OURAY – It takes a village to reopen a restaurant. At least, that’s what Bon Ton alumni Tim Eihausen and Chris and Taryn Lee hope will happen in the coming months, as they look to the community to support their grassroots effort to re-open the beloved Italian eatery which closed its doors a month ago after a rough year under new ownership.
“This is the future, not the past,” Chris said. “We’re excited. It’s a lot of hard work but we are definitely excited.”
The trio’s passion and enthusiasm for the Bon Ton runs deeper than their financing. In other words, “We are not well capitalized,” Eihausen said. But after the Bon Ton closed in November, so many people approached them about reopening it that they finally decided, “Why not?”
“I couldn’t tell you how many locals came to me and said, ‘You guys should look into this. You would be perfect for it,’” Chris said.
“We’re doing this on a wing and a prayer,” said Eihausen, who started working at the Bon Ton as a busboy on the restaurant’s second opening night in 1977 and has been the restaurant’s executive chef (with a few adventures elsewhere) since 1993.
The Lees, too, have deep connections to the restaurant. Chris started working front-of-house there in 1990. Taryn is related to the owners (Dan and Sandy Lingenfelter) and spent some time waitressing there several years ago.
In fact, it’s where the Lees’ romance first sparked years ago. “I used to serve her Shirley Temples,” Chris laughed. He was a young bartender. She was sixteen. The two just got married on Oct. 1.
Although the former management left in a hurry under a cloud of bad feelings, the atmosphere of the stone-clad basement level restaurant remains intact and charming as ever. “The only thing that we want to change is to get people in and support the locals,” Lee said. “We are all about locals and we can’t do this without them. We absolutely need their support.”
They definitely have sheer numbers behind them. Both Lee and Eihausen are fervently involved in local volunteer Emergency Medical Services – Eihausen is on the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team and Lee serves as a Ouray Volunteer Firefighter – and Taryn is a virtual native, having moved here when she was only 7 years old.
Once they get the place up and running (their target date of the Winter Solstice has been pushed back due to a recent permitting glitch) they plan to remain open through the winter season five nights a week, Thursdays through Mondays, with an abbreviated, family-friendly menu and a skeleton crew.
“We will go back to our Italian pasta roots,” Eihausen said. “But I think the locals would tar and feather me if I didn’t put Beef Wellington back on the menu. So I’m going to have to do it. It’s been the Bon Ton’s signature dish for decades.”
Champagne brunch, along with a full seven-days-a-week schedule and a larger dinner menu, will return in the summer.
Currently the three partners are leasing the restaurant from the Lingenfelters. Part of their grassroots financing approach includes offering special perks for various levels of support. A $100 donation gets you a bottle of house wine and dessert with purchase of one entree. At the $1,000 level, supporters get a custom chef-prepared three-course dinner for four people, including two bottles of house wine. Offers are valid through 2013.
They are also looking for investors.
“It’s going into capable hands,” Lee said. “Definitely, with our knowledge, we believe it is going to work, and work well.”
Regrettably, a spaghetti dinner fundraiser which was planned for next Thursday, Dec. 13 to help the Lees and Eihausen raise funds for their effort to reopen the Bon Ton has had to be postponed due to unforeseen permitting issues.
“We will try to get the word out ASAP on another date at a different venue,” said Chris of the widely anticipated event.
Up-to-the-minute news on how to support the reopening of the Bon Ton is available on Facebook at Friends of the Bon Ton or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Bon Ton Restaurant is located in the heart of Ouray’s National Historic District, in the basement of the St. Elmo Hotel at 426 Main Street. Catherine “Kittie” Heit owned and operated the Queen Anne-style hotel well into the 20th century. She also acquired the original Bon Ton restaurant, which has been around in various forms since 1886, and used to occupy a wooden building between the hotel and the Wright Opera House that has since been torn down. The restaurant moved into its present location in the cellar of the St. Elmo in 1977. A destination in itself, it has established a reputation over the years among locals and visitors as one of the finest Italian restaurants in the Four Corners region.