The end of an era at Breckenridge
Ryan Summerlin February 2, 2013
BRECKENRIDGE – In the small office at the back of Peak 9 Restaurant at Breckenridge Ski Resort, there’s a window that overlooks the entire Tenmile Range.
It’s a view Kevin Brown, owner of the last independent dining spot on the mountain, has enjoyed for nearly 40 years, but one he’ll soon have to give up.
With the lease on the building set to expire next year, the Breckenridge institution known for its variety of homemade soups, is preparing to close its doors for good at the end of the 2013/14 season.
“To be here to finish it out is incredible,” Peak 9 manager Mike Mraz said. “It’s a little piece of history.”
For Brown, the closure is bittersweet. At 61, he’s dedicated nearly 40 years of his life to the business, a shared effort with his good friend and original owner Barbara Tunnicliffe, who died in September.
But running a restaurant at 11,000 feet is a challenging venture. Brown arrives at work before sunrise every day and, his employees say, rarely takes a day off. In the summer he spends two months on repairs and maintenance on a weather-worn building which he doesn’t own.
During the ski season, food has to be brought in by snow cat, and Brown keeps a full-time live-in staff of three people at the restaurant in the winter to help with opening and closing procedures.
He plans to retire when the lease runs out at the end of next season rather than reopen the restaurant at another location in Breckenridge. For him, Peak 9 and Peak 9 Restaurant are inseparable anyway.
“I just don’t have the energy to do that,” Brown said. “Up here it’s such a unique situation. I love it, I come up in the morning and it’s beautiful. I can take a walk a around the building, take a quick snowshoe up the hill, clear my head and get ready for the day. In town, it would be a 24/7 thing.”
But many of Peak 9’s customers, some of whom ate at the restaurant as kids and now bring their own children to dine there while skiing Breckenridge, aren’t ready to see the restaurant go.
For four decades, Brown and Tunnicliffe have specialized in a different kind of on-mountain dining experience, defined by hot, hearty and homemade food, lower prices than their competition and a family atmosphere.
Brown’s own daughters, now in their 20s, grew up working at the restaurant on weekends, and his wife, a school teacher, often helped out on her days off.
“Over the years, we were known as the family owned restaurant,” Brown said. “It’s the family atmosphere people are going to miss.”
The original owner, Tunnicliffe, opened the Peak 9 restaurant with a 10-year lease in 1974 through a connection with the ski area CEO. At the time, it was just one of several independently owned dining spots at a resort where executives weren’t interested in the food-service industry.
“Breckenridge ski area was owned by Aspen Ski Company back then,” said Brown, who was hired on to run the kitchen in 1975. “They were in what they always used to say was the uphill transportation business, they weren’t in the restaurant business.”
But under Tunnicliffe’s hand the restaurant business thrived on Peak 9, and the eatery began to earn a reputation for good food and a family atmosphere. It’s success grew, and by 1984 resort management was ready to offer Tunnicliffe a sweeter deal: three more 10-year-options on the lease in exchange for an investment in an expansion to the building.
“They were really happy with what we did here,” Brown said. “We kept improving the business as time went on to where it was making them a lot of money.”
But before the first 10-year lease option rolled around, the ski area had changed hands and the new ownership was more interested in the restaurant business than its predecessor. In 1994, resort management with a company called Ralston Purina tried to break the restaurant’s lease and retake possession of the building. But Tunnicliffe and Brown, by that time a full partner in the business, stood their ground and took the resort to court to fight for the lease. They won the case in district court, but Ralston Purina appealed the decision. An appellate judge again ruled in the restaurant’s favor, but the company appealed the case again to the Colorado Supreme Court. After nearly four expensive years of litigation, Brown and Tunnicliffe won their case and the right to renew their lease.
But the original 30-year-agreement expires in 2014, and Vail Resorts has made clear they don’t plan to offer another extension.
“We have been planning for a long time to transition that restaurant back to our own operation,” Breckenridge Ski Resort spokeswoman Kristen Stewart stated in an email to the Summit Daily. “The lease model has been used at many ski resorts including Aspen, and now that we have developed our own expertise in mountain dining, it’s logical to operate it. We truly appreciate the partnership that Kevin Brown and the Peak 9 team have provided over the years.”
Stewart said the resort will continue to operate a restaurant out of the building, but it’s unclear whether the name or other aspects of the current character will be retained.
Vista Haus and the now-defunct Bergenhoff were once also independent restaurants at Breckenridge. But one by one, the dining locations have been taken over by the resort. For roughly the last 20 years, protected by its 1984 lease agreement, only Peak 9 has remained.
“It’s like an island in the middle of an ocean,” Brown said. “Or an island on top of a mountain.”
Peak 9 Restaurant is located just below the top of the Beaver Run Chair on Peak 9.