Kenichi founder dead at 50
September 22, 2011
ASPEN – Bil Rieger of Aspen, founder and co-owner of Kenichi Aspen restaurant, was found dead in his apartment above Clark’s Market on Tuesday night. According to a report Wednesday evening from the Pitkin County Coroner’s Office, Rieger committed suicide by hanging. He was 50.
The coroner’s report noted that on Tuesday, Aspen police went on a welfare check. An Aspen police officer noted that the check was prompted by calls from friends concerned about Rieger. An Aspen Police Department spokesman said the welfare check, around 10 p.m., turned into an unattended death call when a body was found. An autopsy took place on Wednesday, and toxicology results are pending. An Aspen police officer involved with the investigation declined to say whether Rieger had left a note.
On Wednesday afternoon, a group of co-workers and friends gathered at the Sky Hotel to mourn and remember an Aspenite known for his charisma, business achievements and generosity, as well as his addictions and difficult emotional periods.
“Billy’s a wonderful guy. We lost a great person,” said Brent Reed, a Kenichi co-owner and accountant for the past four years who knew Rieger for 18 years. “All of our staff misses him dearly and wishes the best for all family, friends and people of our community. He created something really great here. And we want to continue that. He provided a lot of jobs and livelihood for a lot of people.”
Rieger opened Kenichi in 1991, with some experience in investing in restaurants, but no experience in opening and running one. Five days after Rieger settled in Aspen, a friend told him about a deal in the works to open a local sushi restaurant. Rieger worked his way into a meeting of the restaurant’s partners the following day, and that afternoon he wrote a check and announced his intention to be not just an investor, but the operator of the spot.
Kenichi, named for founding chef Kenichi Kanada, has been a prominent Aspen dining spot since, and Rieger opened two more Kenichi locations, in Austin and Dallas. In 2009, Rieger expanded into the downscale end of the restaurant business, opening the beer-and-burger joint Bad Billy’s. After Bad Billy’s closed earlier this year, because of the redevelopment of the building which housed it, Rieger submitted a plan to open a pub in the city-owned Wheeler Opera House, but another proposal edged out his bid. Rieger also opened Noodles by Kenichi, which had a six-month existence beginning in 2009.
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Kenichi was known for its frequent fundraising events, with diners who donated to a select cause getting half-price meals. Among the beneficiaries were Mountain Rescue Aspen, the Aspen Animal Shelter and Extreme Sports Camp.
“He had a heart as big as anyone I’ve met,” Reed said.
A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., who grew up skiing on Boyne Mountain, Rieger moved to Colorado to attend the University of Denver’s business school. He began building an insurance business in Denver when, at 27, he developed testicular cancer. After spending two years in Washington, D.C., mostly in a hospital, he emerged cancer-free. He began spending time in Aspen, pursuing his passion for skiing, and taking up ski racing before opening Kenichi.
Rieger publicly acknowledged his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction in a cover-story profile that appeared in The Aspen Times Weekly in March. Rieger connected those troubles in part to his position and success in the restaurant business: “I loved entertaining. I loved throwing the party,” he said in March. “That’s a dangerous lifestyle.”
“Billy really had a talent for the restaurants,” Reed said. “And a lot of us become victims of our talents.”
Rieger also said in the Aspen Times article that he had been sober for two years at the time: “I was done with the pain. Done with the lifestyle, done with the image, done with being unhealthy.” He added that he chose to speak about his addictions in the hope that he could be a positive example: “I am living testimony – anyone fighting the disease of drug addiction and alcoholism, you can change.”
Rieger credited his strength at the time to his two-year relationship with his girlfriend, Aspen native Julie Manning, and Manning’s daughter, Olivia, with whom Rieger had developed a close bond.
Phil Pitzer, a part-time Aspenite and a friend of Rieger’s for 20-plus years, cast Rieger in a small part in his film “Easy Rider: The Ride Back,” which has yet to be released. Pitzer didn’t have Rieger in mind when he wrote the character, but came to see that the character, who was eventually named Rieger Reynolds, reminded him of his friend: big-hearted and good-looking, with a tendency to spread good feelings through food. Pitzer wasn’t worried that Rieger was not an experienced actor.
“It’s called charisma. You either have it or you don’t. He’s got it,” Pitzer said in March. “He nailed the part. It feels real. Because it’s Bil.”