Justice Snow’s, city of Aspen in limbo
October 16, 2017
Don't draw the curtains on the Aspen soap opera that is the fate of Justice Snow's just yet.
Michele Kiley, co-owner of the restaurant that rents space at the city-owned Wheeler Opera House, urged members of Aspen City Council at a work session Monday to trust she has investors in place to make good on the $40,574 she is behind on rent.
Justice Snow's has until Monday, Oct. 23, the last day of the cure period, to satisfy the debt or the city will refuse to extend the lease, which has been month to month for the past year.
Kiley received a mixed reception from council members. One, Bert Myrin, said he has no desire to renew the lease while Adam Frisch fired off a sharp rebuke to Kiley's assertions that the restaurant has been a community benefit since it opened in January 2012.
"You owe some money," Frisch said. "You're closed. I think those are 0-for-2 with things for the community, and it is for me."
Responded Kiley: "I think we can look at the record that stands for the last five years, which is that we were open for all offseasons for the last five years and the tremendous amount of extension we've done to the community, Adam. Live music twice weekly at no charge to the community. We've done incredible work with nonprofits. I would like the record to stand on this."
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The work session came after a few moves by Justice Snow's that have not sat well with the city, including its default on rent as well as a Sept. 28 letter from the dining and drinking establishment's attorney seeking some concessions with its lease.
Among those were a request to close for 60 days starting Oct. 1; the lease terms allow it to close for two weeks in the spring and fall offseasons. The letter also asked the city to lower its rent by requiring it to pay 6 percent, rather than the existing 8 percent, of its gross sales.
Justice Snow's didn't close at the beginning of the month, instead shutting its doors Saturday with a notice on its front door saying "We will reopen at the pleasure of the city of Aspen. Please make your voice heard."
In the meantime, bright lights on the restaurant's windows facing Mill Street spell out the word "veto."
How long Justice Snow's clings to its lease is another matter.
Should it catch up on its rent, the City Council could vote for its renewal at its Monday meeting. If it doesn't, the city could meet privately after the meeting and decide to negate the lease before taking formal action in public Tuesday, Oct. 24.
The City Council has made no qualms that it wants whatever tenant occupies that space to be a restaurant that serves working-class locals year round.
Yet how to go about that is a matter of debate among council members.
"I don't want to get involved in trying to outsmart the free market," said Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who asked the city to provide him what the space would cost on the free market. "I think for a restaurant we should try to have a target market, and it probably shouldn't be on the high end, but we should try to target what the locals will want."
Myrin said the restaurant should stay open year round and by doing so, its menu prices would cater toward the working class. That's because, Myrin suggested, the eatery would need to be volume-driven in order to pass muster during the year's slower months.
"To me, locally serving is something that's open year round and by default, that restaurant has to serve people who are here," he said.
The last thing Frisch said the council should get involved in is tinkering with the menu or its prices.
"I want to do as little on our side to allow the creative freedom on the other side," he said. Councilwoman Ann Mullins said the city should have some authority over the menu prices so that a high-priced restaurant doesn't move in.
In the event that the city doesn't renew the lease for Justice Snow's, a request-for-proposals process would start in the coming months, with the intention to get a new tenant in there by June.
Frisch said a pop-up tenant should be considered for the upcoming winter season.
"It would be a huge failure if that place stays empty this winter," he said.
Kiley rattled offer a number of what she deemed affordable offerings from Justice Snow's, not just its hamburger, which has run from $10 to $12. She noted that a shot and a beer fetch $3.50, and $5 will get a patron a glass of wine, a margarita or a mojito.
While Justice Snow's originally wanted to change the terms of its lease, Kiley said she is now focused on changing the business model. And, noted Assistant City Manager Sara Ott, changing the lease could possibly foul any lease deal Kiley is seeking with the city.
"Our recommendation has been that changing the rent terms are fundamental changes to a lease that in many times trigger a (request-for-proposals) process, and Kiley has been advised of that multiple times in our discussions," Ott said.
A number of local restaurant owners were in attendance, as well. One, Rob Ittner, owner of Rustique and the Cooking School of Aspen, complimented Kiley and said the city should consider the unpredictable market forces, from the price of labor to employee retention to a flat summer.
"Most of the restaurateurs do it because they love what they do," he said. "They're not looking at it because they want to get rich."