Courtesy photo

Diego Candano hosted a grand opening for his new auto-oriented business in Willits Bend on July 6.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal, the sister paper to the Aspen Daily News that covers the midvalley.

What happens when you combine a car aficionado, a race car driver and a serial entrepreneur with the Roaring Fork Valley? An extraordinary business idea.

That new bright orange building at Willits Bend is the most recent conception of the charismatic Diego Candano, who inaugurated the building and Toy Cellar enterprise as a luxurious car vault-spa, along with eight stylish studio lofts, on July 6.  

The entrepreneur

Candano is hard to miss when he glides into the parking lot at Willits Bend in his candy red Porsche with an obvious European flair. He’s friendly, enthusiastic, determined and driven — he’s a serial entrepreneur.  

Candano, who is a youthful 40-something, got his start selling shoes in Mexico at the age of 16 when he was hired for his first job. It didn’t take him long to move up and on — opening his own shoe store, and then building a footwear distribution empire carrying major international brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Keds, Sperry, Saucony, Aerosole and more. He eventually seized the opportunity to sell parts of his business to Tommy Hilfiger and Steve Madden, which generated the cash that launched his subsequent forays into real estate development, restaurants, Porsche car dealerships and the creation of a fund focused on buying investment-grade exotic cars.  

“Shoes were a means to an end. I was fortunate to have been able to sell my business, which funded my investments in real estate and cars in the U.S., Mexico and Spain. My passion has always been real estate and cars,” he said. 

A passion evidenced by his feats on the race track where he took first place at the 2018 Carrera PanAmerican in his 1969 Porsche Carrera that he himself had painstakingly restored. 

In 2009, a friend lured him to the Roaring Fork Valley, where he settled with his wife and three kids in Snowmass. He was looking for a change of pace and a place to store his own cars, and the collection of cars he was managing through the car investment fund that he had created. Candano sensed there was demand for luxury and vintage car care in the valley, when he found the distinctive yellow and blue, saw-tooth roofed buildings designed by local architect Glenn Rappaport that define Willits Bend.  

“For years people have asked me how I keep my cars in prime condition …. I saw an opportunity at Willits Bend to build something truly distinctive, that would combine my experience and love for cars. I teamed up with John Freeman and Ryan Walker, partners who share my passion for exquisite cars, and conceived a car-centered business model that provides the highest quality storage and car care options available in the world. The Toy Cellar is an exceptional car club that was created by car lovers for car lovers,” Candano said.

The luxury and vintage spa

The Toy Cellar caters to discerning motor enthusiasts who want their cars pampered and cared for by fellow enthusiasts. The ground floor of the property welcomes car aficionados to a swanky showroom complete with luxury cars displayed on state-of-the-art turntables, impressive car art and an espresso lounge serving coffee from a repurposed Porsche engine.  

The basement, aka Toy Cellar car vault, will host 24 sleek “VIP guests” in a climate-controlled environment, protecting against the ravages of extreme weather. These vehicles, EVs, too, can benefit from the full spa package, or select from an a la carte menu, including detailing, polishes, fluid inspection, tire inflation and more. If the car needs a little outdoor time and fresh air, the spa offers a variety of tours — circuits that one can choose from, year-round. Whether one is a guest at the Toy Cellar or not, you can still take advantage of the professional detailing spa on site. For more information check 

The anchor 

Willits Bend was designed as a lively live/work district (25 percent live, 75 percent work), that would bring artisans, entrepreneurs and residents together in a well-conceived and distinctively designed neighborhood. A core component of Candano’s project is the eight studio apartments on the top floor of the building that will contribute to addressing the valley’s housing shortage. Candano will rent the 700-square-foot, bilevel lofts furnished and unfurnished for $2,500 a month. Each unit comes with an additional 100 feet of climate-controlled storage. The high-quality European-designed interiors are compact, functional and efficient with the kitchen, bath and bedroom on the main floor and a living space in the loft. 

Ryan Walker, the Toy Cellar’s manager/partner, will occupy one of the units. “Today’s youth are concerned with function and form,” which drove Candano’s focus on building high-quality functional spaces. 

“The lofts are the anchor of this project,” added Candano, whose vision is to offer a live, work and play environment at Willits Bend. 

“Building tasteful apartments that fill a screaming need, with a world-class car care facility is a dream come true, but it hasn’t exactly been a Sunday drive in the countryside,” said Candano. 

As a race car driver, he knows that winning takes tenacity, courage and nerves of steel, and that’s exactly what was required to maneuver through the fog of regulations and permits imposed by the multiple special districts that he had to work with.  

“I appreciate all the support that the county and others have provided,” he said, “but with the shortage of housing and desire for well-paying jobs, streamlining the permitting processes, making certification more efficient, and bringing fees in-line with national norms would attract the investment in housing and social goods that the valley says it needs.”  

“Business is in part about being at the right place, at the right time, but most importantly it’s about realizing you have an opportunity and acting on it effectively … with the right work ethic,” concluded Candano. “Business is about finding the right partners and that what I found in the Roaring Fork Valley.”