The venerable and historic Woody Creek Tavern was sold on Monday to longtime local restaurateurs Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce.
The sale adds the Woody Creek staple to Aspen-based CP Restaurant Group’s stable of restaurants, which already included Wild Fig, CP Burger, The Monarch and Steakhouse 316 — with a second Steakhouse 316 in Boulder. A sales price was not disclosed.
Laura Wren and Kevin Willson have owned the Tavern since June 2007. They previously owned the Wienerstube in Aspen for five years before taking over Woody Creek's arguably most revered institution.
Like the previous owners of the Tavern, Shep and Mary Harris, Wren and Willson likened their ownership of the infamous restaurant to being caretakers of a local legend.
So why sell now?
"We were thinking that we would go another two to three more years, until Kevin is 65," Wren said. "But a lot of it was the virus. Like most of the other local restaurants, we were really worried about our homes, our businesses, everything. Fortunately, summer was a positive surprise. But the uncertainty of this year got us thinking maybe it was time."
Willson, her longtime partner, agreed.
"The uncertainty was the main point," he said. "We thought maybe we should put it up for sale now, because we were having such a good summer. We wanted to go out on a positive note. We didn't want to go out struggling."
For new owners Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce, buying the Woody Creek Tavern is buying a beloved establishment, and their commitment to its legacy is long-term.
"Samantha and I are super excited to be the ones to get the opportunity to take it (the Tavern) for the next 40 years," said Craig Cordts-Pearce. "We didn't want this restaurant to be dark. We feel like we need to keep it going."
The sale of the 40-year-old eatery and watering hole comes at a time when restaurants all over the valley and the country are struggling to adapt to rules and an uncertain atmosphere brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, Aspen's historic Red Onion announced its closure until an uncertain time in the future and, recently, Glenwood Springs longtime favorite Juicy Lucy's sold and is now operating under new management — though the downvalley seafood restaurant had been on the market even before the pandemic struck earlier this year.
Wren noted that she and Willson have been lucky with their staff, but the combination of temperature checks, making sure everybody is OK and getting everyone to wear masks and maintain proper social distancing is enormously stressful. She also points out that most local restaurants only have a few months out of the year in which they make sufficient money to carry through the lean times of a seasonal economy. March is one of those good months — but this March, they were shut down because of the novel coronavirus.
With multiple restaurants, the Cordts-Pearces are thinking positively.
"We just always try to keep it as normal as possible. We keep doing what we always do, and provide good service and good food and a great atmosphere," said Samantha Cordts-Pearce.
Craig Cordts-Pearce spoke directly to the couple’s optimism.
"For Samantha and I, the glass is half-full not half-empty," he said. "We're always optimistic, we're full of energy. We don't go down the rabbit hole, because what's the point?"
The Woody Creek Tavern has been one of the most famous — and sometimes infamous — local restaurants and bars since it opened in November 1980. George and Patti Stranahan operated it for years until selling to Shep and Mary Harris. Hunter Thompson wrote about the Tavern in multiple stories and made it his home-away-from-home for many years and many misadventures.
People from all over the world stop in to see the place where "Hunter drank." It was even rumored that President George Bush and Margaret Thatcher stopped in for a drink after planning the first Gulf War up the road at the Cato residence in Little Woody Creek.
A Who's-Who of other celebrities has also dined at the little wooden structure that would be called a dive bar in most other towns. The Tavern sits centrally located in the middle of "a bump, two dips and a rumble strip" that is Woody Creek.
"The Tavern is Woody Creek's town hall," said Jesse Graber, a longtime Woody Creek distiller who has created two notable whiskeys, Stranahan's and Tin Cup. "Everyone usually stops in here, even if they're not imbibing. It's got its own reputation. Everybody is treated equally here. There isn't anyone special."
For Wren and Willson, the hardest part of the sale will be no longer having their "family" or the staff around.
"Our staff are exceptional," said Wren. "Without the staff we had, [running the business] would have been a lot harder."
She notes that she wanted to create and maintain the fun, happy atmosphere the Tavern was when they took it over in ’07, and that it was important to them to continue that same fun vibe because that's why people come to the Woody Creek Tavern, in her opinion. It's one reason they never instituted WiFi: it kept people off their phones and talking with one another.
Now that the business has sold, Wren and Willson have a multitude of plans. Both love to travel, and they will do more of that in the upcoming months instead of working during the summer, as they normally do. They plan on visiting family in England, where they were both born. Willson plans to bike race. An accomplished racer, he has won the Nationals, placed third in last year's World Mountain Bike Championships in Canada, and he has won his age group in a past Leadville 100. Right now, Willson is planning a full list of upcoming races this next summer, including the Leadville 100, the Firecracker 100 and Lance Armstrong's 50-mile race.
The staff will be sorry to see Wren and Willson go, as most everyone thinks of each other as one big, dysfunctional family. Bartender and server Dani Carballo noted how hard Wren and Willson have worked over the years and that they now deserve a break.
Paula Sahr, who has worked at the Woody Creek Tavern on and off for 25 years and will now be on her third set of owners, was more succinct about the new proprietors: "They are going to have tough shoes to fill."
For the Cordts-Pearces, they plan on getting to work and letting the Woody Creek Tavern "be the Woody Creek Tavern." They plan on some minor changes, but otherwise, they expect the restaurant to stay the same.
"It's an absolute honor that we are there. We can't wait to meet to meet the locals," said Craig Cordts-Pearce.