Two young boys sit at attention with necks stretched up to catch the earliest glimpse of the dishes being brought to their table. Wide-eyed, they break into huge grins as Robin Yost delivers two plates, each filled with sandwiches and a hefty hunk of baked yellow and orange sunshine in the form of homemade mac and cheese. It would beckon to even the fussiest of children’s tastes and adults who revel in olfactory memories of their own childhood.
“When I was a little girl we had a friend who owned a five-star French restaurant and his wife gave my mother this mac and cheese recipe,” Robin smiles broadly from under her knitted cap that seems an inextricable part of her persona.
She’s into her fourth year at her more-than-just-a-sandwich eatery on Elk Avenue, the Sunshine Deli, and she’s happily entrenched in her chosen life of full-time mother of two and food ambassador to the hordes of tourists and locals. What gives substance and joy to her life would send most people screaming for a desk job in a dark isolated corner, but for Robin, her enthusiasm for people and a jammed-packed schedule keeps things vibrant.
“I wanted the over-the-counter, straight-forward, simple style that allowed me to stay home at night with my children,” she says of her decision to open a deli while juggling being a mommy for Nora, 5, and Buzz, 3 ½. “The kids are in school five days a week so I go skiing before work. I drop them off at school at 8 a.m., go to the deli and turn everything on, then get on the 8:45 a.m. bus and ski until 10:45. Most of those days I serve the first sandwiches in my ski pants,” she laughs.
Last season she got in 45 ski days, to which she cocks her head and admits, “Not bad,” although she’s looking to up it this year… and it’s looking good with a probable 40 by the time this paper hits the stands—and with two and a half weeks to go she should cinch it.
Robin grew up in the town of Great Falls in northern Virginia, next to the Potomac River. Oddly enough, and unknown at the time to herself or her parents, their family had a deep history in Colorado with an even more surprising connection in Crested Butte’s mining days.
“When I was a little girl I could ride my horse by myself miles down the river and in the woods,” she recalls. Robin’s free spirit was evident even as a preteen, and she laughs, “My parents had no idea… I was half way to Baltimore!” But she also recalls her intrigue with the traces of historic wildness clashing with the new world around her. “I would get on my horse bareback and would imagine Indians and the settlers instead of the 7-Eleven parking lot.”
Later, when she grew up, watching Northern Exposure, she decided, “That’s what I want! I wanted community radio and snowmobiles and moose and snow… we’re almost there, we’re close!” she says of Crested Butte. But that dream of wilderness and community seemed so very unobtainable to a young girl who, in her controlled environment, never realized she could one day create her own destiny.
“When I was in fifth grade we had double desks and I had a partner. One day my desk mate told me his family was moving to Denver and I thought, that’s it… you could jump horse mid-stream? I didn’t know there were options. It was essentially permission to create my own life. I wanted to live in Colorado too.” Robin suddenly had the epiphany that her dream of something more suitable to her soul could actually manifest.
At 14, Robin started the push for a change. “I lobbied for two years to go to a boarding school, the Colorado Timberline Academy in Durango on the Animas River. After two years of begging and saving up for skis my parents said, ‘Go.’ When I got there, I enjoyed the rawness, nature uninhibited by buildings and traffic and confusion. It was very natural and peaceful.” She says the place seemed immediately part of her essence. “We had a river and a canyon. It was sort of an outdoor education school doing week-long backpack trips in the San Juans and in the desert.” As a 17-year old graduate, she knew she was onto something spectacular and it was exactly what she had been looking for.
“What’s really interesting is we started to find out how much family history we had in Colorado,” she says, and it validated her long-time, exceptional attraction to mountain life. “My great-grandfather, Mike O’Leary, immigrated from Ireland and was the first mayor of Fleming, Colorado. Meanwhile, my maternal great-great-grandfather, Albert Franklin Scott, was a mining engineer who lived with his wife in Georgetown and died in a mining accident there. Both are buried in Georgetown. My other maternal great-grandparents owned a Denver dime-store in the 1950s,” she says of the surprising association.
Once when Robin visited her great-aunt in Albuquerque, she brought her a Crested Butte history book and while going through it the aunt realized that in the late 1900s there were family members who lived in Crested Butte and worked at CF&I (Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, which owned the coal mines).
“The point is, it was hard for my mom to let me go so far away, but she felt like it was a calling to return to some of our roots and my grandmother convinced her to let me go. My grandmother said to me, ‘I’m glad someone’s going back, those are my roots and they’re yours too,’” Robin said, amazed that no one had put the Colorado connection together previously.
Robin went from Durango straight over to Gunnison to attend Western State College. “I wanted a whole different experience, doing it all over again,” she says. She wanted to start off meeting new people because the prospect of new experiences appealed to her sense of freedom. “I didn’t want to be far from the things I loved but I wanted to be by myself trying something new, solo.”
She received a bachelor’s degree in special education and art in 1999. “Ultimately, I was drawn to the concept of moving people forward but not in the public school system. As a way of making a living, I wanted something more creative, not an institution.”
Finding her niche, she moved up the road to Crested Butte after graduation, working as winter program manager for Adaptive Sports. “I loved Adaptive but I never went outside. It was a desk job.” And that’s what led her to discover her love of being a restaurateur.
She started working at Pitas in Paradise with owner Scott Yost, and the two became partners, and later parents. When the two friends decided to go their separate business ways, Robin gained support and experience from Scott. “He taught me a lot and he continues to be supportive in my endeavors. I’m grateful every single day,” she says.
People walk up and knock on the door of the now closed deli. Robin is not exactly winding down her day, only getting ready to shift gears into mommyhood and home to the kids. “I run a lot, very slowly, but as though I’m being chased,” she laughs of her stress reliever. “It’s called survival. I also mountain bike but I only run or bike with very loud music… I’m too distracted by my own panting,” she says with her fabulous sense of humor and a delightful demeanor that embraces the world she’s created for herself.
“I feel close to the community. I work really hard and I love my business. I own a slice of society. I do something tangible and creative and it’s just very rewarding.”