Food Matters: The Music Never Stops at Grateful Deli
‘Peace, love, and sandwiches’ get Grateful Deli and friends to the other side
Stepping up to the Grateful Deli’s bright red door during lunchtime might remind a visitor of what a long, strange trip it’s been, in Aspen or anywhere. Inside, every wall is painted with a multicolored mural, artist Annie Bell’s tribute to the most enduring jam band of all time. Even the ceiling depicts a psychedelic, starry sky. Often, Jerry Garcia’s perfect pitch serves as the soundtrack inside the 150-square-foot sandwich shop.
Most patrons, though, focus on two giant chalkboards listing dozens of subs, paninis and salads, all of them named for Grateful Dead tunes. So many sandwiches, so much Dead stuff, and so little time to order when a line begins forming behind you out the door. Since COVID, lingering is not recommended. That’s why it’s best for newcomers to arrive very early or very late. Everyone else might want to call ahead for pickup.
“Take the tour of the museum!” exclaims owner Glenn Wood, when I arrive an hour before opening. He and Lyn Lane are slicing enormous piles of deli meat and batching pre-orders for Grateful Deli’s signature sandwiches. He points to laminated ticket stubs, hand-colored posters, stuffed Dead bears, tie-dye shirts, a Jerry doll. “People come in and feel a kinship: ‘My dad, older brother was a Deadhead,’” Wood explains. “It opens up a conversation. The Grateful Dead theme sets a tone of welcoming, inclusiveness … peace, love and sandwiches!”
Prepared on three types of bread baked fresh every morning by Louis Swiss Pastry (white or wheat sub roll, focaccia), the sandwiches are legendary in their own right. Most popular is the Garcia (turkey, bacon, avocado, Provolone, lettuce, tomato, banana pepper, sprouts, mayo). It used to be called the In & Out at the predecessor sandwich shop of that same name in the 1970s (see timeline, opposite page). Says Wood: “I have people calling and saying, ‘Can I get an In & Out on white?’ We know what they’re talking about.”
Open Mon-Sat 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.*
233 E. Main St.
*Starting in June: Open Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.*
Second MVP is the Bertha, an Italian sub (black forest ham, salami, capicola, Provolone, lettuce, tomato, red onion, banana pepper, mayo, oil and vinegar). The Reuben is now offered with turkey or pastrami, for variety. The Magic Mushroom (marinated portobello with provolone, tomato, roasted red pepper and pesto) and the Cassidy (fresh mozzarella, tomato, kalamata olive, basil pesto), both on grilled focaccia, are top vegetarian choices. Dark Star, Casey Jones, Shakedown, Franklin’s Tower, Minglewood…what’ll it be?
“One summer day we did 62 Garcias!” Wood quips. “When people come in, I always like to look up and say hello. It’s like an exhibition kitchen.”
Daily specials mix it up for regulars. Many are standard each week, such as Monday’s meatball sub (with melted Provolone and roasted onions and peppers); and Friday’s Dark Star (roast beef, Provolone, horseradish mayo) served as a French dip, au jus. (A mini crock pot in the corner warms the jus, since the “kitchen” lacks a stove.) Wood has experimented with Cuban and Muffuletta sandwiches and kale-quinoa salads, to sell-out success. In winter, a four-cheese grilled cheese panini with a tomato soup dunker was a hit.
“I like to play with food,” says Wood, a Hawaii native who came to Aspen in the 1990s to open the Hard Rock Café (formerly in the Elks Building). “Growing up in Hawaii, I didn’t see the Grateful Dead very much,” he continues, though he did experience the band later, working at Hard Rocks around the world: in Honolulu; La Jolla, California; Sydney, Australia; Maui; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Aspen; Lake Tahoe. After six or eight months in Tahoe, he turned around to join Aspen Skiing Co.’s newly expanded food and beverage department.
Wood purchased the Grateful Deli from friends Joe Freeman Jr. and Krista Eddy on Halloween 2016. “That’s Joe and Krista right there with their daughter, in front,” he says, pointing to the mural at left of the door when one walks in. “And look at the moon up there (above the beverage cooler)—Jerry’s in the moon!”
Unless you build your own or request additions or substitutions, specialty sandwiches cost $8.50 to $10.50 ($6 for kids) and “Big Salads” are $8 to $10.50—prices that include tax. Construction workers order the Mexicali Chicken panini en masse—even in the dead of summer.
“I really want to take care of the locals, because that’s what keeps the town going, I believe,” Wood says. He stocks lots of merchandise at Grateful Deli: T-shirts and Frisbees of his own design, gives out free stickers, and offers the not-so-“secret menu” and loyalty punch card.
“The punch card, Johnny McGuire’s used to do the same thing,” Wood says, referring to the late, great greasy spoon spot of east Aspen. “I talked to (Terrance McGuire) and he was very supportive. He knows how hard it is—the margin of profit on a sandwich!” (The Truckin’ at Grateful Deli is a play on “The Trucker” of Johnny McGuire’s.)
Ah, the moment that every card-carrying local anticipates: Earning that final guitar-shaped punch on the tie-dye Grateful Deli voucher, redeemable for a free sandwich.
“(Customers) save them up for years,” shares Glenn Wood, owner since 2016 and a friend/fan since the spot opened in 2007. “Then in the offseason they have like four free sandwiches. Or they’ll say, ‘I’ll go pickup sandwiches for the office!’ They’ll pick up 10 sandwiches (and get the punches). I’m very proud to be one of the places that locals can still afford, especially in the offseason.”
Landlords Tom and Carolyn Moore “own this whole lot to (Of Grape and Grain, around the corner), and it’s all local businesses,” says Wood, who keeps overhead low with one cooler, a slicer, a microwave, and one panini press that produces just four sandwiches at a time. “They’re very supportive. They want to keep that small-town character.”
So, the Grateful Deli keeps cranking.
“In the summertime it’s nonstop,” says Wood. Wedding rehearsal picnics are big business. Charity meals go to the Aspen Homeless Shelter, Food & Wine Classic volunteers, attendees to Aspen Film’s screening of the Grateful Dead documentary “Long Strange Trip.” Recently, Grateful Deli has catered boxed lunches for Aspen Country Day School teachers and vaccine site workers at the Aspen Meadows.
A few dedicated employees make it possible: Gretchen “Gertie” Gibson, with whom Wood has worked 18 years, since he ran Cirque Café (now Venga Venga) in Snowmass; Carmen Bejares, a personal friend of 20 years; Lyn Lane; Tim Murphy; Wood’s wife, Carol, and daughter Lily.
Wood muses that the “positive tension” ever present at the minuscule Grateful Deli echoes that of massive Grateful Dead shows. “It’s the community of the people collectively enjoying themselves. The music grabs your soul, and people feel that energy together.”
Wood attended 17 Grateful Dead shows from 1989 to 1995, plus new shows with Dead & Company (and more planned on the upcoming 2021 tour). He recalls a moment years ago when guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh walked over from the Hotel Jerome, where they were staying for a wedding. Weir signed his ticket stub.
“I was worried: ‘Would they ever be upset?’” Wood says, alluding to all the quirky merchandise. Then he chuckles. “They’re all about free market whatever. It was nice to have him bless the place.”
Wood calls it “an honor” to continue the Grateful Deli legacy in a tiny, thatched-roof storefront that has held a sandwich counter for nearly 50 years. As the band sings: “Once in awhile you can get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
1971: Jon Hollinger founds the The Sub Shoppe at 233 E. Main St.
In 1972: The Sub Shoppe moves to the Brand Building (Gucci today). In 1973 Tim Cottrell buys the business; turns it into the Firehouse Tavern.
In 1973: In & Out House opens at 233 E. Main St. It changes ownership a few times over 33 years.
1979: In & Out House opens at 233 E. Main St.
2006: Following a trademark battle with California’s In-N-Out Burger chain, In & Out House in Aspen changes its name to Upside Down House
June 2007: Joe Freeman, Jr., and Krista Eddy—Deadheads at least 36 years—buy Upside Down House. Grateful Deli is born.
Halloween 2016: Glenn Wood purchases Grateful Deli. He vows to keep the music alive.
December 2020-present: Almost 15 years after the In & Out House lawsuit, In-N-Out Burger opens its first locations in Colorado: Aurora and Colorado Springs. In 2021, Lone Tree. A fourth, in Thornton, is under construction.
October 2021: Wood plans to sign another five-year lease for Grateful Deli to keep truckin’!