After decades of local ownership, two Summit County restaurants are passing the torch
Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant and Cantina and Arapahoe Cafe and Pub are turning a new corner
A passing of the torch is underway at two Summit County restaurants that for decades have been owned and operated by locals.
After running Mi Casa Restaurant and Cantina for about 41 years, Alexandra Storm and Dick Carleton sold the popular Breckenridge location on Thursday, Dec. 8, to a team of local businesspeople.
And, Doug Pierce, the longtime owner of Arapahoe Cafe and Pub in Dillon, said he is taking a step back from the restaurant as his daughter, Bonnie Lehman, and her husband, Noah, plan to take over day-to-day operations.
Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant and Cantina
Mi Casa has been purchased by a real estate investment group led by Peter Joyce, who has teamed up with Matt Vawter — the owner of Rootstalk and Radicato in Breckenridge — and Mike Zehnder, a local chef, to run the restaurant.
Carleton noted in a phone interview that Mi Casa has remained a community staple as Summit County has grown and changed around it over the years. He said he is excited the business will remain in local hands.
“The community has been so good to Mi Casa,” Carleton said. “I wanted somebody local to carry that on and I think we found them.”
Mi Casa was first opened in the mid-70s by Mike Jarvis and soon was sold to a couple who went bankrupt, leading the establishment to close in 1980, Carleton said. In 1981, Alexandra Storm bought the restaurant and brought Carleton on board as a partner a few years later, he said.
In those early years, the busy seasons were short and the off seasons were long, Carleton said. But as Summit County grew, so did the restaurant. In the early 1990s, the Mexican restaurant expanded, adding about 2,000 square feet to the lower dining room, he said.
Now in his mid-60s, Carleton said he thought about selling the restaurant for a long time.
“It’s time to play a bit more and not work so hard,” he said.
Over the years, Mi Casa has been a hub for celebrations and community events, Carleton said, recalling with fondness the many good times he has shared there. He remembered couples — who now have grandchildren — that first met at the restaurant and an end-of-season celebration that spontaneously turned into a wedding reception, when a man from Greece, whose visa was expiring, married one of the servers.
“Is this marriage going to last?” Carleton said he asked himself at the time. But, he said he has remained in touch with the couple, who remain happily married and now have three grown children.
“There’s a lot of stories like that,” he said. “Life being lived.”
In a joint phone interview, Joyce and Vawter said they are excited to take over a restaurant with such a strong community brand. Joyce said he has been visiting Mi Casa since he moved to Summit County almost 30 years ago.
“We’re not looking to change it, we just want to elevate it,” Joyce said.
Vawter, who grew up in Summit County, will offer his expertise as a restaurateur, and Zehnder, who previously worked as a chef at Copper Mountain Resort, will run Mi Casa’s day-to-day operations as the restaurant’s general manager, Joyce said.
The new team met with Mi Casa’s staff earlier this week to introduce themselves and solicit feedback, and has also been in contact with nonprofits that the restaurant has supported over the years to let them know those partnerships will remain in place, he said.
“That’s probably one of the most exciting things about it,” Joyce said of purchasing Mi Casa. “Being part of something that is already great and hopefully finding ways to make it better.”
Arapahoe Cafe and Pub
After owning and operating Arapahoe Cafe and Pub for nearly 20 years, Doug Pierce said he is looking to slow down and pass the restaurant on to the next generation. The decision to keep the restaurant in the family came about five years ago, he said.
“When I turned 65 I asked Bonnie, ‘Do we keep it in the family or sell it?’” Pierce said. “She said, ‘Keep it,’ so I spent those five years preparing for that, putting everything on recipe cards and getting ready.”
Selling the restaurant outright would have been easier, Pierce said, since neither his daughter nor her husband is a chef. But nonetheless, he said he is happy to be passing the baton and looks forward to Bonnie and Noah’s management of the family business.
Built around 1945 in the old town of Dillon by Faye and Lenore Bryant, Arapahoe Cafe was moved up the hill to the site of the new town in 1960 to avoid being flooded with the formation of the Lake Dillon reservoir, according to the history chronicled on the restaurant’s menu.
The move was not easy, the menu says, and explains why the restaurant’s floors are a bit uneven and the walls are not quite square. From 1972 to 1987 many people knew the building as the Tappon House, but around 1988 new owners restored the name “Arapahoe Cafe,” according to the menu.
Since Pierce bought the Arapahoe Cafe 20 years ago, “it’s gotten better,” he said, noting that some of his proudest moments are of the years when the restaurant won “Best of Summit” awards.
“We hung our hat on great food, great service and reasonable prices,” Pierce said. “We said, ‘We’re going to build it for the locals and the locals are going to tell the tourists where to go.’ It’s worked very well for us.”
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