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The downvalley shuffle
Long-time Aspen businesses find increased opportunity, lower costs in Basalt
For owners Maja Ilic and Vladan Djordjevic, relocating and reopening Wienerstube in Willits was mainly a matter of cost. - photo by Jordan Curet

In the 1980s, local songwriter/musicians Paul Anderson and Frank Martin recorded “The Downvalley Shuffle” about how people couldn't afford to live in Aspen anymore so they moved downriver to towns like Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and the I-70 corridor.

In the last few years, there has been a similar downvalley migration of businesses from Aspen. The Aspen Skiing Company has taken over the Riverside Plaza building on Gold Rivers Court in downtown Basalt.

The Aspen Community Foundation moved staff into a building next to SkiCo. And restaurants like Sushi Ya Go-Go and Isagawa have either relocated or expanded from their original Aspen homes.

Three other businesses that have recently migrated downriver from Aspen are Mezzaluna Willits, Tailwaggers and Wienerstube.

Why did they relocate? And what opportunities to they see in their new downvalley homes?

“We absolutely see a growth opportunity in Willits,” says Grant Sutherland, co-owner of Mezzaluna Aspen, in his highly accented Scottish brogue. “It’s an investment, and we hope we bought at the right time. But the long-term prospects look good. Another new building is planned next to us, The Steadman Clinic has reportedly purchased the building across from us and The Temporary is bringing people from all over the valley to Willits for shows.”

Sutherland and his partner Deryk Cave took over Mezzaluna Aspen in 2015, and opened Mezzaluna Willits in 2018. After seeing customers and staff migrate from Aspen to downvalley towns, they decided to take a risk and committed to a lease in their Willits building when it was still a hole in the ground.

Now, Mezzaluna is open in Willits seven days a week for dinner from 5-9:30 p.m., and lunch at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. With a total seating of 80-90 in winter and expanded seating on a patio in the summer, they now have staff that used to work for them in Aspen work in the Willits location. And Sutherland, who used to call himself  “an Aspen guy that never went beyond the roundabout” now lives downvalley.

“The valley is definitely getting bigger with lots of new restaurants,” Sutherland says. “And more and more people have the opportunity to do things where they now live. Here in Willits, we have an expanded shoulder season of about a month on each end of winter and summer, and our costs are a little lower, so our menu is a little cheaper. We are very happy with our long-term prospects here.”

Dog-grooming business Tailwaggers moved from Aspen to Basalt in 2015. For owner Debbie Farrell, cost and location were the major reasons for her migration downriver. - photo by Jordan Curet
Dog-grooming business Tailwaggers moved from Aspen down to Basalt in 2015. For owner Debbie Farrell, cost and location were the major reasons for her migration downriver.

“While we were given a break in rent during the recession, costs went back up before our business recovered, and we couldn’t afford to stay,” explains Farrell in her Basalt location in Southside next to Designer Consignor as she gave a large Goldendoodle named Woody a haircut. “Another factor is that I have lived in Basalt across the street for 33 years, so I don’t have to drive upvalley every day now."

Moving her business down to Basalt has not been without complications. In the beginning, she lost some of her Aspen customers. But many of them eventually returned, and many of her old customers now live downvalley, so her new location makes it easier for them to drop off and pick up their dogs.

“It took a couple of years,” Farrell says. “I had to reestablish myself. Word got out and gradually it’s been better.”

Farrell has cut down on costs by shedding employees and running the business by herself, though she says she could use a good employee “who listens, and who is not on their phone all day.”

As Farrell gives Woody a long shave, she describes her varied work life in Aspen since the 1970s when she moved to the Roaring Fork Valley, her opening of Tailwaggers next to the old animal shelter at the Aspen Airport Business Center, how dogs are groomed and why they should be given a bath at least every six weeks.

Above all, she shows her love and caring for her customer dogs. Farrell offers full-service dog grooming with organic shampoos — bathing, brushing out, haircuts — Monday through Friday from 9-5 and by appointment.

Grant Sutherland and his partner Deryk Cave took over Mezzaluna Aspen in 2015, and opened Mezzaluna Willits in 2018. - photo by Jordan Curet
For restaurant owners Maja Ilic and Vladan Djordjevic, relocating and reopening Wienerstube in Willits was mainly a matter of cost.

After being an Aspen mainstay for 45 years, Wienerstube closed in 2011, and the last owner packed up kitchenware, interior furnishings and signs and shipped them off to a warehouse in Florida.

Ilic and Djordjevic, partners in the Little Mammoth Steak House on the Snowmass Mall, wanted to expand their local restaurant holdings. Djordjevic was a former owner in the closed Eggs over Easy restaurant in Aspen and Ilic was a former owner of the Mexican restaurant Lime in Snowmass.

They decided to purchase the assets of Wienerstube and reopen in Aspen, and they went to Florida, packed up and returned what was left of the old Wienerstube to the Roaring Fork Valley. They spoke to many landlords and looked at many different locations in Aspen, nearly closing on a lease that would have had them pay $40,000 a month in rent. In the end, they passed on that deal and relocated to a new building in Willits.

They opened Wienerstube Willits in the summer of 2018.

“It’s a long-term investment,” explains Ilic in a corner table of their 3,000-square-foot space on Market Street between Capitol Creek Brewery and Mezzaluna. “I think it's going to be long journey, but Willits has a lot of restaurant possibilities and is one of the few places you see a lot of growth. It’s going to take years, but all of the lots are filling up here.”

Open every day except Wednesday, Wienerstube serves breakfast at 8 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m., closing at 2 p.m. as the tables are reset, then opening from 5:30-9 p.m. for dinner.

Many of the old Wienerstube favorites are still served: schnitzels, bratwursts, sausages and other authentic Austrian cuisine.

Ilic and Djordjevic have migrated the old Eggs Over Easy staff into the Wienerstube kitchen to create breakfast, and Ilic takes over the kitchen as often as he can when he’s not running the front of house.

“I am going to introduce more and more Austrian dishes, one recipe at a time,” Ilic says. “Goulashes, sauerbraten. My favorite is the goulash because it is my grandfather’s recipe. I don’t want to rush, but introduce those little touches that are really Austrian.”

In keeping with the tradition of the old Wienerstube in Aspen, there is still a community table — called stammtisch in German — and it still attracts local lovers of Austria like Klaus Obermeyer and his gang of Bavarian friends.

“Staffing, costs. Restaurants are really difficult to keep going," Ilic says. “It’s hard to please everybody, but we want to try.”