Growing pains are plaguing some Colorado resort towns. Crested Butte is also rumbling with hunger pangs.
Seven of the restaurants up and down Elk Avenue are closed. Many of those still cranking out meals for long lines of diners have had to cut back on days and hours of operation because of a worker shortage.
And maybe this isn’t a good time to mention this as stomachs and tempers growl, but this month the town’s only full-service grocery store is closing down for four months for a major renovation.
Having 19% of the town’s dining establishments flying “Closed” signs at once is a painful inconvenience in a historic resort town where tourists have expectations of some decent grub after a day of mountain biking or wildflower hiking.
“It’s strange. It’s crazy,” said Glo Cunningham, who has been leading tours around downtown Crested Butte for two decades. “But it’s what I call a first-world problem — people who have the money to come here and vacation struggling to find food.”
Jackhammers signal this is a short-term problem
The dining dearth is not expected to be a long-term problem. The shuttered restaurants are in various stages of makeovers to eventually reopen.
And that presents another problem: The sound of jackhammers, backhoes and beeping dump trucks jars the flower-bedecked, mountain-town ambience for tourists and locals alike.
Some of that comes from the former Brick Oven Pizzeria and Pub in the heart of downtown Crested Butte. The loss of that business represents a particularly painful example of the flipping of the town’s dining scene.
The Brick, as it was fondly known, was a communal gathering spot with an Elk Avenue-bordering patio. It was the see-and-be-seen place to meet friends, grab a beer and rehash details of an epic mountain bike adventure.
Since April of last year, the Brick has sat vacant except for occasional gatherings of locals who couldn’t let it go. They started meeting weekly on the bare patio outside the closed building for BYOB get-togethers.
The gatherings and the joking stopped in June when a crew with chainsaws whacked down the line of aspen trees that used to provide shade on the patio. Then a construction barrier went up and the headachy drill of jackhammers permeated Elk Avenue as the patio was obliterated.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” Cunningham said.
Lines are long, options are limited
Up and down Elk Avenue, other closures and construction zones are strung out as reminders of what’s no longer available for breaking bread together, and as teasers for what the future holds.
The longtime popular Last Steep with its wonky wooden steps and tilting floors has a sign promising that it will reopen soon as The Hideout. The construction sounds from the former Brick signal that something that will be named the Bruhouse is in the works. The historic Forest Queen that most recently housed the Coal Creek Grill is wrapped in a construction barrier and has earthmovers lumbering around outside its funky mining-era clapboard walls bringing hope that there eventually will be burgers and fries served up there again. The former Montanya Rum tasting room and small-plates hangout (Montanya moved down the street) has sporadically emitted the hammering of change.
None of those promising activities helps visitors with hungry kids in tow who are waiting for the chance to order a slice of pizza at the Secret Stash or a breakfast sandwich at Butte Bagel.
“You definitely hear about the limited options,” Crested Butte town administrator Dara MacDonald said.
“It’s certainly an unusual problem,” she said, and added that town officials didn’t see it coming, or compounding, as it did this summer.
The problem has been dire enough to produce a staff report “Restaurant Status in Crested Butte” for the town council in June.
“These closures and reductions in operations have many negative impacts on the community and the Town of Crested Butte, including reduced dining options, increased dining costs, increased workload/stress on current operators, loss of municipal tax revenues, and negative experiences for valley visitors, to name a few,” the report stated.
The closed restaurants have resulted in an estimate of more than $400,000 less in town coffers this year. Overall, bar and restaurant sales taxes are up 4% for the year and 1% for June. MacDonald said that increase would usually be heftier for the start of the summer tourist season. The fact that they didn’t explains the estimated big bite out of this year’s town revenues.
Crested Butte’s dining problems really began after the COVID pandemic shut down the town’s restaurants along with its ski area and pretty much everything else in and around Crested Butte. The reopening of Crested Butte businesses came with a tsunami of visitors eager to get out and vacation after being cooped up. But many of the pre-pandemic workers had moved on to other jobs or other towns. Restaurants struggled and hung up “Help Wanted” and “Closed” signs on front windows.
Oh, and also, the grocery store is closing
Many towns went through similar post-pandemic business whoop-de-doos. But what complicated Crested Butte’s situation was a billionaire buying spree.
Mark Walter, a Chicago-based financier and an owner of the L.A. Dodgers as well as a home in Mount Crested Butte, started buying up commercial buildings in and around Crested Butte. He bought the 142-year-old Grubstake building. He snapped up the Princess building that had recently housed a wine bar. The Wooden Nickel, Crested Butte’s oldest restaurant, became his. The Forest Queen and the Gunnison Savings and Loan building went into his real estate quiver.
Off Elk Avenue, Walter purchased a building with a health club and office space and an undeveloped lot that is ready and approved for the building of a hotel and shops. He also bought the Almont Resort, a compound of cabins and commercial buildings 20 miles south of Crested Butte.
That was in early 2021. Crested Butte residents are still waiting to find out what he plans to do with those properties.
The notoriously private Walter has not said. He has been goaded by Crested Butte News editor Mark Reaman for more than a year to come forward and let Crested Butte know what his plans are. Reaman’s editorial pleas have not yielded so much as a comment or a news release.
Rumors bouncing around Elk Avenue have Walter visiting Crested Butte this summer and deciding then what he will do with his properties.
On the heels of Walter’s acquisitions, longtime Crested Butte resident Jeff Hermanson went on his own property shopping spree. Hermanson, who turned Larimer Square and Union Station into thriving commercial areas in Denver, bought four Elk Avenue buildings that had housed restaurants.
Hermanson could not be reached for comment, but he has been more forthcoming with Crested Butte residents and with the News about his intentions to help Crested Butte thrive — and be fed. Hermanson has a bit of a local track record on that front. He opened his first Crested Butte restaurant in the historic Slogar building in the 1970s.
He has workers turning the Last Steep into The Hideout, a fast-casual restaurant. The building that used to house the Montanya Rum tasting room reportedly is being made over into an upscale dining establishment with a trendy wood-fired hearth. He also owns the building where the Breadery — an eatery, bar and bakery across the street — continues to operate.
To bring Elk Avenue restaurants into their new iterations, Hermanson has partnered with another restaurateur in Crested Butte, Kyleena Falzone. Falzone owns the Secret Stash pizza joint and Bonez taco restaurant that have helped to keep many tourists fed during the restaurant famine.
A chance for newer spots to shine
MacDonald said town officials are still pondering what can be done about the lack of restaurants this summer and fall until planned reopenings promise more dining options by ski season. They are working with color-coded charts and maps to keep up on the progress of eateries.
“We have reached out to all restaurants that have gone through the permit process to see if there is something we can do to help them get open sooner,” she said.
MacDonald said several of the smaller, locally owned businesses have reached out for help with liquor licenses and kitchen-safety requirements.
Cunningham said, in the meantime, when tourists ask the inevitable question about where to eat, she directs them to a newish sandwich shop or to longtime stalwarts Pitas in Paradise or Teocalli Tamale. When long lines spill out of too many places, she advises visitors to make their own food in their condos.
That advice may be taking hold. Grocery sales taxes in Crested Butte are up 14% so far this year.
But with Clark’s Market closing from mid-August to mid-December, that will mean a nearly 60-mile round-trip drive to the Gunnison City Market or Safeway stores to stock up on groceries. There will also be the option of squeezing into Mountain Earth, a small health food store just off Elk Avenue.
Cunningham said it’s possible hunger could be a good thing for a tourist-stuffed town. “Maybe people will be so disgusted they can’t get a place to eat that they will go elsewhere.”
MacDonald is serving up a more upbeat end for Crested Butte’s food shortage.
“We have had a robust Elk Avenue for many years,” she said. “It will be back.”