City of Aspen starts process to seek restaurant operator near Rio Grande Park |

City of Aspen starts process to seek restaurant operator near Rio Grande Park

A request for proposals to bid on former Taster’s Pizza space will be ready within a month

The city of Aspen is seeking a new restaurant operator in the old Taster's Pizza space by Rio Grande Park.
Carolyn Sackariason/The Aspen Times

The city of Aspen this summer will issue a request for proposals seeking interested restaurant operators who can provide affordable food in the former Taster’s Pizza space by Rio Grande Park.

Aspen City Council members agreed during their Monday work session to prioritize filling the city-owned space, which has been vacant since 2019 when the building went under renovation for municipal offices.

Council members told City Capital Asset Director Rob Schober, who will draft the RFP, that they wanted criteria included like “family friendly” and to make it clear it’s not going to be a gourmet or high-end restaurant.

Mayor Torre pointed out that the space is across from Rio Grande Park and the skate park, which attracts young people and teenagers, and a future restaurant should serve that population as well.

“If you put out an RFP you’ll get a variety of responses, and from there we will be able to talk more about the path forward,” he said to Schober.

Council also agreed that the lease term be at least five years with a five-year option to renew so that it’s worth the investment for an operator to make tenant improvements to the space.

While the restaurant space is not move-in ready, the city invested in upgrading the electrical and ventilation system in anticipation of a new tenant.

However, the placement of additional features or amenities and construction of restrooms in the space will have to be done jointly with a future tenant as part of the contract process.

Schober said the space has been cleaned up, and some of the restaurant equipment is still there.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards asked if it’s possible that the city put in some money toward tenant improvements to expedite an operator getting open and then have the business repay the municipal government over several years of the lease.

“I’m just wondering to get the truly family-friendly and lower-priced and teen-oriented type of menu, and it’s going to take a huge investment, and if it doesn’t work out for someone’s pro forma, do we need to be a partner?” she said.

Schober said the question of whether government assistance is necessary will be included in the RFP.

“That is one of the questions we are going to ask in the RFP is, ‘Do you need public money to make this work and pencil out?’” he said.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said if the city is willing to put up money for the build-out of the former Taster’s Pizza location, he would like to see the same in a space that used to be under the now defunct Cooper Street Pier on Cooper Avenue.

The city has failed to get an affordable restaurant in the basement space of at 508 E. Cooper Ave. (near the Paradise Bakery corner), despite trying for a decade.

That’s because the council that negotiated with the building’s owners in 2008 didn’t anticipate the estimated $1 million needed to finish the space, which has kept potential tenants away from turning it into a restaurant.

Monthly rent of the basement space is capped at $50 per square foot with standard annual increases, and there are price restrictions on any future menus, according to a settlement agreement between the city and the building’s owners.

Developers sued the city in 2007 after council denied their request to subdivide the property into separate condominium interests.

The two sides came to a settlement, allowing for redevelopment based on the condition that a deed restriction keep the basement affordable.

City officials have said they recognize the deal — negotiated by then-council members J.E. DeVilbiss, Jackie Kasabach, Jack Johnson, Dwayne Romero and Steve Skadron — was bad for the city. The developers got a penthouse that sold for $13.2 million in 2015, and the community got an empty basement.

Scott Miller, the city’s public works director, told council on Monday that it’s difficult to legislate exact menu prices, but a range could be included in the RFP for the Rio Grande space.

“That helps people decide whether they want to respond to the RFP,” he said.

The city serves as a commercial landlord for three restaurant spaces it owns at the Wheeler Opera House, the municipal golf course and the Rio Grande building.

The terms of the leases for restaurant operators in the city’s spaces have certain expectations written into them, like operating hours, and in turn, they do not pay market rents.

Taster’s was an affordable option for the public because of the discounted rent the city offered. The pizzeria had been operating on a month-to-month lease with the city since 2012 and paying a fraction of the rent — $1,350 a month plus triple net — that downtown commercial space commands. Taster’s had been in the Rio Grande building since 2008.

The city’s process for finding restaurateurs can be arduous, lengthy and political.

It took several months to select first Justice Snow in 2011 when Bentley’s closed at the Wheeler and nearly as long as when the current tenant, Public House, was picked.

The city has tried in the past to limit menu prices in some of its locations, but it proved too difficult to control.

Another negotiation with building owners Andy Hecht and his son Nikos, who also were part of the Cooper Avenue deal, has seen better success in holding prices on the menu at what is now Clark’s Oyster Bar.

A deed restriction was placed on the property in 2015 as a result of a deal struck between City Council and the Hechts.

The Hechts announced in 2011 that they planned to tear down the Hyman Avenue structure where Little Annie’s was. Panic set in throughout the community — and at the council table — that one of Aspen’s oldest bars and restaurants could forever be gone.

City Council gave the Hechts millions of dollars’ worth of breaks on the multi-use building next door in exchange for requiring that the restaurant forever be moderately priced.

The deed restriction reads in part: “Low-priced restaurant means a restaurant offering menu items priced not more expensively, on a relative basis, when compared to other sit-down restaurants in Aspen, Colorado, than the current menu prices. Current menu prices are deemed those prices in the menu in effect at the Little Annie’s Restaurant on September 23, 2015.

“It shall be presumed that the restaurant is not being operated as a low-priced restaurant unless the regular dinner menu submitted to customers on a daily basis contains four entree items of reasonable choices and proportions, including at least one poultry dish and one fish or hamburger dish, whose average price of the four items is not greater than $19 and the regular lunch menu submitted to customers on a daily basis contains four main items of reasonable choices and proportions, including a hamburger meal, whose average price of the four items is not greater than $14.”

Clark’s Oyster Bar, considered an upscale seafood restaurant, has sandwiches on the lunch menu priced at $15 and $18, as well as a happy hour from 3-5 p.m. Monday through Friday that offers half-priced burgers and martinis, along with $.50 off oysters and $5 oyster shooters.

The dinner menu has salads priced at $14 to $18 and a la carte items from $9 to $16, but everything else is far beyond what the deed-restricted menu requires.

Back at the council table on Monday, elected officials appeared excited to be moving forward with the former Taster’s space, which was a different sentiment earlier this year when it was not on the priority list of capital projects.

“I’m glad to hear this is on track,” Richards said.

Councilman John Doyle echoed her comments.

“I am just really glad to hear this, because I’ve been approached by several people already wondering about this space,” he said. “And that’s specifically what they wanted, was to have some input to how the restaurant is set up, so thank you for beating them to the punch.”

Schober said staff proposes to “white box” the current space for showing to potential restaurant operators during the RFP process, which allows a future operator to envision what the space might look like.

“I’d like to by the end of the summer have an idea of what the direction we are going to be going is,” he said, adding he would like to be in front of council next month for an approval of an RFP. “I know it’s going to take resources and a significant amount of time, and that’s what we are prepared to do.

“That is why I am here, telling you this is what we are going to prioritize, and I’ll make sure this happens.”