Another Locally Owned Business Changes Ownership in Aspen
Eight days before Joe Freeman turned over ownership of the business he had built from scratch over the last nine and a half years, he leaned over the counter of the Grateful Deli and patiently helped an elderly couple find their way onto a bus headed towards the Maroon Bells. He kindly reached for the maps that are perpetually stocked in the tiny 150 square foot restaurant and described the short walk to the bus station, as well as mentioning a handful other notable landmarks. It was a refreshing moment when the warmth and compassion of a local business subtly added to the character of this small town.
More than a few who call Aspen home increasingly lament that this compassion and warmth seems to be slowly draining from the internationally renowned mountain paradise. The gradual, yet interminable rise in home prices and prevalence of luxury shops has noticeably encroached upon the local flavor of Aspen and its unique locales.
The attrition of these unique businesses hasn’t happened overnight. Aspen’s bar and restaurant economy can be incredibly fickle and often causes spots once hailed as a “must-go” on Friday night to dry up in just one season. Heavy competition and a high stress environment, coupled with soaring rents, make bringing loyal customers back an absolute must for locally owned businesses. The seasonal tourist industry booms here, but keeping local regulars is an incredibly important baseline for maintaining a consistent income. However, even despite enthusiastic local followings, many of these locations inevitably close their doors.
Just this year Aspen lost more than couple local favorites. The closure of Johnny McGuire’s sandwich shop left many missing one of their favorite, affordable lunch spots. Most recently, The Square Grouper seemed to disappear almost without notice. Affordably filling dinners, live music, standup nights, and a generally laidback atmosphere made it hard to see the “Grouper” go, but waning patrons likely made it only a matter of time. Main Street Bakery continued to pack the dining room right up to its closure, but delayed maintenance on the aging, historic building was too much for a seamless transition between owners in order to keep the restaurant going. Perhaps most dearly missed amongst community members is Little Annie’s, a dive that offered cheap drink specials all night long, amiable staff, free all you could eat popcorn, and a subsequently strong fan base. The clock was ticking on Little Annie’s, but after 30 years they were pushed to shut down by impossible increase in rent.
This follows a theme that those who have spent any amount of time in Aspen will recognize. With the recent losses lay the names of a multitude of “gone but not forgotten” local friendly bars and restaurants. Cooper Street Pier, The Motherlode, Smuggler, Bentleys, Legends, Ute City Bar and Grill, The Cirque Snowmass, The Tippler, The Howlin’ Wolf, La Cocina, and Downtown Sports Center just to name a few. Each had their own particular draws, but were together defined by the promise of a fun, friendly atmosphere and a genuine good time. Live music, good food and drinks at a good price, a dancefloor where ski boots are just as welcome as loafers; Purely the type of places that gave the people what they wanted without the added frivolity for discerning visitors.
Other businesses are ready to fill the gaps. High end art and clothing stores have become ubiquitous with Aspen’s streets. Many retailers such as Gucci, Dior, Burberry, or Prada aren’t even expected to turn a profit at their Aspen locations but are subsidized by the companies in order to maintain their image as a part of the chic Colorado resort. This helps to keep rents high and landlords prioritizing companies willing to shell out exorbitant sums for prime locations. It’s a disturbing trend that threatens the future of Aspen’s small businesses.
Despite the disappearance of many beloved locations, the town’s local scene refuses to disappear into the dark, snowy night. Increasingly, locations that originally aimed at capturing the coveted wealthy tourist market are including expanded bar menus, drink specials and local discounts to accommodate residents. The simple fact is that packing the house with Aspen’s charismatic and fun-loving community is a sure-fired way to guarantee success.
In the core of town, the Grateful Deli is an excellent example of an Aspen favorite remaining true to its roots. A long-time resident and lover of the local community, Glenn Wood has taken over for Joe and striven to maintain friendly service and affordable prices. Many feared, as has been the norm in the past, that the “for sale” sign in the window meant another location was on its last legs. Fortunately for Aspen, Glenn cites the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach as his view on moving the restaurant forward and has embraced the opportunity to continue giving Aspen residents a fast, affordable, and genuine lunch without all the bells and whistles. Simply a restaurant where one can come in, enjoy some good music and conversation with friends, and leave with a hearty meal. It is the locations like this, started by local entrepreneurs and continued by those of a like mind, that keep Aspen a warm and opening community with a wealth of character.