Wheeler finalists make their pitches to Aspen council

Andre SalvailThe Aspen TimesAspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – The four finalists for the bar and restaurant space in the Wheeler Opera House building gave short presentations to the Aspen City Council on Tuesday, all saying that they will run a high-quality eatery at affordable prices and that they are willing to bend their concepts to suit the city’s desires.The city-owned space currently is occupied by Bentley’s, which is not one of the finalists. After Bentley’s closes in July, the city will make extensive interior renovations to the property, including new plumbing and electrical systems as well as a new kitchen and basement offices. The council is expected to make a decision on the new restaurant operation by the end of this month, and the eatery is expected to open in December.After the four 20-minute presentations, Councilman Torre thanked the finalists and said each one would be a good fit for the space.”I’m impressed with all four proposals, all four visions, all four ideas – what a room full of quality operators,” Torre said. “This is a tougher decision than I think some people may realize.”The four finalists recently were winnowed down from a list of nine applicants. Here is a rundown of the proposals, in the order they were presented to the council, Mayor Mick Ireland and the Wheeler Opera House board on Tuesday:• Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce: The owners of Brexi, CP Burger, LuLu Wilson and the Wild Fig displayed large, colorful graphics that depicted a new interior for the space with a historical theme that centers on Aspen’s colorful past.”Our concept is to do a ‘gastro pub’ … it’s a British term for a pub that specializes in high-quality food that’s a step above pub grub,” Samantha Cordts-Pearce said, adding that the eatery would contain a relaxed atmosphere “that’s welcoming to all levels of society.”Craig Cordts-Pearce said his goal is to create a place where people feel that they are walking into Aspen. He said too many local restaurants resemble places in New York City or San Francisco.”We want to do a playback on what that space used to be,” he said, noting that he conducted research on the businesses that were housed in the space many decades ago, including a bank. “We want to compliment J.B. Wheeler, who was a huge contributor to the Aspen economy back in the day.”Cordts-Pearce said his concept does not call for “another watering hole, a dive bar.” It will be a casual restaurant that complements Wheeler Opera House events as a natural fit for patrons who want to enjoy a meal or a drink before or after the theater’s offerings, he said.”It’s going to be a place where you … are going to be proud to take VIPs because it will be clean, with fantastic ambience and vibe,” he said pointedly to Wheeler board members.The entire space will feature images and names from Aspen’s yesteryear, he said. “I want people to walk in there and go, ‘Wow, this is Aspen. This is what it looked like. That’s what the biggest nugget found at Smuggler looked like. That’s what the street looked like back in the day.'”The couple said that given all of their other enterprises, they won’t be stretched to operate the restaurant at the Wheeler. Craig Cordts-Pearce said he “lives, eats and breathes” Aspen seven days a week, and his restaurant team is structured to handle extra duties. Samantha Cordts-Pearce said a start-up “is like your youngest baby, you give it more attention.” • Fiercely Local, represented by Michele Kiley and Marco Cingolani: They also own Specialty Foods Inc, also known as The Cheese Shop.Kiley expressed a desire to operate two restaurants: The Wheeler Bar & Grill and the Haberdashery Caf. The caf would be located in the city-owned 500-square-foot retail space that’s currently occupied by Valley Fine Art.The two operations would share resources, such as the kitchen, espresso machine, office areas and bathrooms, Kiley explained in a memo to Assistant City Manager Randy Ready. The caf would be open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., offering affordable hot and cold items for dine-in or take-out. The caf would allow the opportunity to handle more volume than could be realized with a single, stand-alone restaurant operation, she said.”We really got very creative with the use of space; however, our primary focus is certainly going to be on the restaurant and bar, and working in conjunction with the Wheeler,” she told the council.Kiley said she is requesting a longer lease term than the five-year term (with options) that the city is suggesting, saying the company has to answer “to the concerns of our investors.” Like the other presenters, Kiley stressed that she can be flexible with her concept. If the council doesn’t like the idea of a caf next to the restaurant, then those plans can be altered. “We are fully prepared to revise our concept and our footprint,” she said.What separates her proposal from the others, she said, is that she and her partners will be at the eatery every day, and won’t have so many other restaurant operations with which to deal.• Billy Rieger, owner of Kenichi and (formerly) Bad Billy’s: Rieger and his cohorts in the Rieger Restaurant Group also stressed the historical angle for the property. He said their operation would provide “that old bar feel.”Rieger lamented that Bentley’s had become “the horrible stepchild you don’t want to step into, before or after a show.” He said he would provide affordable fare, as he did at the recently closed Bad Billy’s on Cooper Avenue, where awards were won for the fish and chips.Rieger, who also owns restaurants in Texas, said he has a downvalley farm that can provide high-quality, organic food products for the new restaurant. He said he would like to explore the possibility of “live feeds” of Wheeler shows into the eatery, if that’s something the Wheeler board desires.He said he wants to make bigger use of the downstairs dining area. As for the main dining area, he would have tables that are lower than the current high-top Bentley’s configuration, and would lower the liquor bar as well so that it’s on an equal level with the tables.He said his Austin and Dallas operations are on “autopilot” and so he would have plenty of time to be a hands-on owner at the Wheeler operation. “You’re going to get 120 percent of me,” he said.Rieger stressed that he wants to create synergy between the opera house and the restaurant, such as playing music or video concerts that match the artist who’s performing next door.• Walt Harris, owner of Syzygy and Ute City: His presentation may have been the shortest of the four. He said he wants to create a restaurant that has a “melting pot feel” where ski bums will blend with residents of Red Mountain.Harris said he wants to expand the lower dining area into the next-door retail space. The interior would retain some of its existing look, utilizing existing brickwork. “The menu we are proposing is very affordable, the majority of it between $10 and $20, much like Ute City, when we went after a $15 to $25 price point, which we thought was underserved (in Aspen).”He said the proposed menu tends to have a Southern feel to it, but is essentially Americana. He said the dinner menu would reflect adult eating and drinking habits but that a child-friendly menu with the appropriate prices would be available daily. In its lease rates, the city is asking the applicants for a fixed minimum rent plus 8 percent of gross sales. Harris said he would provide a lease structure of $10,000 per month, and asked that the 8 percent kicker not be applied until the third year of operations. He explained that restaurants typically have a first-year “honeymoon,” with sales often dipping in the second