La Cocina joins the `21st’ century |

La Cocina joins the `21st’ century

John Colson

The waitresses at Aspen’s oldest Mexican restaurant, La Cocina, envision themselves participating in a national ad campaign.

“When you come to La Cocina restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, be sure to bring your VISA or MasterCard,” the voice-over will say, as the camera pans across the bar, “because at La Cocina, they don’t take American Express.”

But … wait a minute. Credit cards at La Cocina? That can’t be true, can it?

Yes, it can.

La Cocina owners Nick and Sarah Lebby have, as Nick said on Monday, allowed themselves to be dragged “kicking and screaming into the 21st century.” They now accept credit cards, after steadfastly refusing to do so for more than two and a half decades.

And, yes, they don’t accept American Express. A millennial matter Nick Lebby said it was only a coincidence that he decided to make the change at the same time as the world celebrated the changeover of the millennium.

But, he added, he was a little more nervous than most restaurateurs over the approach of the feared “Y2K weekend.”

He had only two weeks earlier begun accepting cards, for the first time in some 27 years in business in Aspen. And credit cards were viewed as possibly the most vulnerable aspect of today’s electronic business world, as far as the Y2K problem was concerned.

“I thought, `Hey, maybe this isn’t such a great time to be doing this,'” said the veteran Aspen businessman.

But, as happened everywhere around the world, the dreaded “millennium bug” did not bite Lebby’s business by causing a power outage or wiping out the records of his credit-card transactions.

This week Lebby waxed gently philosophical about his decision to make the switch from cash-and-checks only to accepting cards.

“Since this whole planet seems to be going plastic, I’m going to have to jump on board,” he said simply.

When asked if it bothered him to abandon a business practice that has served him well for so long, he replied, “Very few things bother me … I think it’ll be interesting to see how things play out.” A tradition Lebby decided when he opened his business in the early 1970s that he would not accept credit cards from customers, mostly because of the fee that credit companies would charge him.

“There was always something that grated me about having to pay somebody when I was doing all the work,” he said. “It didn’t set right.”

Lebby said he tried to make up for not taking credit cards, which he said did upset some customers over the years. “We tried to make it as easy as possible for them” to pay their tab. They could walk to a nearby automated teller machine, pay with a check “from anywhere in the world,” or Lebby would hand them a self-addressed, stamped envelope and “they could send me the money when they got home.”

He said those who were asked to send a check when they got home did so in almost every instance, noting that “they were always shocked that I was willing to do that.”

“I bet we didn’t lose $300 in 25 years,” he added. “You give people a good product for a good price, they appreciate it. They’re not going to burn you.”

Lebby acknowledged that for years some members of his wait staff have lobbied to accept credit cards, and admitted that when he did decided to acquiesce, “I was the only one, probably, who was unfamiliar with it. Everyone else had worked with them.”

In fact, both he and Sarah admitted to being technological throwbacks whose kids know how to use computers. Nevertheless, the owners stick to pencils and paper and adding machines when doing the books.

In light of his recent change of heart, Nick said Monday, “I might even break out and try a computer some time … but don’t hold me to that.”

He said he does not expect to have to raise the prices of his food to account for the new credit fees.

“We’re trying to keep it as reasonable as possible,” he said, hoping that the added convenience of being able to use cards may bring in new business.

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