Walking around the Aspen downtown core, there are few restaurants that visitors from 30 years ago would recognize. Mezzaluna is a rare stalwart in Aspen’s constantly changing restaurant landscape.
“We’re just going into our 30th year, and it’s not really getting easier with competition and … a lot of the old restaurants … closed and big money starting to come in and buy all the places,” owner Deryk Cave said. “But we’re hanging in there.”
According to him, the secret to staying in business is keeping as much as possible the same.
“We just try to be as consistent as we can,” he said.
Wednesday marks 30 years since he bought the restaurant from the original owner, Charif Souki. (Souki was also an owner of the Mezzaluna restaurant in Los Angeles that became a hotspot for people following the O.J. Simpson case since both victims worked at the restaurant, and it was where Nicole Brown Simpson had her last meal.)
Cave bought the restaurant from Souki in 1993 with his business partner at the time, Joe Cosniac, six years after its initial opening.
Bartender Greg Hanle, who has been working at Mezzaluna since 1998, remembers waiting on Hunter S. Thompson, Jimmy Buffett, Jack Nicholson and Simpson in the early days of Mezzaluna, when it was a hotspot for celebrities.
“When it opened, it was kind of a fun party vibe,” Hanle said. “Back in that day, it was still when the celebrity thing of Aspen was kind of low-key, and they wanted to kind of just mingle with everybody and not just be in their own castle, in their own entourage.”
According to him, Mezzaluna preceded other long-time Aspen restaurants that kickstarted the town’s hip restaurant scene. But, as the restaurant — and the staff — has aged, it’s settled into more of a family-oriented environment.
“You can’t be the trendy new kid forever,” he said.
While it may not be topping Eater’s “Hottest Restaurants Right Now” list, Mezzaluna has flourished as a classic favorite restaurant for locals.
Twenty years after Cave and Cosniac bought the restaurant, Cave bought out Cosniac’s portion of the restaurant, and Grant “Junior” Sutherland — who started as a busboy in 1990 and had been working as a manager since before the restaurant was sold — became Cave’s new partner.
Sutherland has also been a soccer coach in the Roaring Fork Valley for the past three decades. He said his strong relationships with local families through soccer has drawn people into the restaurant.
“I just brought along a following of locals, and they come in and see us and support us,” he said. “The kids would come and see me and come into Mezzaluna, and the parents would come in, and it just built relationships and bonds and trust … I think (Deryk and Joe) understood what it brought to Mezzaluna as part of the community … and it comes back to you in a roundabout way.”
A large portion of the staff has been working at Mezzaluna for decades, cultivating what Cave, Hanle and Sutherland all refer to as the “Mezzaluna family.” Cave attributes the high retention rate to treating them well and cultivating a good work environment.
“It boils down to you take care of your staff, and they’ll take care of you in the long run,” Sutherland said. “You treat everyone equally, you treat everyone right, and you take care of them.”
For many years, he and Cave celebrated the staff by taking them to Las Vegas for their “killer” annual employee party, according to Hanle.
As the years have gone by and the long-time employees have gotten older, they no longer go out after work like they once did, according to him. However, the staff remains very close.
“We’re all friends and family,” he said. “We used to be younger, and we’d go out more. Everything changes with time … I might work there until I’m dead.”
Retaining long-time members of the staff creates an environment that is welcoming to returning customers, according to Cave. The ongoing rapport between customers and staff creates a dynamic that emulates a friendship rather than solely a transactional customer-waiter relationship.
“Trying to keep your staff happy, then the customers, when they come back, they feel more comfortable,” he said. “That familiarity is great.”
Cave said he emphasizes providing good value to customers. By Aspen standards, he classifies the restaurant at a low- to mid-range price point.
“(We) try to treat people good and treat them well — staff and customers,” he said. “Give them a good product at a fair price … I always think value is important, so that’s what we’ve always tried to do.”
When Cave arrived in Aspen in 1982 — “totally as a ski bum” — most people came for the mountains and worked and lived in town. After work, locals filtered into the nightlife scene.
“It seemed like everyone then came because they really wanted to be in the mountains,” he said. “And now, it’s the big multimillion dollar houses, and the new arrivals are different than the old arrivals.”
He has observed that the shift of workforce housing to downvalley areas has moved nightlife away from Aspen.
“That element of the nightlife is missing, where everyone that worked in restaurants went out for a drink and socialized afterwards,” he said. “It was a fantastic community, and that doesn’t exist anymore, or it exists, but on a much smaller scale.”
With rising costs of retail and food in addition to housing, Aspen now seems catered toward a different crowd.
“It almost seems as though locals, normal locals are kind of getting pushed out of the restaurants, to a degree,” Cave said.
He has managed to maintain ownership of the restaurant amid an industry that is increasingly dominated by larger restaurant groups in part due to the property’s landlord, Tony Mazza. Cave said that every time he and Sutherland have signed a five-year option for the lease, Mazza has given them another five-year option.
According to Hanle, Mezzaluna’s distinctly local vibe and resistance to becoming corporate appeals to the “regular people” of Aspen, attracting a more low-key crowd. The casual ambience enables more genuine connections with customers.
“It’s just more real, you know, it’s easier to talk to people,” he said. “I don’t think Mezzaluna will change; we’ll stay that way.”
Of course, there have been some changes since Cave took over the restaurant in 1993. The menu, for one, changes every season, though about 80% of it remains the same.
Certain classics — like their barbecue chicken pizza, which they once removed and promptly put back due to public outcry — are permanently on the menu.
“Sometimes you can’t take things off because people go crazy,” he said. “But I think we kind of just sort of go along with whatever’s coming; it’s a season-by-season thing.”
Like any other business, workforce housing in the Roaring Fork Valley has posed a challenge for staff, many of whom have been forced by rising housing prices to relocate downvalley.
When he initially took over the restaurant, only one employee lived outside of Aspen. Now, he estimates that 80% live downvalley, with a couple employees living as far as New Castle.
Since it’s difficult for restaurant owners to provide housing, considering the astronomical price of units, Cave said he encourages staff to apply for Aspen and Pitkin County workforce housing units.
Outside the restaurant industry, too, many locals have been forced by the rising cost of housing to relocate downvalley. Recognizing that many customers had moved downvalley, he and Sutherland opened another location in Willits in 2017.
While they have previously owned restaurants in Vail and Texas, as well as another location in Aspen with a share-plate concept, those have since closed. Cave said the Aspen and Willits locations will remain their only endeavors for the foreseeable future.
“(Aspen is) still a magical place, and it’s still amazing,” he said. “The business side of things has changed … but we’re still hanging in and we’re still doing fine … Nothing stays the same, is the reality.”
Anna Mayer I The Aspen Times I July 28, 2023