Justice Snow’s asks city of Aspen for leniency on lease, wants to close for 2 months
October 3, 2017
The Aspen City Council will meet privately Monday to discuss terms of the lease for Justice Snow's restaurant and bar, which wants to close for two months this fall so it can retool its operation.
The meeting will come after an attorney for Justice Snow's, a corner restaurant and bar in the city-owned Wheeler Opera House building, wrote the city last week asking for adjustments to its lease.
"As you well know, the occupancy rates in Aspen drop dramatically in the fall once the colors are past their peak," wrote attorney Anne Marie McPhee on behalf of Justice Snow's. "Many restaurants and businesses close during the offseason to make renovations, adjust their business plans, avoid operating at a loss and simply to recharge."
While Justice Snow's has operated within the terms of its lease, which allows it to close for four weeks a year — once in the spring offseason, once in the fall offseason — the letter seeks permission for an extended break.
"The restaurant is currently going through a number of changes in its staffing, menu planning and financing," the letter continues. "They therefore request that they be permitted to make this one-time closure in order to focus on these other matters and reopen for the winter season and be stronger than ever."
Justice Snow's had asked to close for 60 days starting Sunday, but it is the City Council's call on how to proceed. Because the City Council doesn't have a formal meeting this week — instead it has been involved in work sessions concerning the 2018 budget — it won't take the matter up until its next regular meeting Monday, said Assistant City Manager Sara Ott.
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"The matter is considered executive session because it's regarding negotiations of a lease agreement and in essence, the terms don't currently allow for the closure that was requested," she said. "The next step is for City Council to provide direction to staff."
Justice Snow's signed its lease in May 2011 after its ownership group, Fiercely Local, persuaded City Council to accept its proposal over several other restaurant operators that were vying for the 2,618 square feet of space. The lease's initial term began December 2011, with Justice Snow's opening the following January, after an extensive remodel, in the space once occupied by Bentley's at the Wheeler.
The lease calls for a monthly rent payment of $9,817.50, which equates to $117,810 a year. The base rent has increased each year based on Justice Snow's paying a percentage of its gross sales to the city. Currently the lease calls for Justice Snow's paying the $117,810 annually along with 8 percent of its gross sales that surpass that year's "breakpoint," a term that refers to the base rent divided by 0.08. McPhee's letter asks that amount to be reduced to 6 percent.
"These changes, too, are necessary for the restaurant's long-term viability," she wrote.
Justice Snow's co-owner Michele Kiley said Tuesday the restaurant isn't meeting its potential, which is why the closure is needed.
"I personally don't want to close at all," she said, "but in order to give proper attention to restructuring our business, I need to be prudent and wise."
Facing financial pressure, Justice Snow's gave up numerous public offerings in the past year, such as its poetry events, storytelling sessions and live-music offerings, Kiley said. The cost cutting saved the establishment $55,000, she said.
"It's not sustainable in the current business climate," Kiley said. "I can't tell you how making those decisions broke our hearts. Those endeavors benefited the community in ways people don't realize."
Kiley conceded that Justice Snow's could improve its service and its menu needs an overhaul. And then there's the menu's hamburger offering, a subject Kiley laments over because of the scrutiny it has attracted over the years.
As part of the lease, Justice Snow's is bound to operating a "restaurant so that its menu is affordable." In turn, Justice Snow's initially offered a $10 burger — side included — making it one of the cheapest sandwiches in town at a full-service restaurant. That price has since increased to $12 after what Kiley called a "huge discussion" with the city.
"But again, I'm here to be of benefit to the community," she said, "and right now the business side isn't working."
Kiley said she's looking at a complete overhaul of the menu that would offer lower prices than the current one.
"On any given night, let's say we have 30 customers. And if 26 order a burger and four people order a steak, where do you think that leaves our business model?" she said.
Justice Snow's in the meantime was open Sunday — the day it asked to begin its two-month hiatus — as well as the following days. Kiley said the plan is to temporarily close Oct. 15, while the duration of that closure will hinge on what the council decides.
Ott said the lease issue at this point is an internal matter, but "I think at some point there will be a public discussion."