Prepped and polished: The life of Aspen’s service industry
October 15, 2011
ASPEN – It’s a Monday night in late October and you’re hungry, very hungry. You’re craving a 14-ounce N.Y. Strip from Pinons, the Barolo braised leg of duck from Syzygy or a hot bowl of French onion soup from Cache Cache. You consider making a reservation, but then quickly dismiss the idea – it’s offseason and surely no restaurant will be busy. You put on your evening attire and head for the door only to be confronted with another thought: Are any of these restaurants even open? The answer (drum roll please) is most likely, no.
While most people in the U.S. can rely on their favorite restaurant to be open on a Monday night in mid-October, Aspen locals have long been trained to shut off those mouth-watering cravings and start defrosting that frozen chicken. Why? Because this period marks the sacred offseason, the time twice a year when restaurants close up, tourists head out and chefs, waiters, waitresses, hosts and the like are nowhere to be found. Where did they all go? On vacation, of course.
Now, this idea might sound absurd to someone on the streets of Manhattan working a 9-5, but for those working in the service industry here in Aspen, an offseason might as well be an eleventh finger. Why? Because it not only exists as a social norm within a seasonal town, it exists as a lifestyle thousands of people flock to year after year.
According to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages taken by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment at the start of the year, the service industry of Pitkin County accounts for an average of 4,691 employees amongst 160 establishments. With a population of 17,981, the service industry occupies more employees than any other industry in Pitkin County.
Sure we can say our town functions primarily off servicing tourism, hence the higher numbers in the industry; but at the same time, these numbers are no coincidence – there is a deeper reason why the service industry in Aspen appeals to so many, and employees themselves will not hesitate to tell you why:
“A place where the beer flows like wine. Where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I’m talking about a little place called Aspen.”
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Even if this quote from the movie “Dumb and Dumber” doesn’t ring a bell, a name like Aspen does. Service people come from all over the world to find out for themselves what our town is all about. Whether gaining five-star experience from one of our restaurants, mingling with the finest or chasing women, many in the industry are drawn to Aspen simply for the name alone.
“On a typical day on the mountain, you can meet upwards of 30 people just by riding the ski lifts,” said Starla Kalata of the Artisan restaurant in Snowmass Village. “As soon as people find out you’re a local and you work in a restaurant, they want to know all about it. Not only do we become natural tour guides, we become promoters of our restaurant while we’re on the mountain.”
If you ask anyone who works in the service industry why they are here, almost all of them will answer: to ski. Aspen Skiing Co.-related service jobs and most service jobs in the area, offer a free or discounted ski pass or reasonable payment plan with which to make up for the harsh blow of $1,500 pass at the start of the season, and to provide everyone with the opportunity to get in as many ski days as possible.
“Employee housing is kind of like a college dormitory for adults,” said Phoebe Lloyd of the Artisan restaurant in Snowmass. “We work together, we play together and we live together, which makes for a really great sense of community.”
Living in paradise isn’t cheap, and those who wait tables in Aspen year after year know that saving money is almost impossible. After all, servers like to wine, dine and play with the best of us, which means emptying the bank can be as effortless as taking a run down Aspen Mountain. Fortunately, employee housing provides an alternative solution to scraping pennies out of the couch cushions on the first of every month. It allows employees to live in a million-dollar location at an affordable price, enjoy apres in a favorite bar and still have some money left over to pay off those college loans.
“When my alarm clock goes off in the morning, it’s not ringing because I have to go to work, it’s ringing because I have to go ski,” said Pavel Osiak, a bartender at Base Camp in Snowmass. “It’s an awesome feeling to wake up each day and know that the day is mine to pursue a passion beyond the standard.”
For someone who works in the service industry, this is everyday life. Unless you’re stuck on a lunch shift, restaurants don’t usually open for dinner until 5:30 p.m., which allows employees to enjoy epic skiing in the winter and backcountry hiking in the summer. Sunny days are rarely missed when working in the service industry, and when it comes to indulging in a nice meal with a bottle of red around the fireplace in the evening, well, there’s still time for that, too.
“In this industry there’s always moments of surprise,” said Kalata of working at Artisan. “Like when the tab is a mere $30 and someone leaves $100. The feeling you have is similar to waking up on Christmas morning.”
When I ask people what they like most about working in the service industry, almost all (including myself) will say the cash. Forget waiting two weeks to a month for a single paycheck; whether your night consists of all credit transactions or all cash transactions, most restaurant employees will walk with a wad full of cash in their pockets to use at their own leisure. So if you see a group of people dressed in all black at the bar pulling hundreds out of their wallets, don’t panic, it’s quite normal.
“Having the ability to travel is the most fulfilling aspect of the industry. It keeps us young and allows us to just be ourselves without having to put on a show,” said Nikki Roberson of Takah Sushi in Aspen.
For four months in the winter and four months in the summer, waiters and waitresses, chefs, bellman and hosts and hostesses put thousands of dollars away to save for their offseason escapes. Whether tasting Asian cuisine in Thailand, traveling through California’s wine country, playing craps in Las Vegas, swimming with sharks in Australia or simply going home to visit the family, the industry allows the flexibility and accessibility for just about anything your imagination desires.
No, your favorite server at Pinons is not flying to Texas on a private jet, just as your favorite server at Cache Cache isn’t settling down in a $5 million cabin on the Roaring Fork. But if there’s one thing that’s certain, all of us in the service industry obtain a nice piece of the pie when it comes to luxurious living.
Sure, some do it for the cash; some do it for the versatility; while others do it for the free time and travelling. Whatever the reason may be, we all enjoy the benefits of the business – whether in the mountains in Aspen or on the beach in Hawaii.
So next time you find yourself craving that duck from Syzygy or that soup from Cache Cache, sit tight, because it won’t be long before the tourists start rolling in and your favorite servers start popping bottles. And when they do, I hope you find the gratitude to keep those tips up; after all, our lifestyles depend on it.