City of Aspen looks at two potential restaurant groups as new tenants

Carolyn Sackariason
The Aspen Times

The four finalists who were selected by the city of Aspen to take over the Wheeler Opera House restaurant have been whittled down to two.

They are Elk Mountain Ventures LLC and Hayden’s, LTD. Elk Mountain is led by Bill Johnson, who is the sole proprietor of Capital Creek Brewery at Willits in Basalt. Brent Reed, who is the owner of Kenichi, leads Hayden’s.

Mitzi Rapkin, director of communications for the city, confirmed the two finalists Wednesday evening.

Johnson said he has been in touch with city officials about his proposal.

“I’ve spoken with the city and answered questions,” he said, noting that he was limiting his comments because of the competitive process still in play.

Johnson’s public statement regarding his proposal provided by the city last month reads in part: “Aspen Public House is a full-service restaurant concept that will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, without any seasonal closures.”

Reed couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. But he was quoted in The Aspen Times last month describing his restaurant concept.

He said the new restaurant would be nothing like Kenichi, a sushi restaurant on Hopkins Avenue. Hayden’s would focus on what Reed called “ranch to grill,” a play off the “farm-to-table” phrase, serving local meats and wild game in a modern ski-lodge-type setting.

Restaurateur Ryan Chadwick confirmed Wednesday that he received an email from the city saying his group, Mr. Grey LLC, is not one of the two finalists.

Chadwick, who owns the Grey Lady restaurant in Aspen, posted on social media thanking the Beck family for the use of their name in his proposed “Beck & Bishop” restaurant concept.

“We unfortunately were not chosen as one of the top two finalists but I’m grateful for the experience and the history lesson on one of Aspen’s grandest buildings,” his post reads. “Best of luck to the top two finalists and I’m excited to see the next chapter of this iconic space.”

Eleven restaurant groups initially applied for the 2,618 square feet of restaurant space through a request-for-proposal process, which opened Dec. 1, including Fiercely Local LLC, the corporate entity behind Justice Snow’s, which has operated from the spot since 2011 following a similar proceeding with the city.

But they were not chosen as one of the final four. The city had previously expressed frustration with Justice Snow’s because it fell behind on rent and had an extended closure during the autumn offseason, while lackluster service stained its reputation.

The other applicant in the final four was Highlands Restaurant Group, led by Kevin Joseph, who is behind Highlands Alehouse.

An evaluation committee made up of Assistant City Manager Sara Ott, Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler, city facilities and property manager Jeff Pendarvis, Wheeler board member Richard Stettner, and Tom Engelman, who runs the à la Car of Aspen restaurant delivery service, is expected to make a recommendation to city council, which has the final say on a future tenant, on Feb. 26.

City Councilman Bert Myrin shared Chadwick’s post with The Aspen Times, saying it was news to him that two finalists have been chosen.

“The first discovery of what’s going on in City Hall via Facebook rather than staff is unsettling,” he wrote in a text message.

Rapkin wrote via email Wednesday evening that references, background checks and interviews are just a few of the things that have to take place to get to a final decision.

The Justice Snow’s lease expires April 15.