The president of the Aspen Skiing Co., speaking at Monday’s Snowmass Village Town Council meeting, defended the company’s decision to not renew the lease for the family who has operated Gywn’s High Alpine Restaurant for nearly 40 years.
Mike Kaplan told the council and a couple of dozen people in attendance that the decision was made in line with the SkiCo’s aim to run all of its on-mountain restaurants in-house and that continuing with the current lease situation is “just not the way we can do business anymore.”
Kaplan attended the council meeting as officials were prepared to discuss a resolution supporting the extension of lease terms to the Gordon and Knowlton families to continue operating Gwyn’s “well into the future.” Reading of the resolution was tabled as Mayor Markey Butler, who has decried the SkiCo’s move, said council members want more public input.
Councilwoman Alyssa Shenk said officials have been overwhelmed by letters from around the globe in support of keeping Gwyn’s a family-run enterprise, with many saying the eatery was integral to their visit.
“Snowmass is not a normal municipality … it is a tourist destination. And so when you have people from all over the world sending us letters on a daily basis about how much this restaurant has shaped their experience when they come here, it’s different, and it’s a reason we have to speak up,” Shenk said. “I don’t feel like [the SkiCo] is being a good community partner.
“There are a lot of amazing things you do as a ski company — this is not one of them.”
Gwyn Knowlton founded the restaurant in 1979 with her then-husband George Gordon after running similar operations at Aspen Highlands. Knowlton said last month that SkiCo’s decision left them in shock, as they had been expecting perhaps a new five-year lease with a five-year option, and their daughter, Whitney Gordon, continuing as the hands-on manager and trusted face of the restaurant.
SkiCo officials in a September meeting told the family that while the company would like to see Whitney continue managing Gwyn’s, the lease would not be renewed. The current lease continues through the next two seasons.
On Monday, Kaplan touted the SkiCo’s legacy of family ownership and said the blowback over the Gwyn’s decision surprised him. One factor was ensuring visitors to Aspen and Snowmass Village have a “seamless experience,” he said.
Butler, speaking about the special goodness of a bowl of Gwyn’s chili, asked if the dish, after the takeover, will “come out of the corporate kitchen?”
“We don’t have a commissary,” Kaplan said.
He said a Facebook campaign to keep Gwyn’s in the family is “sad and disheartening,” and that having town council spend time on the resolution is “kind of ludicrous.”
George Gordon, too, tried to tamp down fiery feelings, saying the SkiCo has always been a good landlord and that he considers Kaplan a friend.
“Was there going to be a chance to get a five-year incremental lease like [Bonnie’s] on Aspen Mountain? We were hopeful SkiCo would do that here,” he said. “We wanted the family tradition to continue, we were hopeful for a five-year continuance. The lease is expiring, and they now plan to run it on their own.”
He described it as a disappointment and “somewhat of a shock” … but “it’s the way of the world,” he said.
Longtime Aspenite Ruth Harrison questioned Kaplan about what kind of message the lease decision sends to the community.
“I understand you want to own all of [the on-mountain eateries], but I don’t understand it,” she said. “Gwyn’s is such a special entity. And their reward for 40 years of such hard work is their lease not being renewed. It’s just a totally selfish, bad decision.”
Councilman Tom Goode, however, said the SkiCo’s potential direction on Gwyn’s has been known for three years.
Because the SkiCo owns the recently remodeled building, “it’s private property, and it’s really not our business,” he said, adding that he was “not ready to throw SkiCo under the bus,” that the resolution needs rewording, and that he was not in favor of it at this time.
He added that social media comments “got a little out of hand.”
Asked toward the meeting’s end if the SkiCo would reconsider the lease arrangement, Kaplan said the decision is final. Harrison called that sad.