This out-of-town chain is an Aspen mainstay
It’s a cold March day on Aspen’s pedestrian mall. Inside the restaurant, warm from the fryers and grills and the general excitement of eating out, a line has begun to form. Outfits tell a score of tales. Fur coats and facials; jagged jeans and jumpsuits. There aren’t many places like this in Aspen, assembly halls for all the town’s classes. What yellow glow draws them forward? What promise of universal happiness?”Can I take your order, please?””Yeah, I’ll have a Big Mac.”
Twenty-two years ago, no one thought it could happen. “Literally miles above the ordinary,” that’s what this quirky mountain town thought of itself. McDonald’s? No way such crumbs could survive among the upper-crust.But capitalism rarely takes notice of vanity. Economic success is measured not by notions, but numbers. McDonald’s formula has proven successful in more than 30,000 locations across the globe. Aspen, to the chagrin of a few and the amazement of many, has turned out to be no exception.McDonald’s has quietly and consistently done business in Aspen since it opened in 1983, a remarkable feat in a seasonal tourist town notoriously difficult for restaurants. Of the 67 Aspen restaurants advertised in The Aspen Times in 1983, only 12 remain today. The nearest restaurant space to McDonald’s, the one now occupied by Takah Sushi, has changed ownership four times since McDonald’s opened.The success has come despite serious disadvantages. While most McDonald’s restaurants see 60 percent of their income from drive-up customers, Aspen’s branch has no drive-through windows. While other Aspen restaurants close during the town’s two offseasons, McDonald’s doesn’t even reduce its work force.And because of Aspen’s strict sign code, McDonald’s doesn’t have large, glowing arches. Unless you know where it is, the store is hard to find.Nearly a quarter-century after everybody said it couldn’t be done, what can we learn from this unlikeliest of underdogs? What does McDonald’s have to tell us about Aspen, about its residents, visitors, past and future? The answers may surprise you.
Ask those who lived in Aspen in the 1970s and they’ll tell you – the opening of McDonald’s was met with stern resistance. Aspen was a cozy, remote village in the late ’70s, re-energized by postwar German intellectuals and still bearing their high culture influence. If there were no laws against fast-food joints, that’s because no one thought they were needed. Whatever Aspen was, it was not Anywhere, USA.”Aspen had this attitude about a national restaurant coming into town, that it simply wouldn’t happen,” longtime resident and current Mayor Helen Klanderud remembered. “But food establishments like McDonald’s look at demographics, judge the number of people in an area and make a decision. There’s no mystique to their calculations. As the town grew, it was inevitable.”The signs of the restaurant’s future success were always there, according to many longtime locals. Aspen may have believed itself too rich or refined for Ronald McDonald, but this was mostly pretense. Before McDonald’s opened in Glenwood Springs in 1982, Aspenites would make pilgrimages to Vail to satisfy their fast-food cravings. “On lazy spring afternoons we’d make the three-hour drive for McDonald’s,” recalled Chris Cassatt, a former Aspen Times photographer and present-day cartoonist. “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. 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.”When word spread through town in April 1983 that a McDonald’s might move in next to Aspen’s pedestrian mall, it became the hot topic in town. The Aspen Times’ letters section was filled with speculation on little else.
Local Georgie Leighton wrote that McDonald’s was “responsible for the destruction of more Amazonian rain forest than the land-hungry natives.” Marjorie Blake countered that it was “good to be able to taste wholesome food at reasonable prices.” Whatever their take, locals agreed: This was big news.”Oh, everyone was talking about it,” said Andrea Collins, who worked at the Aspen outlet when it first opened. “Some people loved it and some hated it. But everyone had to try it once.”A McHarbingerIf locals worried that the fast-food behemoth portended changing times, they were correct. Although some locally owned businesses continue to thrive in Aspen, chain stores and franchises now dominate the commercial landscape. McDonald’s was only the first of many.Today, a visitor to Aspen could conceivably spend an entire week in town staying in chain lodging (the St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton Club), eating at chain restaurants (McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Bagel Bites), drinking at a chain bar (Thirty-nine Degrees), shopping at chain stores (Gap, Ralph Lauren, Prada), and choosing which movies to watch at a chain theater (the Isis) by reading listings in a chain newspaper (The Aspen Times).”The opening of McDonald’s started the trend,” former Mayor John Bennett told The Aspen Times in 1998. “It all happened in the early ’80s. Suddenly there were direct flights from L.A. to Aspen. The whole town was growing and changing.”Aspen’s ambivalent reception to McDonald’s has survived to present day. While it is true that McDonald’s has become an accepted part of the commercial core, it is also true that the town still views its unlikely denizen with a sense of humor and irony.
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This is no ordinary McD’s, after all.The restaurant is a duplex; upstairs you find a lounge with fireplaces and faux-leather armchairs. Ski posters for glamorous French resorts hang on the walls, as does an oddly placed antique bicycle. In the phone book, the restaurant is listed as “McDonald’s of Aspen.”Prices, too, seem to have been effected by the high elevation: Value meals are at least 20 cents more expensive in Aspen than Glenwood, although a Big Mac meal still costs under five bucks.The fires don’t give off heat, of course – children could get burned. And the armchairs are stain-proofed plastic. But the effort at alpine authenticity makes many customers smile.”Man, only in Aspen,” customer Harry Pasternak said. “It’s pretty ridiculous. I can’t believe I’m eating my sausage egg and cheese in front of a fireplace.”At last year’s Comedy Arts Festival, the movie “Super-Size Me” was a roaring success. The film documented the director’s quest to eat nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days. A previously healthy young man, the filmmaker ends the movie as a sedentary, 25-pounds-heavier depressive, on the verge of liver failure. Aspenites loved it. High-altitude health nuts scoffed at a culture that embraces food so clearly bad for you. Morgan Spurlock, the director, handed out pins with McDonald’s golden arches crossed out in the style of hazardous material warnings. A year later, the buttons can still be spotted on backpacks around town.
Glenwood Springs resident Paul Nelson, who owns the Aspen McDonald’s as well as six other branches on the Western Slope, attended the Aspen screening of “Super-Size Me.” Nelson, who worked at his first McDonald’s at the age of 16 and has since risen through the ranks, is fiercely loyal to the company. He, too, eats at McDonald’s every day. Aspen loved Spurlock’s satire, but did the success of Super-Size Me hurt his business?”It was a funny show and I understand why it was so popular,” Nelson said. “Did our business suffer after the screening? Nope, not at all.”A McHeadache Having a high-volume fast-food restaurant in town has not been without its problems. The McDonald’s building was formerly the headquarters for the Aspen Skiing Company. In the 1970s, apartments sprouted near the quiet Skico offices. Then McDonald’s moved in.Mari Peyton is an avid skier and a part-time librarian who has lived on the second floor of the building next to McDonald’s since the restaurant opened. She has complained to the restaurant about noise, smells, trash, industrial waste, loiterers and the behavior of their delivery drivers. “They probably think I’m crazy, going in there all the time,” she said. “They’re not nasty. They’re doing the best they can with a business that is intrinsically very impactful to its neighbors. But I never would have moved in here if I knew McDonald’s would be my neighbor.”
Peyton’s biggest complaint is the restaurant’s exhaust fan, which keeps her awake at night. While her husband Eddie has supported her through other conflicts with McDonald’s, she’s on her own this time. “Eddie’s deaf in one ear. He just puts his good ear down to sleep so he doesn’t hear anything. It doesn’t bother him at all,” Peyton said.Aspen’s parking department also has its gripes about McDonald’s. The restaurant, which is in a pedestrian mall, has no drive-up window or parking lot. There are eight parking spaces outside, but in the winter they’re reserved for handicap drivers or police vehicles. Illegal parking there lands a $100 fine. Still, a quick Big Mac fix often proves too big a temptation, according to Aspen parking director Tim Ware.”We call it the $104.89 extra value meal,” Ware said. “It’s our No. 1 area for infractions. We have three patrol routes that all corner on that location. People know there’s a steep fine, but still they take the risk.”A McHavenAlthough chain stores in Aspen have thrived since McDonald’s opened, McDonald’s remains a unique success story. Aside from Domino’s Pizza, it is the only low-end chain store in town. It’s nearest chain-store competitor, for example, is Manrico Cashmere, which has branches in Aspen, Chicago and Milan; the store’s restaurant serves a $20 bowl of broccoli soup and $50 entrees.This raises a paradox, for while McDonald’s is in one sense the lowest-end eatery Aspen, it is also the richest, most successful business in town – by far. No other store in Aspen can touch McDonald’s worldwide sales of more than $40 billion a year, even if the restaurant’s profit margins have dipped in recent years.
From its inception, the corporation’s emphasis has been simple and effective: Volume. Get people through the door. Aspen has proven no different. While few Aspenites will ever sample a $20 bowl of soup, Aspen residents and visitors from all walks of life have at least once passed through the golden arches.”In this town you get looks just crossing the street with a hard hat,” construction worker Levi Trujillo said over a Quarter-Pounder. “But not in here. You see fur coats all the time. There isn’t a kid, rich or poor, who doesn’t like chicken nuggets.”In Aspen, McDonald’s has become the great social equalizer. It’s the place where the classes mix, as they did throughout town in the halcyon days of the 1960s and ’70s. Some might say McDonald’s represents Aspen’s lowest common denominator, but that’s because it is something most Aspenites have in common.Social status means little at McDonald’s of Aspen; all that counts is that you put down your four bucks for a Big Mac. In a town that so often looks at its clientele and asks “who?” McDonald’s cares only about how many. Billions and billions served. Many of them, and more in the future, in Aspen. Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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