Food Matters: SO Café, Aspen Art Museum provide more than just a free lunch to locals who need a lift

Amanda Rae
Food Matters

When Aspen’s public health ban on indoor dining went into effect three weeks ago, Julia and Allen Domingos of Epicure Catering sought a work-around.

As operators of SO Café atop the Aspen Art Museum (AAM), the couple has served creative and nutritious fare to patrons since the Shigeru Ban-designed AAM opened on Hyman Avenue in August 2014. But the museum has maintained a strict no-takeout policy for the past six years, to protect the exhibition space; SO doesn’t even stock to-go containers for visitors to wrap up the second half of a sandwich. So, not knowing how long it might be until indoor dining resumes, and without a system in place or reputation for takeout, the team balked at the idea of launching a paid operation now.

Instead, Lunches for Locals allows the Domingoses to continue to practice their craft while serving a need in the community. Sponsored by the AAM and its generous donors, the program serves about 70 meals every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday to folks who sign up online in advance. The menu for the following day goes live on the AAM website at 2 p.m., for pick-up by the grand staircase entrance on Spring Street from noon to 1:30 p.m. (Sign-up for 2/5, therefore, begins on 2/4 at 2 p.m.; Spanish translation is posted.)

“(AAM) is a public amenity: it is built, really, to serve the town and it’s open to everybody,” Allen explains. “It’s a center for community outreach, as well. We’ve been here a long time and it’s good to give back.”

When AAM and SO Café launched Lunches for Locals on Jan. 21 to friends and family, reservations rolled in and sold out in a few hours.

“The second day sold out in half an hour,” says Julia, draining roasted piquillo peppers for that day’s turkey-bacon sandwich on ciabatta. “Yesterday sold out in nine minutes!”

An employee crumbling logs of Colorado’s Haystack Mountain goat cheese into a prep container nearby chimes in, exclaiming: “It was like concert tickets!”

Each day’s menu addresses a simple question: “What would be pleasing to a lot of people, maybe a little upscale?” Julia says. Whatever Farm Runners plans to distribute that week is another source of inspiration. Lately that means citrus, honey, garlic, cabbage, onions, and root vegetables. (Allen notes that Farm Runners sourced tangelos from an Arizona grower recently.)

Of two choices daily, one is always vegetarian. On the day I visited, this was a Mediterranean chopped salad (Romaine, cabbage, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, roasted beets, chèvre) with a side of creamy chickpea hummus and rosemary lavosh; the other option was that turkey sandwich.

Each bag includes a house-made dessert (espresso-hazelnut brownie or brown butter chocolate chip cookie last week), beverage and a snack.

“We throw some of our favorite things in here,” Allen says. “Have you heard of Zapp’s?” The New Orleans-style kettle potato chips are a personal favorite from his hometown, where he met Julia while working at one of chef Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants. Having both lived in Colorado during their college years (Julia at CU Boulder; later, the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York) they returned together in 1994.

Fans of SO Café might recognize these dishes—best hits that travel well. Recent meals include a grain bowl of farro, quinoa, and brown rice with roasted yams and beets and avocado vinaigrette; a cheddar grilled cheese with apple-cherry chutney; chicken Caesar salad; and a muffuletta (a traditional Louisiana-born Italian sandwich layered with deli meats and olive tapenade), to go with those Zapp’s.

“We try to do things that are interesting, (with) a little more international flair than just chips and a sandwich, you know?” Julia explains. “We want to educate people a teeny tiny bit.”

As SO Café would otherwise be closed for service, and with Epicure Catering’s business evaporated by an estimated 60%, offering this program through AAM is a way for the Domingoses to stay engaged. “To be able to do something like this, and get funding for it, is so much more gratifying than just trying to sell lunches to-go,” Julia explains. “It’s (about) creativity and making people happy in a small way.”

Participants have run the gamut from restaurant employees and retirees to workers in ski shops, banks, doctor’s offices and teachers—”a mix of everybody.” There’s no catch or hidden charge, either. “No such thing as a free lunch” is a saying that dates at least to the late 19th century, when American taverns and saloons would serve salty snacks (nuts, cheese, crackers) on the house in an effort to subtly encourage patrons to purchase and consume more booze. Providing something under the guise of it costing nothing was a clever moneymaking trick. Not here.

There is reciprocal benefit, though.

“Not only (are we) giving lunch to (the community), but we’re helping out our vendors and supply chain people, keeping them busy,” Allen explains. “If we had the manpower and the money, we could do hundreds, but we can only do what we do, right? We keep a couple of our employees working, to do something that’s a nice little perk for people.”

Last spring, urged by the AAM board president, the pair made lunches for first responders and emergency management teams. That led to distribution at the Aspen Fire Station for locals who needed a boost—about 1,000 meals in all. Pitching in with the Aspen Mobile Pantry organized by Aspen Family Connections reinforced the urgency around food insecurity.

“That experience was really inspiring,” Julia says. “We saw how much need there is.”

The only bummer to Lunches for Locals? “Saying no to people (who) want a lunch but they weren’t able to reserve one,” she says.

So, be on time: hop online and register at 2 p.m. sharp the day prior to pick-up. You might have nine minutes or less get in the queue.

Aspen Times Weekly

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