New Aspen lounge won’t have to go through the LLA ringer
Board determines Andrew Sandler an investor, not an operator
A former Aspen bar operator who ran afoul of public health orders amid the pandemic and is now an investor in a new drinking and dining establishment won’t be subjected to the scrutiny of the Local Licensing Authority.
The LLA board unanimously voted at its monthly meeting Tuesday to bypass a hearing on Andrew Sandler and his role with Sterling Club Aspen. By doing so, it approved the lounge’s liquor license.
“We’re going to approve it as it is and sit back and wait, rather than prejudging,” said LLA Chair Bill Murphy.
The hearing would have allowed the board to examine Sandler’s background, which would have shown, for example, that he pleaded no contest to the LLA in October 2020 for operating his Bootsy Bellows nightclub in violation of public health orders and staying open past curfew. Sandler formerly operated the now-defunct Scarlett’s and Bootsy Bellows, most recently at Galena Street and Hopkins Avenue.
The LLA also agreed to fine Sandler $5,000 at the time.
Sandler’s name came to the LLA’s attention again this week after Joonas Group LLC, which owns Bear Den Aspen and Sterling Aspen, filed paperwork with the state and city indicating a change to its corporate ownership structure.
“Pursuant to the municipal code and to state statute, such ownership change has to be approved by the Local Licensing Authority,” Assistant City Attorney Kate Johnson told the board. “You guys have the option to either approve it or set a public hearing.”
On Dec. 8, the newly formed The Sterling Aspen LLC, of which Sandler is a member, acquired 49% equity interest in Joonas Group through a $1 million cash investment, according to paperwork provided to the LLA ahead of this week’s meeting. The deal also set equal partnerships of 25.5% for Bridger Smith and Alia Joonas, who previously had been the sole managers of the Joonas Group.
Through the arrangement, the Joonas Group has ownership of Bear Den and Sterling Aspen. Both establishments are located on the 300 block of East Hopkins Avenue known as restaurant row. The Sterling Aspen establishment debuted in late December, using the former underground space most recently occupied by the former wine and tapestry bar known as Joonas Aspen, which Joonas Group also owned an operated.
The Sterling Aspen LLC’s managers are Sandler and Samuel Lee, according to public records.
“This is a change in ownership in a sense of the structure of the ownership entity,” attorney Chris Bryan said on behalf of Sandler, who did not attend the LLA’s virtual meeting. “But the same person that holds the license that you granted still holds the license and is still the manager. It’s just that Mr. Sandler is a minority member in an LLC that’s become a minority member of this entity, Joonas LLC. He takes an ownership stake, but it’s a minority position, and the license holder has not changed.”
Bryan added: “All we did was submit within 30 days of that entity change, the updated members of the LLC, so it’s a bit misleading to say this a change ownership that is going to Mr. Sandler. That’s not accurate. He’s a minority member of a minority member.”
Initially, board members Amos Underwood and Bill Murphy said they favored a public hearing — which also would be held to determine if Sandler had the “moral character” to be in the business — rather than automatically approving the liquor license under the new ownership structure. Yet after board member Bryan Semel asked Johnson why the issue was being brought up, board members began to change their tune.
“It seems very opinionated from your end, I feel,“ Semel told Johnson after she informed the board of its option to either hold a public hearing at a later date or approve the structural change on the spot. ”If he ended up with a pulled liquor license, then that would be something else, and there was no follow-through on investigation on his last business.“
Bryan also said the matter seemed to be personal.
“You have the discretion right now just to approve this change of ownership,” he said. “The license holder hasn’t changed. The applicant hasn’t changed. It’s just that somebody that some of you don’t like is a minority member of this LLC.”
LLA member Chris Bendon said he didn’t believe Sandler’s association with Sterling Aspen rose to the level of holding a public hearing over the fate of the liquor license.
“If Mr. Sandler is a financial partner, that concerns me much less than if he is an operational partner,” said Bendon. “It sounds like there’s sort of an air gap between him and the actual ongoing operation. Otherwise, I think we’d be unfairly disparaging the license holder for what is essentially the financial structure of the business.”
At October 2020 hearing before the LLA concerning Scarlett’s and Bootsy Bellows, Sandler said he was getting out of the business for the time being.
“We are bankrupt at Scarlett’s,” said Sandler. “We have surrendered the premises to (building owner) Mark Hunt. I’m out of everything — money, resources, employees — everything.”
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