Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a monthly series, “Local Love,” in which the Aspen Daily News will be featuring local community leaders and business owners.
Pussyfoot Steeps proprietor Mark Reece’s arrival in Aspen was purely accidental.
Originally from the “GE Triangle,” as he calls it — Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Connecticut — Reece, who goes by his last name to friends and regular patrons, eventually wound up in Naples, Florida. On the invitation of a friend, he ventured from there to Verbier, Switzerland for a 10-day vacation. Over that brief holiday, he indulged in the perfect combination of sporting days, packing in skiing, cycling, dirt biking and sailing. Upon his return to Naples, he got the bug for more mountainous topography and started internet searching for glacial lakes of America.
He decided on Lake Tahoe for his next venture, but he stopped in Aspen while en route to see another friend and to take a break from the road. After just one Halloween night at the Caribou Club, Reece was looking at four different job offers — and the prospective employers threatened that if he continued farther west to Tahoe, he wouldn’t find the same opportunities. Eleven years later, he has still not been to Tahoe.
While the old adage in real estate emphasizes the importance of “location, location, location,” Pussyfoot Steeps doesn’t necessarily follow that conventional wisdom, other than the eatery’s Aspen address. Tucked behind a gas station and carwash at the Airport Business Center, and across from Roxy’s Market and Deli and Airport Liquors, patrons who know where to look will find Reece’s watering hole and restaurant. The parking is somewhat prohibitive, but much of his patronage is from pedestrians, it seems.
With a hospitality reminiscent of “Cheers’” and a mellow, eccentric, rockabilly kind of vibe.
“We have a bunch of people in the restaurant business who aren’t servers; they’re waiters,” Reece lamented. “They’re not here to serve you. … They’re here to wait until you tell them what you need. That’s the problem with our business.”
Reece has a formal French hospitality approach to service, which is to anticipate guests’ needs before they have to ask, sans pretense or arrogance, he continued. It’s an approach that seems to be working: numerous off-the-clock executive chefs from Aspen’s high-end establishments are regulars at Steeps.
The ABC neighborhood staple also features a menu boasting cuisine with a focus on the quality of ingredients.
There’s nothing from “bag to table,” Reece beamed.
Everything is fresh, including his signature jalapeno poppers with full peppers, de-seeded and stuffed with shrimp, three cheeses and apple-smoked bacon, all then coated in Ruffles potato chips before hitting the fryer. And while not a “salad guy,” among the burgers, and the “best street tacos” Aspen has to offer, he added healthy, “kick-ass salads” and vegan cuisine for those more discerning gastronomists.
Having owned more than five bars and as the former owner of Slopeside Lanes bowling alley in Snowmass Village, Reece said he wanted, with Steeps, to build a walkable, approachable and affordable joint to grab a beer and a burger without emptying people’s pockets.
The building — which Reece said he completely gutted and remodeled on his own — was last a natural food store. Now, under Reece’s aim with Steeps is to give back to the people who make up the year-round community with a hip, comfortable and affordable place to unwind after a long day of the Aspen hustle. He has a natural flair for incorporating ambient lighting with great varied classic tunes at the bartenders’ discretion and warm and laid-back service.
Brilliant, life-sized acrylic paintings by the talented Steve Baffa decorate the walls and the surface of the bar and are juxtaposed with pop-art meets vintage rock-and-roll along with an art deco fusion of ironic and somewhat sinister and sexy murals — featuring Marvel Comics characters and Warner Bros. cartoon characters. The characters are depicted in a Babylon-like tavern setting, imbibing and vamping among themselves across the canvases. On the facade of barnsided walls hang vintage guitars, and in the corner sits an 1891 antique stove and a vintage soda and beer cooler. The flat-screen TVs feature sports, without sound so as not to drown out conversation.
For Reece, Steeps represents an opportunity to serve his community, both the patrons looking for a meal or a beer and also the local vendors who make running a restaurant possible. Mountain Primal Meats in Basalt provides his burger meat and pork shoulder. The bar boasts many local distilleries such as Woody Creek Distillers and Lift Vodka, as well as Steeps’ claim to fame: the $15 shot of Clase Azul reposado tequila.
It’s also very much a family operation. Reece’s fiancee Caroline specializes in operations at Mountain Primal — in addition to taking care of their 5-year-old daughter Perry, who chose the name of the establishment after the black-diamond run on Aspen Mountain. The family is expecting an addition soon.
As he stated repeatedly during his Aspen City Council campaign last winter, “Growth is good.”
Speaking of his failed council campaign, Reece also noted, “This is a duty I cannot say no to. Although I am adept at fitting square pegs through round holes, I prefer to address issues with common-sense solutions.”
If business is any indication, bringing Steeps to the ABC neighborhood is exactly the right fit.