful mix of locals and visitors that comes together in the right way; not only did you have a great night but there were stories of substance."
While giving a nickel tour of the space that's being remodeled Wednesday, Wilson poured over the details of the 7908 venue, from its seating area to its bar — which will keep the same footprint as the Finbarr's establishment before it.
He envisions a free-flowing area where in one area patrons could cut a rug or enjoy a cocktail, while a disc jockey spins vinyl by artists ranging from Barry White to Drake as go-go dancers liven up the stage area.
While other kitchens in Aspen are closing, Wilson said he expects the one at 7908's banquette dining area to be heating up around 11 p.m., where late-night arrivals could enjoy a steak, pasta, lamb chop or anything else on the chef's menu after taking in a concert or play. Wilson said he expects the restaurant and bar area to hold as many as 96 patrons, the lounge area 75.
The kitchen would stay open as late as 1 in the morning, he said.
"The supper club is always going to serve very sophisticated but fun food," said Wilson, who regards such institutions at the 21 Club in Manhattan and the legendary Stork Club, among others, as influences for the 7908 concept.
"I hope we can become as iconic to Aspen as those other places did," he said.
The supper club's title, 7908, gives it the numeric identity enjoyed by such establishments as the 21 Club of Studio 54.
"7908 (Aspen's elevation in feet), it's where our feet are standing," Wilson said. "It's where this wonderful inclusiveness and exclusiveness have played out."
Aside from his "Porky's" fame, Wilson has led a colorful life working jobs from bartender to most recently a wellness coach. He also played lead guitar and sang in the band Num.
Wilson said he'll maintain a constant presence at 7908 and get to know his clientele. He's hiring locally, including a grand sommelier and general manager, and has enlisted chef Craig Walker to overseen the menu. The staff will have approximately 34 full-time employees.
While he knows his way around the bar, Wilson said don't expect him to be pouring drinks.
"If I'm bartending," he laughed, "there's a real problem, because that means five or six of the best bartenders in Aspen didn't show up for work."
An affordable bar menu will keep the working locals coming back, he said, and he expects the 7908 experience will translate into a successful Aspen social experiment.
"Call them celebrities, out-of-towners, second-home owners," he said. "Call them the rich and the famous, those people long for interaction with the locals as much as the locals depend on them for a certain bit of economics, and sharing how wonderful Aspen is."