No worries at Woody Creek Tavern |

No worries at Woody Creek Tavern

John Colson
Aspen, CO Colorado

WOODY CREEK ” Despite pledges that things would stay the same at the Woody Creek Tavern after it sold to new owners earlier this year, the bar and restaurant has undergone a recent exodus of longtime employees.

In contrast to rumors of internal strife, bad feelings and friendships ended, however, a number of observers have said it amounts to a normal level of turnover when a well-regarded local institution changes hands.

One of the new owners, Laura Wren, conceded that “there was a bit of a problem right at the beginning [but] we’ve had a great summer.” The problem, she said, was that some of the employees were upset that they had not been given a chance to buy the business themselves.

A nine-year veteran waitress, Julia Penny, said Wednesday, “There’s quite a few of us that are still working here. Every one of us is loving it that Kevin [Willson] and Laura have taken over.”

Penny conceded that some recent departures have involved “all these bad feelings, but it had nothing to do with Kevin and Laura.” She explained that some employees were “devastated” when they learned of the pending sale, because “Mary and Shep [Harris, the longtime owners] never told anybody they were selling the Tavern.”

But, emphasized another nine-year Tavern veteran, Paula Sahar, “Nobody from the Tavern has been fired. Some people were just paranoid [about the sale]; they didn’t really give the new management a chance.”

The Tavern was sold for $2 million in June by the Harrises, who ran it for most of its 27-year history, to Kevin Willson and Wren, owners of The Wienerstube restaurants in Aspen and Basalt.

The purchase reportedly was, in part, financed with a loan from Leonard “Boogie” Weinglass, owner of Boogie’s Diner in Aspen and a well-known local philanthropist. Weinglass was named as beneficiary on a deed of trust recorded by Willson and Wren at the Pitkin County Courthouse.

The new owners pledged to keep things essentially unchanged, but by late August, word was spreading of unrest among the Tavern staff and pending departures by long-time workers. One veteran waitress is said to have left after being accused of stealing an envelope containing $100, and by one account there are only three long-time waitresses still working there.

Mia Williams, a 20-year veteran of the Tavern wait staff, is leaving to take a job at The Pour House in Carbondale, where she lives, in part because when Willson and Wren took over she was unable to get the shifts she wanted as she prepared for her job change.

“I personally did not feel that I was getting the appreciation I deserved,” Williams said, although she said she “left on a high note” and added, “I wish Laura and Kevin the best in their endeavors.”

Another long time waitress, Christi Palazzi, also has left, and is now working at Bella Mia in Basalt among other jobs. She declined to comment on her departure.

Wren said she and Willson have honored their pledge to keep things the same, claiming that customers have leaned over the bar to ask her when the new owners would be taking over and would anything be changing.

As for perceptions that she is forcing out long-time staffers to make room for younger workers, she said, “If you look at it logically, why on earth would I want to chase anybody off that’s been here so long, and doing such a good job?”

That is especially true, she said, given the difficulty in finding good employees in the valley these days, and the fact that she was highly impressed by how the staff worked together when she visited the restaurant prior to the sale, and she remains impressed.

“Everybody’s getting the shifts they want,” she said, “everybody’s pretty much working the same shifts they always did.”

Others feel that the new management is doing a good job.

“It’s just evolution,” remarked Gaylord Guenin, a longtime Woody Creek resident, one time Tavern staffer and a columnist for The Aspen Times. “You’ve got new people, and there’re going to be changes. There hasn’t been any firing line or anything like that. It’s sad that we’ve lost some of those people, because we’ve known each other so long.”

Sahar lauded Wren and Willson because they “were willing to take the risk” of buying the business and keeping it basically the same, and declared, “They’ve being made out to look like the bad guys … and it’s really unfair.”