Grotto DJ

DJ Lo_g performs at Grotto in a contributed photo from this summer. The nightclub that opened in June is abruptly closing its doors in the fallout of negotiations between an upstairs restaurant and the building’s owner.

Two food-and-beverage businesses occupying a downtown building are closing their doors after landlord Mark Hunt and the owner of the Aspen Kitchen restaurant agreed to walk away from their lease, according to the owners of one of the impacted businesses.

Caught in the fallout is the nightclub Grotto, which opened in June in the basement space at 204 S. Galena St. where a handful of bars had already come and gone in the building’s three-year history. Business owners Stephanie Janigo and Julie Engels said they had hoped to be in the space for far longer, but they were informed on Tuesday that, since they are subleasing from Aspen Kitchen, they would have to clear out within a matter of days. Bootsy Bellows, a competing nightclub, is now poised to take over the downstairs space.

“It feels like we have been left out of a lot of conversations,” Janigo said, noting that there have long been rumors concerning the ultimate fate of her space. Before taking on the project of opening a new nightclub concept, Janigo said that the leadership of Craveable Hospitality Group, which owns Aspen Kitchen and the now-surrendered lease, had assured them that such rumors were ludicrous. Craveable told them that they would be secure thanks to a 10-year lease the restaurant owner held with the landlord, Janigo and Engels said.

A deal is in the works to lease the downstairs nightclub to Bootsy Bellows, which is looking for a new home after having to move out of its space in the Crystal Palace building. That building, which is also owned by Hunt, is being converted into a boutique hotel.

Andrew Sandler, local owner of Bootsy Bellows, said that he has agreed to terms to become the next tenant of the downstairs space, but is waiting on Hunt to get back to him to finalize the lease. He is planning an extensive remodel that will bring the bar forward from the back of the room and eliminate an east wall separating the stairwell from the main room of the club.

“We hope there is room in this town to move the venue one more time and hopefully the last time,” Sandler said, referencing the fact that 204 S. Galena St. would be his club’s third location.

Potential sale to city in voters’ hands

The exit of Aspen Kitchen clears the way for Hunt to sell the restaurant’s space to the city of Aspen for $9.5 million. The city negotiated the contract in order to add to its office space portfolio. Aspen voters on Nov. 6 will decide between that option — which includes buying portions of the soon-to-be-redeveloped next-door former Aspen Daily News building for $23 million — or developing offices on city-owned land near the Rio Grande parking garage.

If city voters opt out of the deal with Hunt, it is unclear what will happen to the airy second-floor restaurant space.

Aspen Kitchen General Manager Marc Ellert-Beck, contacted on Wednesday at the restaurant, said he was sorry to see his business closing. After emerging from bankruptcy under new ownership in late 2016, he said the restaurant was trying to do good things for the community — the prior owners had stiffed numerous local contractors — and was enlivening what he described as a beautiful space.

“It would be a shame to see it become offices,” he said.

Stephen Goglia, CEO of Craveable, declined comment other than to say that there are “conversations taking place at this time.”

“I cannot comment on the particulars of the negotiation,” he said.

He characterized Aspen Kitchen’s closure as seasonal and said “we do not know” whether the restaurant will reopen. After general manager Ellert-Beck said the restaurant is closing for good, Goglia did not return a phone call seeking clarification.

Business venture cut short

Engels said she first became concerned about Grotto’s future in July, when she read newspaper accounts of Hunt’s offering of the Aspen Kitchen space to the city for offices.

“We were like, holy smokes, that is not good for us,” she said. That prompted “911 calls” to Craveable executives, who told Grotto owners they had learned of the pending proposal for their space the same way — through the newspaper.

Grotto is an outgrowth of Messenger Aspen, Janigo’s event listing and promotion business. After having success promoting Messenger-branded events at other bars, Janigo set her sights on creating her own space. The venture seemed to be going well, she said, and managers of the restaurant told her that Grotto was doing better than any of the other nightclubs that had tried to make a go of it in the space. She credited the success with a focus on bringing in local DJs and keeping their finger on the pulse of the local scene.

Craveable funded a roughly $30,000 remodel of the space prior to Grotto moving in, Janigo said, but she estimated the value of the work to be closer to $60,000. The discount was realized through friends of Janigo’s “who wanted to be a part of the concept” contributing free or discounted labor, she said.

The club’s furnishings and equipment will revert to the building’s owner, Engels said. She added that she would like to be able to keep some of the items because Grotto will seek a new location before winter.

Engels and Janigo said that upon hearing the news, they reached out to Hunt and asked to submit a proposal to lease the space instead of Bootsy Bellows. They had yet to hear back from him early afternoon on Wednesday.

Hunt did not return Aspen Daily News’ phone call seeking comment.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.

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