The growing business of business co-ops in Crested Butte
You’ve heard the platitude, “If you want to make a small fortune in business, start with a large fortune.” That seems to be particularly true in Crested Butte, where start-up and overhead is often unfeasible. With commercial rents at a premium, locals have banded together using legendary Buttian innovation to collectively manifest their dreams. Artists have been sharing gallery space as co-ops for years, but now the concept is expanding to studio sharing, marketplaces and culinary communal spaces.
This past year, the Art Nest opened on Elk Avenue in a prime business space. It’s the brainchild of Kate Seeley who envisioned a gallery-studio where she and other artists could not only sell their products but also create them in plain view of visitors and patrons. The result was a magical forest of jewelry, leather and fabric goods, photography, and fine art of every medium framed by individual studios delineated by doors, windows and weathered wood. The Art Nest also featured live music performances, a diversity of classes from painting to mask making and the opportunity for shoppers to actually experience the artists’ creativity process and for the artists to share the costs, making the business aspect possible. This model opened the eyes of others in town trying to get their own projects rolling.
Robin Yost opened The Sunflower, a café on Elk Avenue, more than four years ago, inspired by the artists of Crested Butte. She says, “From a business standpoint, I’ve always looked at the art galleries and their collaborations to support their space, and thought, so why couldn’t a restaurant be a collection of foodies? That way, each niche is being serviced by someone who’s passionate about that niche.” Yost set out to find like-minded restaurateurs who would be compatible in sharing The Sunflower space during the times that her sandwich shop wasn’t open.
“I knew that just selling soups and sandwiches would be a struggle to support your own building on Elk Avenue. The truth is, I wanted to be focused on the two items that I do really well without spreading myself really thin. I figured I would be more successful in the long run sharing this space so I approached Chris and Natalie Phillips,” Yost says of the recently married duo who were looking for a place to open a farm-to-table eatery.
Yost had wanted her food to be more local and more organic but she realized, “Without having enough quantities, there’s no system for getting that kind of food here. I wanted access to farm-fresh organic but you have to have enough demand to create that access. It’s a revolution that’s happening right now. This collaboration is setting it up to get this kind of food here regularly now.”
Yost realized, “It’s not just about the farm-to-table concept, it’s also about economic sustainability as to what’s available in Crested Butte. It’s absolutely stifling to start a biz in Crested Butte.”
Natalie and Chris Phillips and their chef partner Kalon Wall felt the pieces and personalities were a good fit when they jumped onboard at The Sunflower. All three are well versed in the art of food. Natalie nods at a chalkboard listing all the local farms from which the evening’s menu items hail. “You can see where all your food comes from,” she smiles.
The couple became enthralled with the idea of a fresh, organic food restaurant when Chris worked in one in Venice, California, and Natalie recalls, “I was blown away about how good it was, how it accents the natural flavor and taste of the food. Knowing where your food comes from makes a huge difference. We always loved that concept but could never start a restaurant here because it’s so expensive.”
Natalie and Chris were in limbo about how to start their business when they connected with chef Kalon, who had the same dream. And at the same time, Robin Yost called and presented them with the idea of sharing space for affordability.
Their menu changes with the farm’s availability of product. “We buy our own animals… pork, beef, lamb, and fish and chef Kalon does the butchering,” Natalie explains. And although the beer and wine is currently coming from other regions, they’ll also be adding local brews and wines from the area’s vineyards. Kalon feels that the feasibility of getting the local farm product here will enhance options for others in the valley as it becomes more accessible, and getting farm produce and meats back to our valley will become easier as the demand for it increases and truck delivery will then be possible.
Currently, Kalon travels over six hours round-trip to the Western Slope farms to pick up the goods. “Getting things to Crested Butte, where we’re at the end of the road, it’s not like they can drop stuff off when they’re driving by,” he says of the transportation issue.
The other two people of the six who share The Sunflower space are Ken Ricker and Corrie White. Ken overheard Yost and the other three planning to work together and jumped in with his proposal to provide coffee service.
“I just kinda heard them talking about the whole thing and I had been looking to do this for a while. It’s been a vision ever since high school,” says the barista who’s worked at an East Coast Dunkin’ Donuts, five years at Vic’s in Boulder, and three years at Camp 4 Coffee here in town. “We are all working together, just sharing a small space, promoting each other and bringing together a group of people who everyone knows. It’s a really great concept.” Ricker’s bean choice is Boxcar out of Boulder, and he’ll serve Bhakti Chai and a good selection of teas as well, starting from 6 a.m. Complementing his coffee will be Crested Butte Cupcakes baked by Corrie White, whose delectable cupcakes will be sold there as well along with her muffins and cookies.