Guest column: Disappointment and thanks from Justice Snow’s

Michele Kiley
Guest column

Justice Snow’s is disappointed to not be a finalist in the city of Aspen’s Wheeler restaurant request-for-proposals process. We gained valuable experience in our first six years of operation and stood ready to approach the lease with renewed energy and new plans. We were surprised to have scored in the bottom third of applicants.

The process and events leading up to the loss of our lease revealed key misconceptions surrounding our tenancy and terms of agreement with the city of Aspen that persist to this day in the community, the media and among our public officials.

Perhaps most importantly, our lease was not subsidized. We paid an average of 7 percent of sales in rent over the term of the agreement, including 8 percent in each of the past three years. Eight percent of sales is a market lease rate.

Second, we met and even exceeded our contractual obligation to provide affordable meal items every year we were in operation, and we passed every annual city audit of our lease performance. In its tenure, Justice Snow’s served nearly 50,000 $10 and $12 burgers, 11,000 $3.50 shot and beers, 26,000 $5 house drinks and 22,000 beers at $5 or less. And contrary to most media reports, it was not just a single menu item that was affordable; we also featured a veggie burger ($12 and $13), soup of the day ($5 cup or $8 bowl) and a roasted acorn squash entree ($14 for lunch, $16 for dinner). Even our highest-priced entrees were priced well below what was charged at other restaurants.

We also fulfilled our third major contractual obligation: until this past fall, Justice Snow’s stayed open seven days a week, 48 out of 52 weeks per year, for at least lunch and dinner, including weekend brunch. People who are familiar with the restaurant industry know that staying open year-round in our resort community is expensive and grueling.

We recognize now that we did not proactively refresh our business after five years of operation, a strategic challenge common to the industry, and we encountered financial challenges as a result of this. We closed for two additional weeks this past fall to revamp in response to those challenges as well as the city’s feedback.

We recognize that like every other business we did not always meet our goal of 100 percent customer satisfaction. That said, we were named to OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and earned Trip Advisor’s Certificate of Excellence for each of those four years, as well.

Operating under public lease in a treasured community space comes with intense scrutiny and high expectations. Unlike our local restaurant competition, our challenges and negotiations were all made public. Everyone from community members to elected officials feels ownership in this business, a sentiment that is fully understandable in the abstract, but which made for a substantial community relations challenge in practice. Operating in the Wheeler space is not just our business, this is the public’s space, and so it’s ultimately a public service. We regret that our full appreciation of this unique condition came late in the process.

We believe that the community still has not developed a consensus regarding what they want out of that space — a market lease rate, year-round all-day availability, affordable prices and support for the Wheeler. There’s not an obvious consensus as to what these values mean or how they ought to be ranked. The recent request-for-proposals process reveals that we were perhaps being held to one unspoken standard that was not really in the original agreement (dedicated support for the Wheeler). At the same time we also were being held to another key obligation: affordability, which has since been dropped from the city’s objectives. Indeed, the requirement to provide affordable menu items was not included in the current RFP, a change in priority for the use of the space. Affordability was, ultimately, the subjective yet defining metric that dominated the discussion of our business’s success.

We thank the community for your support and the opportunity to serve you. We are proud of our accomplishments for our service and quality and of the unique community space we created. We have always placed the importance of that historical space and of serving the community first, and we hope the tradition of honoring that will continue.

Michele Kiley is a co-owner of Justice Snow’s Restaurant and Bar.