Last call draws near for city of Aspen to decide on its next restaurant

Carolyn Sackariason
The Aspen Times
Patrons imbibe and dine at Justice Snow's in the city-owned Wheeler Opera House. The restaurant's lease expires on April 15, and City Council is poised to make a decision on who should take over the spot.
Aspen Times file |

When Aspen City Council considers a new restaurant operator for the Wheeler Opera House tonight, an affordable menu will be a factor but won’t be a term in the lease like it has been for the past six years.

Four members of a review committee have come to a consensus and are recommending that Elk Mountain Ventures LLC — led by Bill Johnson, who is the sole proprietor of Capitol Creek Brewery at Willits in Basalt — take over the Wheeler space this spring.

The current proprietor, Michele Kiley, who runs Justice Snow’s, was bound by terms in her lease with the city “to maintain an affordable restaurant” and agree to an initial review before opening and an annual review thereafter of predetermined menu items that were compared with equivalent ones from five other restaurants in town.

That stipulation doesn’t exist in the new lease. Concerning pricing, it reads, “incremental inflationary menu prices are part of the normal course of business.”

Similarly, the request for proposals in 2011 specifically says applicants wouldn’t be considered if they didn’t have an affordable eating and drinking option.

In the 2018 request, there is no mention of affordability but it does say that the operation must be locally serving, and annual seasonal closures shall not exceed 28 days a year.

Mayor Steve Skadron acknowledged that the city’s attempt to control menu prices in the space proved difficult to enforce. The only real affordable option at Justice Snow’s is a $12 hamburger, which didn’t satisfy many locals.

Kiley has said she passed the menu pricing reviews all six years she’s been in business while paying market rent in the city-owned space.

Even though affordability isn’t enforceable in the new agreement, it was a consideration for the review committee. Based on direction from council last fall and feedback from the public on the city’s website, it’s clear that the new operator provide a locally serving restaurant that serves at least lunch and dinner; breakfast would be a bonus.

“We listened to the comments on the city’s website about affordability, and the four finalists achieved that,” said Jeff Pendarvis, the city’s facilities and property manager and member of the committee. “What we aren’t doing is checking their cheeseburger prices every two years, … but all of the things we are talking about is locally serving.”

Skadron said council gave direction to staff last fall not to pursue “five-star restaurants.”

“I said, ‘No white tablecloths’ and we talked about good value and accessibility to locals,” he wrote in an email.

The current selection process has been abbreviated compared with the first go-around in 2011. After a committee whittled down applicants to four finalists, the restaurateurs gave presentations to council in public meetings.

This time, the committee met privately, interviewed the finalists and whittled it down to two. Hayden’s, LTD, led by Brent Reed, who is the owner of Kenichi, was the other contender.

Tonight, the council is expected to give direction to staff on whether to draw up a lease for Elk Mountain LLC that is scheduled to be approved Monday

One of the reasons for the abbreviated process is that council wants an operator in the space quickly, Assistant City Manager Sara Ott said. Justice Snow’s lease ends April 15.

“The City Council wants a restaurant in there by Food & Wine (June 15 to 17),” she said, adding that the revenue generated by the restaurant’s rent is key for the city to fund arts programming in town.

In the city’s RFP, proposers were asked to provide an initial per-square-foot rate to be negotiated later.

Justice Snow’s monthly rent for 2017 was just over $10,500, plus 8 percent of gross sales.

Ott said the committee focused on the applicants’ concepts and menu samples per council’s direction, while weighing the needs of the Wheeler and other interests.

“We need a successful restaurant in that space for the community, the operator and the Wheeler,” she said, “and that’s a difficult balance.”

The committee was comprised of Ott; Pendarvis; Wheeler executive director Gena Buhler; Wheeler board member Richard Stettner, Rebecca Hodgson, who handles purchasing and RFPs for the city; and Tom Engelman, who owns and operates the restaurant delivery service, a la Car.

Hodgson did not provide a recommendation because her role was to oversee the process; Engelman didn’t provide one, either. Ott said he was there to vet all of the proposals and offer industry insight, and was then taken out of the process at the end.

“We wanted to avoid any conflict of interest and make the process as clean as we could,” Ott said.

In terms of the merits of Elk Mountain Ventures’ concept and sample menu, that decision will ultimately rest with council.

“It will be up to council to decide the degree of affordability and how to account for that,” Skadron said. “I’m anxious for (tonight).”