Editor’s note: This story also is appearing in this week’s edition of the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal, a sister publication of the Aspen Daily News.
The sign above the door reads “Union Kitchen Meat and Fish. Where there was Smoke there will be fire.” It’s a temporary placard, printed on vinyl and hung last February over the restaurant’s original sign, the one declaring the place that most people still know it as: Smoke Modern BBQ.
The new sign was meant to herald a reinvention of the popular Willits eatery, but now there’s a much smaller, handwritten sign taped to the door that tells a different story. And all it says is “Closed.” It’s been there since Labor Day, and there’s no telling how long it will stay there, although the space recently was placed back on the rental market.
Having operated Smoke since 2007, when it was one of the first two restaurants to open in Willits Town Center, owner and chef Jamie Theriot decided the midvalley market had changed and he needed to change with it.
“I felt like I was compelled to reposition our store to sit better in the neighborhood, and I’m not sure that it was a good decision,” Theriot said. “I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have ended up closing anyway if we’d stayed Smoke, but my thinking was that there wasn’t really a steak destination or a nicer dining environment in Willits, so I thought it might be a spot that could work. It was well-received, but it didn’t generate the volume needed to make it worth the effort.”
Theriot shut down Union Kitchen at the end of the summer for a variety of reasons, including increased rent and a near quadrupling of the hourly wage he had to pay his tipped employees.
“Since I opened Smoke, tipped minimum wage has gone from $2.18 an hour to $8, almost quadrupled,” Theriot said. “Well, I can’t possibly raise my prices commensurate with that. There’s no way. Furthermore, after 13 years in that space, my rent went up 3 percent every year. You start to couple those factors and my costs … what am I going to do, go to all my staff and say, ‘Look, for us to keep going I need everybody to give back the raises you’ve gotten with me every year because you’ve been with me for 10 years?’ There’s no reset button.”
The closing of Union Kitchen means that Theriot is down to just one restaurant — the Smoke location in Glenwood Springs — after owning and running four Smokes, including two in North Carolina, just a few years ago. A bad partnership and the strain of trying to operate four restaurants in two time zones led Theriot to pull the plug on his East Coast ventures.
“The partner I had didn’t work out, so I was basically running it from here with no partner, just employees, chefs and general managers,” Theriot said. “That’s not really a recipe for success.”
The demanding work and travel schedule took a toll on Theriot’s personal life, so one of his main reasons for cutting back to just one restaurant had to do with making sure he got to be a bigger part of his kids’ lives.
“My kids are 14 and 11, and I’ve already poured 28 years into the restaurant business and missed out on a lot of their formative years,” he said. “I’m just not willing to make that trade-off. I’d rather take a cut in my income and improve my lifestyle and be there for them.”
That’s not to say that Theriot is done with his process of reinvention or that he’s given up on the midvalley. Although the concept is still in its earliest stages, he said he’s been thinking about something steeped in his South Louisiana roots. For the time being, though, he’s not in any particular hurry to make it happen.
“Instead of approaching my next project based on external factors, I’m going to drive it organically from what really inspires me,” Theriot said. “I have to assume at this point that’s going to be from a very South Louisiana-inspired perspective. That’s kind of where I’m starting.”
When he finds the right fit, Theriot said he’d like to come back to the midvalley — including, possibly, a different space at Willits — although he knows it will be hard to replicate the success he had with Smoke.
“The support and response that I’ve gotten since I closed has, in literal terms, overwhelmed me at times,” he said. “It’s humbling sometimes to realize what an important part of some people’s lives we were. My appreciation for the midvalley as a community is tremendous. I still believe in Willits, even though it’s saturated at this point. I still think it’s the most dynamic area of the valley, so I look forward to bringing an inspired vision back to the neighborhood.”
In the meantime, his former space sits empty, waiting for whatever will be coming next. The space just went back on the rental market through the original developers of Willits, Lipkin Warner Design and Planning, which is currently looking for a good fit.
“I’ve been involved with Willits every day of my life for the past 25 years,” said Michael Lipkin, one of the Lipkin Warner principals and the man responsible for founding Willits. “I don’t want to hire a broker who comes to me with a tenant who’s willing to pay whatever my amount is who I’m not interested in having. I just want to be selective with who goes in there and find somebody the community will be enthused about.”
Lipkin said he’s already heard from some interested parties, but nothing has really fired his imagination just yet. Should he find the right party and work out a suitable lease soon, however, there’s “absolutely” a chance that something — most likely another restaurant — could be occupying the space by this winter.
“Willits generates a lot of interest, and there’s a lot coming down the pike,” Lipkin said. “Willits is changing, and I’m excited to see somebody else’s idea and not mine.”