Profile: Natalie Pfister Riha

By Dawne Belloise

Crested Butte native Natalie Pfister Riha has that sort of can-do-anything common sense possessed by those who are lucky enough to be born and raised here. Having gone out into the world, she’s initiated some of the most innovative business concepts which led her back to CB with a plethora of experiences that she now draws upon in her endeavors as the executive director of the Crested Butte Food and Wine Festival, culinary programs manager for the Crested Butte Center for the Arts and owner of Yonderwear, her brilliant sports underwear company. 

Born on Vinotok to parents Scott Pfister and (now) Ginny Thomsen, Natalie says that she was conceived in the dead of winter on a frigid New Year’s Eve, and she laughs, “For Crested Butte, especially in the early 1980s, everyone could have been born that week.” At the time, her parents owned Handworks until they split and her mom moved her closer to their extended family in Miami when Natalie was 15. Natalie was involved in theater and moving to a larger city afforded more opportunity for her acting. “Eric Ross was a huge influence for me, and he included me in any theater opportunities available,” she says of her time in CB performances.

Growing up here, Natalie spent most of her time outdoors where there were wonderful creative arts summer programs or just kicking up Coal Creek barefoot with the other local feral kids, hanging out under the bridges, writing their names on the concrete walls. She thinks the names are still there, tucked away in the cool shadows. “Our parents would bring us into work with them, drop us off and set us free.” Like most kids here, Natalie skied from the time she was a toddler. She also danced with the CB School of Dance for 16 years. 

Natalie attended the Crested Butte Academy for her freshman and sophomore years and was halfway through 10th grade when she left her CB class of 14 kids and moved to Miami where there were 3,000 kids in the school. “It was difficult (to leave) but at 15, I was really into the arts and those opportunities weren’t in CB at the time, so I was really excited to move to a place with theater opportunities.” 

She recalls what an eye-opening experience that first week of school was. “It was like moving to a different country. I got into a lot of trouble because I came from CB where you’re able to express who you are, your ideas are heard and you’re encouraged to think out of the box.” She’d have debates with her new teachers, and she’d try to explain and justify her arguments but to no avail. “They wanted you to answer a question with something specific that was not up for interpretation. Here in CB, if you disagreed with something, the teacher was open as to why,” she says of the more open mindedness of the CB Academy where Socratic discussion of ideas was encouraged.

After graduating in 1999, Natalie enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles for photography. Wanting to explore different art media, she left after a year because the college didn’t allow cross study into other art disciplines. Natalie moved back to Miami, going full-on Boho—sold the car, got a bike and lived the beach bum life. She had a couple of photography art shows both in Miami and New York City. It was while working at the Miami bookshop Books & Books in 2001 that she met Arvin Ramgoolam, who later came to CB for a visit, never left and now owns Townie Books. “We both worked at Books & Books,” says Natalie, and she married Arvin’s best friend Morgan Lee, who also worked there.

Natalie decided to get back to school and enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She and Morgan moved to the Windy City in 2002 so she could attend photography and sculpture classes. “We came to CB for Christmas to see my family, and we were like, why are we living in Chicago?” So in 2003, they moved to her town at the end of the road where Natalie says she went from being a beach bum to being a ski bum. 

She was hired at the Last Steep. “It was the first restaurant I had ever worked at. Kevin and Sean Hartigan gave me a chance. That started my journey in food in a way that has manifested in what I currently do,” she smiles. Later, she became a bartender and server at the LoBar and the Secret Stash when it was at the west end of Elk Avenue and a server at McGill’s when it first opened. 

Natalie had taken a leave of absence from her studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago but returned to finish grad school. She and Morgan went their separate ways the following year. In Chicago, Natalie was employed as a server at the fine dining restaurant North Pond, and during the interview confessed that she knew very little about wines. “I know there’s red and white and it’s delicious and I’m a fast learner.” She was at that restaurant four years, leaving to manage Uncommon Ground, the first restaurant with a novel concept of a rooftop farm. Natalie became the farm manager for two years, overseeing all the growing and educational programs. 

After her stint with rooftop farming, Natalie became the events manager for the Google office in Chicago. “Sometimes it was small luncheons for a team and other times quarterly parties,” where she once staged a circus with circus performers and circus food. Natalie stayed on for four years while attending grad school.

Natalie’s thesis initiated a creative night market, an underground food market for unlicensed food vendors. She explains, “At the time in Chicago, there was a lot of red tape around food truck licenses and it was cost prohibitive,” but she found a loophole that negated those requirements discovering if you charged an admission it became an allowed private event. She charged a dollar for entry. “I ended up doing the market several times at different locations across the city. It took off because people really liked it and were hungry for that type of event. The last one I did had 70 vendors and over 1,000 people showed up.” From those events, several food businesses were able to raise enough in sales to pay for the costly licenses to start their businesses. 

Natalie graduated with an MFA in 2011 and that same summer, she married Michael Riha, whom she met at school. Michael had been accepted into the University of Washington’s graduate architect program and the couple moved to Seattle in 2012 with their newborn son Eero. 

She remembers, “We didn’t know anyone, it was so isolated and wild. I stayed at home for the first nine months. I tried joining a bunch of mom groups because I was going crazy, but they were not me.” She felt the need to return to what she loved, restaurant work, and was hired as a server at Delancey. “I really met my people there. The owner is one of my closest friends and he’s coming this summer to be a chef at the Crested Butte Wine and Food Festival.”

 She worked there on and off for a decade while also working as a full-time art professor at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, teaching a variety of art classes and running the studio program. In 2017, her second son, Graener, was born. Deciding that academia was not for her, she left to help a friend run a cooking school called The Pantry, where she worked for six years while occasionally filling in at Delancey. The Pantry was about to open a second location when the pandemic hit. “The pandemic was terrible, but because of it I ended up back in CB.”

In August of 2023, the family of four moved back to her childhood town because they didn’t want to live in the city anymore. “We wanted to be somewhere that had a strong community and where we felt like we could contribute. A huge factor was that my dad still lived here, and I knew that I would need to come back at some point, at some capacity, because it turns out parents don’t get younger. And CB ticked all the boxes anyway. It’s a great place to raise kids.”

Natalie had started an underwear company in 2021 called Yonderwear, underwear made for all outdoor activities and for movement. As a runner, she found that underwear was annoying and uncomfortable. After Googling what underwear to wear when running, Natalie ordered 50 different pairs and didn’t like any of them. That was the impetus to develop her own brand. She teamed up with a Seattle friend, Ariel Meling, conducted a lot of research and eventually settled on the same manufacturing company that Patagonia sportswear uses. They launched in April this year and she plans to expand into other outdoor apparel. “You can find it at yonderwear.co and all marketing is through Facebook and Instagram and our website,” she says. 

Natalie had gotten involved with the Crested Butte Wine and Food Festival after meeting Jillian Liebl, the executive director at the CB Center for the Arts. In 2023, with her experience in fine dining and having become a sommelier in Seattle in 2022, Natalie was a good fit for the positions of executive director of the Crested Butte Food and Wine Festival and culinary programs manager for the CB Center for the Arts.

“The idea is to expand the culinary program to be able to offer additional culinary programs throughout the year. I’d love to be able to work with the local food and wine people to build a culinary community. It’s really important that the CB Wine and Food Festival feels like a community event and contributes to the culinary industry in town, so we created an industry scholarship for less expensive tickets and free seminars for local industry folks. We are holding our seminars in restaurants in town so we cross promote what a rad culinary community we have here.” 

And Natalie is happy to be home in her community. “It feels so good to be back. I love Crested Butte, it’s a magical location. I feel super lucky that I get to live here, and I feel like I’m on vacation every day.” 

The Crested Butte Food and Wine Festival takes place July 14-21, more info at: cbwineandfood.org

Check Also

Profile: Eric Phillips

By Dawne Belloise Although he’s never skied as a participant in the Grand Traverse, Eric …