No clowning around: Aspen McDonald’s closes doors
It was lunch hour in Aspen on a frigid, overcast Friday. Downtown restaurants were doing their normal trade, serving sandwiches ranging from $12 to $20, and entrees more expensive.
Anyone who gets sticker shock in Aspen hasn’t spent much time here. But for the past 34 years, there was one alternative dining spot with a marquee, household name. Its food was consistent, and you knew what you were going to get, for better or worse. Billions and billions had been served worldwide, after all, so it must have been doing something right.
Its upstairs dining area wasn’t like typical fast-food restaurant confines. Faux-leather couches and chairs, a fireplace and framed ski posters on the walls as well as a Wright brothers-esque bicycle, gave it a cozy, mountain-town feel.
“Sterling liked to say that he really felt at home there,” said Karen Day, wife of Sterling Greenwood, the colorful former publisher of the Aspen Free Press. “He would go in there in his bathrobe, get a cup of coffee and write his column.”
But as hungry folks sauntered up to McDonald’s on the Mill Street pedestrian mall, something wasn’t right. The two-story restaurant’s floor-level windows were covered with brown paper, and a sign on the front door broke the news: McDonald’s was closed. For good.
“What?” a scruffy-faced man in Carhartt pants said as he saw the sign.
Say it ain’t so, Ronald.
“It’s good and bad, I suppose,” said a would-be customer when he saw the sign.
“It’s McDonald’s, so I’m not going to get too upset about it,” said Brad Matthews, who owns and operates Ajax Donuts at the Popcorn Wagon on Hyman Avenue. But the Aspen McDonald’s, which opened July 10, 1985, was that dependable food source when people were in a financial pinch or on the run, he noted.
Paul Nelson, who owned and operated the Aspen McDonald’s as a franchisee, didn’t return telephone messages for this story.
Instead, Nelson, who also runs the McDonald’s in Glenwood Springs, issued a terse statement about the closing: “McDonald’s has made the decision to close some under-performing restaurants. As it relates to the Rocky Mountain region, the McDonald’s restaurant located in Aspen is a part of this plan. We’ve been proud to serve the customers in the Aspen community for the past 31 years.”
Last year, the chain said it planned to close more McDonald’s than it opened in 2015, the first time since 1970, The Associated Press reported.
Fast-food chains that boast healthier ingredients, like Chipotle, had been putting a dent in sales at McDonald’s, The Associated Press reported.
At the end of 2014, there were 36,258 McDonald’s restaurants in 119 countries, including 29,544 that were franchised, according to a company filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Day, who has lived in a condominium next to McDonald’s for 34 years, said she recently was in touch with Nelson, who told her the Aspen restaurant didn’t meet performance expectations, largely because it didn’t have a drive-thru.
“He told me 60 percent of all McDonald’s’ business is through the drive-thru window,” she said. “The reason he couldn’t make it was he didn’t have a drive-thru. And there weren’t many parking spaces.”
The Aspen restaurant had 21 employees, “and all have found employment at other McDonald’s in the region,” said Debbie Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for McDonald’s in Colorado.
Property records show it has been owned by McDonald’s Corp. since 1983. Prior to that, Aspen Skiing Co. kept its headquarters there.
Fitzgerald said McDonald’s Corp. “will market their assets in this building for sale in the future.”
Rumors had been percolating this week that McDonald’s was on its last leg.
By Thursday night, the Redbox video-rental kiosk had been removed but the restaurant was hopping. Flocks of teens stood in line ordering Big Macs, Quarter-Pounders and Chicken McNuggets. Happy Meals were being offered with Shopkins toys, wildly popular with little girls. But there was no yogurt available, and sliced apples weren’t available, either, signs that the restaurant had phased out its perishable goods with the looming closure.
One person who wasn’t lovin’ the news was Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo.
“I’m speechless,” he said. DiSalvo got word from Undersheriff Ron Ryan, who worked at the Aspen McDonald’s when he was in high school.
“I would say it’s a borderline breakfast staple for me,” DiSalvo, noting he would order the No. 2 — that’s a Sausage Egg McMuffin with hash browns — nearly every morning. Then he would do yoga afterward.
“It’s called balance,” he said. “This is heartbreaking. This will affect my morning breakfasts, for sure.”
DiSalvo used to drive buses for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. Bus drivers, workers and people with little time had come to depend on it for a quick, cheap meal, he said. It also was a hot spot for athletic teams and clubs visiting Aspen as well as other guests on a budget.
Ryan, who at one time made $6.60 an hour when he worked at McDonald’s, said he learned a great deal about customer service by working for the company.
“It all came down to customer service with them,” he said, recalling when he would go to the restaurant’s basement to watch corporate training videos on a Betamax video-cassette player.
Mayor Steve Skadron, a health-conscious endurance athlete, said he was disappointed by the news.
“I always prefer homegrown to chains serving our local community,” he said. “But I think McDonald’s offered an important price point that I’m sorry to lose.”
When Skadron worked at Aspen Sports around the corner in the Cooper Avenue mall, McDonald’s was “our go-to. That and New York Pizza,” he said.
Skadron hadn’t eaten in McDonald’s in a while. But he did try the grilled-chicken sandwich when the chain unveiled its campaign with healthier menu items. It was the only one he ate, he said.
“I was interested in how McDonald’s was reinventing themselves and how they packaged themselves,” he said.
The closing also comes just two weekends before the Winter X Games invades Aspen. The event attracts thousands of college-age adults on tight budgets.
They’ll still have spots such as New York Pizza, the Local’s Corner, City Market and Domino’s to fill their bellies for less than $8. Domino’s is the last remaining fast-food chain in Aspen.
Chris Cassatt, the former Aspen Times photographer and cartoonist, once told the newspaper that a chain-free Aspen made the town that much more compelling for people wanting to escape mainstream America.
“One of the reasons most of us moved here in the ’60s and ’70s was to get away from an America that included McDonald’s,” he said. “But every once in a while you had to have some fat. There wasn’t enough fat in town in the early days. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
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