The Family Way
Her pregnant belly is as round and as glorious as a Christmas ornament, prominently nested in her lap as she sits, which is something Dana Starcevich doesn’t get to do often.
Dana’s the co-owner and manager of two restaurants on opposite ends of the valley, and at eight months pregnant with her second child, and with a chef-husband and a rambunctious four-year-old son, Ryder, it’s hard to imagine how a mere 24 hours in her day is sufficient, especially during the busiest of holidays. But Dana smiles as she puts her feet up and sips her tea. “The core is always about the family first,” Dana says in a very grounded tone.
She’s an Indiana girl, although her Croatian family hails from Chicago’s Southside, where Al Capone used to store liquor in Dana’s grandfather’s basement during Prohibition.
Dana grew up in the fabulous 1980s with three siblings and a slew of neighborhood kids who were always outside playing. “We were very creative and put on plays complete with cue cards. We’d do the whole production, even videotaping it. Back when Ross Perot was running for the presidency, we used to do mock debates,” she laughs, confessing that she was thought of as an opinionated little girl. To get out of the city, she’d go to her uncle’s farm to ride horses, milk cows and swim.
“I hated high school,” Dana admits but, nevertheless, she graduated in 1997. “It just wasn’t my scene. I was bullied. I was always searching for happiness and I just never really felt like I was supposed to be in Indiana. It seemed to have such a weird mentality with bitter, narrow-minded people. I was soul-searching at 18 but kids my age weren’t doing that, they were going to pep rallies and football games and that stuff drove me crazy… so I graduated early.”
She headed off to Indiana University, where she found that she wasn’t any more enamored of college. “I took all electives in college, from meditation to stress management. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but basically, I was taking telecommunications and advertising.”
Dana’s older sister had a girlfriend moving to Vail, and it seemed like a good idea to help her move so in her college sophomore year Dana was introduced to Colorado. She quickly fell in love with a hot snowboarder and wound up shuttling her life back and forth from Indiana to Vail, until one night she decided to drop out of school and just move there. “It was a totally different way of life in Vail. Midwestern life seemed so ordinary to me. You get married, go to bars and drink, have kids, go to bars and drink.”
Dana wanted more real in her life than the mundane. “People who move to mountain towns know there’s something special there,” she says. “There’s an energy here. Going out my door and going on a hike to me is going to church. You feel the energy of God.”
Once in Vail, she attended Colorado Mountain College, where she fell right into the snow resort life. “Partying my face off, going to school, snowboarding, working in a restaurant, living the dream,” she laughs. “I instantly made real connections and friends, and nobody judged me like they did in the Midwest because mountain resort towns are a melting pot. I really felt like I was transforming into who I was supposed to be.”
Dana’s goal was to finish school, so she left Vail in 2002 to continue her education in art at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Denver. While she was working as a waitress at Tommy Tsunami’s, a downtown Denver sushi bar owned by Crested Butte local Jeff Hermanson, she met Matt Smith, who was a sushi roller there.
“We went out one night and the electricity was obvious between us. Within a week I knew I was going to marry him,” she smiled. “We had talked about our goals and future. He was very passionate about his career and that was very sexy to me.”
Dana graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and was simultaneously in transition, in a serious relationship and missing the mountains. “Jeff Hermanson was always talking about Crested Butte, and so Matt and I started talking about the mountains. I don’t know what made me go on the Internet to search for properties in Crested Butte but Lil’s popped up. We had looked in Telluride for a restaurant and I didn’t like it. I couldn’t envision myself there. I figured we should just go check out Crested Butte,” she says.
On President’s Weekend 2006 they arrived in town and had dinner at Lil’s. “There was a lot to work with there,” she says. “It had so much potential and the town had a charm to it. It was like a postcard.” They returned to Denver to work out the details for purchasing. They put their Denver house on market, moved to Crested Butte May 13 and bought Lil’s two days later.
“We weren’t even married yet but I felt we could conquer the world together,” she says of their then three-year relationship. “It was game on for three weeks to get that place open.”
Business was bustling and the first year, usually the hardest, was almost behind them. “We were going along doing our thing and we thought everything was going great. Then, the fire happened.” Dana recalls their hearts sinking as they watched the flames rip from the back of the building that September 21, 2007. The fire was electrical and started in the walk-in cooler, which at least contained it somewhat. The smoke damage was extensive and the main support beam had alligatored so much that the roof had to be replaced. The entire restaurant had to be gutted.
“When they told us that it would be nine months to restore the restaurant, I lost it. That was our living,” Dana says. Fortunately, their insurance covered them. “We went out that day and got hammered and I cried and cried. It was hard for both of us. It was the toughest year I’ve ever had. The only positive things we had going was that we got to live like locals, we just skied all winter and we got married in May,” she says. “We actually got to go home for Christmas that year.”
They reopened the restored Lil’s June 6, 2008, just as the market crashed. “We had the worst two years of business. The fire set us back five years financially and now with the recession, we had a huge hole to climb out of.” Their son, Ryder, was born April 10, 2010 and in the winter of 2012, they determined to give it one more year to work or they would have to think about relocating.
“The winter of 2013 was one of our best years,” Dana says. They breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s when we could see things changing economically. This year, 2014, has been the best year ever, maybe of my whole life; everything seems to be coming full-circle. It’s not just about us, it’s about everybody we work with, it’s a family, its an entity that we can trust,” she says about her staff. “We don’t have to be at Lil’s every night anymore. Matt still rolls sushi but this off-season he took a lot of time off to be with Ryder. The first few years we didn’t have a life, working seven nights a week before we had Ryder. You can’t open a restaurant without a good team. Lil’s doesn’t survive without its good staff.”
Bolstered by the upswing in economics and how smoothly Lil’s was running, when an opportunity to do another exciting project popped up in Gunnison, they went for it. “We were to the point at Lil’s where, with the great staff we had, I wasn’t having to be there at much at night. Coming off of a great winter, things were looking up and Blackstock Bistro sort of fell into our laps.”
Tom Flynn, Matt’s childhood buddy, told them about the Brick Cellar’s availability. “We’ve had Lil’s for nine years and it runs like a machine now. The fire could have destroyed us but it made us so much stronger as a team. We’ve always had a good balance of work and family life,” Dana says.
They opened their new Blackstock Bistro July 11, 2014. They did the majority of the renovation themselves, from the new kitchen to building the tables to the décor. One month before they opened, as they were remodeling, Dana discovered she was pregnant with their daughter, who will be named Harper when she arrives in mid-February.
As a team, Dana feels she and Matt have a great dynamic but it took 14 years together. “I feel like we’ve grown up… in a sense. Now we can pull ourselves out of the restaurant more often and spend more time with Ryder, and Harper is on the way. I’ll be a little loopy and delirious for awhile, until we find another balance.”
Dana says balance is enhanced by living in the moment that is Crested Butte. “It just clicked one day coming down Painter Boy with Ryder and he was yelling, ‘Yeah!’ and I looked at Matt and thought this is what it’s all about. As a family, that’s what it’s all about. Christmas is about your relationships with people, it’s about spending time with loved ones and family, not about material things,” Dana smiles and adds, “I finally feel like I’m home. Crested Butte captivates my soul and you get why everybody walks around here with a smile on their face. It’s like our little secret. Especially when you have a kid here, the sense of community is strong, how everybody looks out for each other. We’re so lucky to be up here.”