When Bonnie Lehman and her sister Kelsey were growing up, their father, longtime Summit County chef Doug Pierce, used to tell them, “Don’t ever go into the restaurant business.” For a quarter century at Keystone Resort, then as owner of the Arapahoe Café (a Dillon culinary landmark since the 1940s), Pierce worked holidays and long hours and was constantly stressed, even though he loved his job. As a young woman, Lehman, who started washing dishes at the “A-Café” when she was 12, decided to heed her dad’s advice and pursue a career as a broadcast journalist for ESPN. But after college in Greeley, she returned home for a year to help manage the restaurant and met her future husband at Pug Ryan’s Tiki Bar down the street. Now 28 and preparing to take over the reins of A-Café from her father, Lehman explains how she wound up embracing an occupation she once swore off, and why it matters to keep one of Summit’s most popular and venerable eateries in the family and open for business.
"I was born in Vail, since Frisco didn’t have a hospital back then, and we grew up in Summit Cove. Mom and Dad met at Keystone. Dad worked back of the house, Mom worked front of the house. Eventually Dad became food-and-beverage director. But after Vail Resorts acquired Keystone, they laid off a lot of their longtime employees, including my parents.
When we first bought the restaurant, my sister and I both worked here, because my parents were like, well, we’re both here all day, and in order for us to keep an eye on you so you’re not sitting at home watching TV, why don’t you come in? I was too shy to be around customers, but when I was 16, I got brave enough to hostess and bus tables.
I graduated from the University of Northern Colorado a year early, after double majoring in broadcast journalism and Spanish. My plan was to save some money for a year then move to Denver. I worked at the restaurant full time, and once it got close to the year being up, I was like, you know, I’m making really good money, I’m getting to travel as much as I want—and I kind of fell in love with Summit County again.
I think a lot of people who grow up here do fall out of love with it at some point. I guess I just didn’t appreciate it as much. But my husband had just moved here, found a roommate on Craigslist, and gotten a job at Keystone. And he was so in love with this place. I needed someone else’s perspective to remind me: Yeah, you grew up in a really cool place.
I read these restaurant-owner e-mails, and they say that hospitality can be your greatest driver of sales. We get a lot of reviews that say, “You can tell it’s a real locals spot. So-and-so treated us like we were locals, and it was great.” We didn’t try for that, but our approach is simple: “Welcome, this is our house, come eat in it.”
You also have to listen to your customer; it’s not about what you want, but what they want. We used to polish wine glasses and silverware before every shift, then we realized, no, our customer is pretty casual and really family oriented. So why don’t we have a fairly casual and family-oriented kind of place?
When my dad, who just turned 65, told me he was going to try to step back, he said, “We could do this one of two ways: We can sell the restaurant and just walk away from it, or we can keep it in the family. And keeping it in the family will mean you.” And I said, “I love what you’ve created here, so I want to keep it in the family.” He just took me under his wing and was like, “Great, you’re in ultimate training mode now.”
I also told my dad I’m still going on a vacation every fall and spring. I’ll make ’em shorter. And I want two days off in a row every week. Because you have to have a little separation. I like to ski and mountain bike and fly-fish.
Summit’s growth is a little bittersweet. Just because it was kind of nice, now that I look back, to grow up in a small ski town—kind of untouched. But at the same time, as a business owner in Summit County, I’m like, no, this is great. Bring it on."