Something’s missing in Aspen this Food & Wine weekend
A handful of sunbathers and dogs had Wagner Park all to themselves Thursday afternoon, as if Aspen’s business community needed further evidence the Food & Wine Classic won’t be held this weekend.
Wagner Park, roughly the size of a football field with some extra room to roam, is one of Food & Wine’s staple locations and home to the Great Tasting Pavilion, where patrons sample — and others cram down — wine, spirits and fare during one of the year’s most decadent weekends in Aspen.
The Grand Tasting events are so popular that they routinely sell out, while the pavilion is the source of lines of people snaking through town downtown’s outdoor malls waiting for its doors to open.
The fine-dining Bosq restaurant has offered ringside seats to the people-watching affairs the last few summers, yet the scene is entirely different this year — face coverings are more common than sundresses, people wearing the coveted F&W lanyards are nonexistent, as is the buzz of excitement that comes with Aspen’s unofficial kickoff to the summer.
“We’re at ground zero,” said Molly Dodge, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Barclay, who also is its chef. “It’s a huge weekend for us.”
When Bosq wasn’t maxed out with reservations during the course of previous Food & Wine editions, the restaurant would be used for private parties and events, Dodge said.
“And plus we would have people who would sit on the patio all day and watch the shenanigans,”she said.
Bosq is open for dinner Friday and Saturday, but not for lunch like it was during previous Food & Wines.
“It’s nothing like the past,” Dodge said. “We’re closed Sunday and Monday because of staffing, but we’re also getting a lot of reservations.”
Public health orders stemming from the coranavirus pandemic require restaurants in Aspen and the rest of Pitkin County to keep their tables at least 6 feet apart and operate at no more than 50% capacity. That means a full house these days is actually half full.
“We’re losing 50% of our business,” said Tiziano Gortan, owner of L’Hostaria on East Hyman Avenue.
This time of the year Gortan is usually in his home country of Italy visiting vineyards, farms and restaurants.
“But this year I need to be here and support my crew,” he said, noting L’Hostaria will have Food & Wine tribute events with Italian barbecues Friday and Saturday. Cost is $95 for a prix fixe meal.
“We want to create a menu for a majority of people — nothing too fancy,” he said.
Gortan also issued a plea to the community.
“Our industry is really suffering,” he said, adding that “we need help from the community, the landlords, the city.”
Because his landlord declined to participate in Aspen’s rent relief program, L’Hostaria didn’t qualify. The program requires financial participation from the tenant, landlord and city, all of whom are divvying up the rent up three ways from April through July.
“We have paid a million dollars in sales taxes” Gortan said of L’Hostaria’s near 25 years in Aspen. The half-capacity rule — which took effect May 27 —nalso applies to lodges, and whether it’s the 92-room Little Nell Hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain or the eight-suite Residence Hotel on South Galena, they don’t have a choice but to run scaled-down operations.
The Little Nell is at its legal 50% capacity for the weekend, said its PR director May Selby, while more than half of the Residence Hotel’s rooms are available, said owner Terry Butler.
Butler is essentially a one-person show these days, other than her housekeepers. She said the rates this weekend are the same as they were in early June.
“I am usually 50% until Food & Wine, then I fill up and we are at least 90% the rest of the summer,” said Butler, who has owned and operated the hotel for 33 of her 53 years in Aspen.
Butler said business is “almost nonexistent without Food & Wine.”
The event’s economic impact on Aspen is indisputable, but there’s little concrete data of late. A study in 2010 by the Aspen Chamber of Commerce put the impact at $3 million; the city has done no economic studies on the event within at least a decade.
For all of June 2019, Aspen lodges had a 68.1% occupancy rate while their average daily rate of $539.23 was the highest in the state, according to the Rocky Mountain Lodging Report, which the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association commissions.
Hotel reservations this June are “pacing -85.7% behind last year,” according to the June 2020 Occupancy Update & Executive Summary released Monday by the central reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass.
“June’s greatest losses came as our signature events canceled earlier in the spring. While hotels were able to open for business in June (with limited occupancy), the order came late, not providing much time for the community to ramp up efforts to fill available beds,” the report said.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.