Editor’s note: This is the third part of a three-part series about the history of the Peak 9 Restaurant. Visit www.summitdaily.com to read the first two parts.
The mood at Peak 9 Restaurant on Sunday, April 20, was mainly one of celebration mixed with a single tear or two as the establishment marked its final day of private ownership. Despite a morning of gloomy, overcast skies and occasional sleet and rain, devoted patrons, past and present employees and a couple of local legends made the trek to the top of the mountain to pay homage to an institution that’s been pouring cold beer and serving up hot soups in the clouds for four decades.
Next ski season, the restaurant will re-open under the ownership of Vail Resorts, a transition that owners Kevin Brown and Barbara Tunnicliffe knew would happen when they signed Peak 9’s last lease extension 10 years ago. Tunnicliffe, who passed away in 2012, fought tooth and nail against various corporations who owned Breckenridge Ski Resort over the years to maintain her little slice of skiing paradise, but when the lease renewal options ran out, both she and Brown knew it would be coming to an end.
“They’re going to come in and change everything in the restaurant,” Brown said. “Do their food court system and keep the structure as is — add new carpet, paint, re-do the kitchen and the dining area and make it a Vail property. I have no hard feelings at all.”
Belly up to the bar
Brown said Vail Resorts has reached out to him and would be glad to talk with his current employees about keeping their jobs, but many said they will likely move on, that it just wouldn’t be the same under the new ownership.
“We’re pretty close, everybody up here,” Brown said. “That’s part of life; they just have to figure it out. Thirty-five years ago if you told me I was going to be here in 2014, I wouldn’t think so, but it’s funny how that works. The younger guys who have been with me for years will have to start on a whole new journey in their lives to see what they’re going to do.”
Longtime bartender Mike Peterson said his first year working at Peak 9 Restaurant was in 1979.
“I took a few years off to join the real world, which was a mistake,” Peterson said with a laugh. “All of a sudden, Peak 9 is going to be the real world.”
Peterson said he would miss being at the top of the mountain for all of the sunrises and sunsets, being there when the roads weren’t plowed and the interstate and highways were shut down and no one was there but the locals.
“I’ll miss being all selfish and having this place to myself,” he said. “And all the wonderful people who have made this job great for so many years.”
And the patrons and his coworkers will miss Peterson’s friendly smile, too. Byron Fears, a recent Colorado re-plant to the mountains outside of Lyons, has frequented the Peak 9 Restaurant for more than 15 years and always makes a stop at the bar.
“I’ve known the bartender, Mike Peterson, for probably 15 years, and he’s got more personality than 50 people rolled together; you’re entertained at the bar,” he said. “Kevin hires his own people, cool people, weird people; you didn’t have to fit into the corporate mold to work there, which is big.”
Employees are family
A sign welcomes customers to the cafeteria line proclaiming, “Welcome … we treat our customers like friends and our employees like family.” The sentiment is evidenced by the camaraderie among the patrons and workers at Peak 9. First-year cashier Jon Walsh said he landed his gig at the restaurant through a friend whom he helped out with a summer job.
“I love it,” Walsh said. “You really can’t beat it. Kevin’s awesome.”
Cook Ken Kerkela has been slinging grub at Peak 9 for six years, and he echoed Walsh’s feelings about Brown.
“The guy is awesome,” Kerkela said. “We really do care, and to see the way Kevin cares about the people he deals with — his guests are his life. Really, the people, locals and the guests from out of town, when you come in here, even the guests really understand when they get the vibe in here. You go to another ski area, another county, even another state, and you won’t find it. I lived in the county 22 years now, and I wished I would have realized on Day 1 that to walk in as an outsider — if you are ever, with Kevin, an outsider — and be treated like family is cool.”
Brothers Alfonso, Oscar and Froylan Perez have been working at Peak 9 for 13 years, and Alfonso said the trio wouldn’t stick around Summit County now that the restaurant is changing ownership.
“We’re going back home to Mexico, going to spend the summer here and then go back,” he said. “I enjoyed the customers, the people that I have worked with and especially Kevin. I liked everything here.”
Making friends, memories
Laurie Phillips, of Savannah, Ga., said she and her husband, Aaron, have gotten to know people just from frequenting the restaurant.
“You see people there every year,” she said. “People tend to go back every year on the same week, same month. We’ve gotten to know people from Peak 9 Restaurant that now we correspond with, a couple from Scotland, and we’ve gotten to be friends with them. … I think the place feels like home and we’re going to miss it.”
Phillips shared another story about the quilt that hung over the stairwell, which was handmade by a woman from Ohio. Though many of the items that adorned the walls of Peak 9 were tagged for sale in its final weeks of operation, she said Brown was going to keep the quilt.
“I really admired that quilt, I thought it was such a beautiful handmade piece of artwork,” Phillips said. “I’m riding the chairlift and I’m talking about this quilt, and the people I’m riding the chairlift with was the woman who made the quilt.
“She felt the same way about Peak 9, a home base for all of the years of skiing. She gave it to him as a gift, and it was very touching. It brought tears to my eyes, when I realized this was the person who gave it to him.”
Ryan Biondo, of Colorado Springs, shared another story from a few years back when friends and longtime customers gathered to celebrate Brown’s birthday.
“About two years ago, for Kevin’s 60th birthday, we surprised him by decorating the bar with hokey balloons, pictures,” Biondo said. “It was funny trying to drag that stuff up the lift without destroying it, not letting him see it and decorating the bar area. I think he enjoyed having all those friends up there to celebrate his 60th with him. That was one of my more memorable stories from up there.”
40 years flies by
As the day wore on Sunday, the clouds parted, the sun came out and people began strolling out to the deck to soak up the last few rays of sunshine on Peak 9 for the ski season. Small groups formed and reformed, sharing stories and a lot of laughter. Biondo said that local, family feel has always been typical of the restaurant.
“A lot of groups there, families, friends that you knew from weekend to weekend, which was one of he reasons I like it a lot,” he said. “It’s not your typical resort, touristy stamped, on-mountain venue, that’s one thing that stood out to me from the other bars and restaurants on Breck.”
Kevin Zody, a longtime patron of Peak 9, said the spot is going to be sorely missed by a lot of people for its service and camaraderie.
“It’s just been years and years, since 2001, going up there and hanging out and getting to know the owner,” he said. “Workers have come and workers have gone, but those afternoons of skiing all day and having a place to hang out, that small-town, customer-service community thing has been so great about it.”
Brown thanked his customers again for all of their years of patronage.
“One of the things I wanted to say, all the people who have been coming here for years and years this year were really good about saying goodbye, thanks for all the years, how they’re going to miss it up here — the hominess of the place, the atmosphere, a nice hi, how you doing, employees who act like they are on vacation, if someone asks a question, getting a civil answer,” he said. “It’s been nice.”
Zody shared a few parting thoughts, including his favorite memory of the restaurant Brown owned and loved for so many years.
“I was up there hanging out in the afternoon, and Kevin went to put his skis on,” Zody said. “It was one of those slow mid-week afternoons in February and March, and we ended up skiing all afternoon together and heading back there, everybody was there, all the locals, and we just stayed there and enjoyed the afternoon on the patio — one of the great many memories I’ll cherish forever, just times doing that.”