Edwards restaurant to partner with Frisco-based Outer Range Brewing Co.
The Eagle County chef brought the Thai-inspired fried chicken concept Bird Craft to Frisco in 2020
EAGLE — When Chris Schmidt first opened Craftsman in Edwards four years ago, it was the culmination of his life’s work and the actualization of a long-held dream. And in these four years, while the chef-driven, craft sandwich restaurant has enjoyed many successes, Schmidt has always had his eye on the next thing — and on a restaurant-brewery space across the street.
In November, the opportunity presented itself, when Gore Range Brewery announced its closure and building sale. Schmidt, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Janelle, said that while they hadn’t actively been looking for space, it was the perfect timing. They signed a lease and announced plans to expand into the space and build a bigger Craftsman, expected to open in summer 2022.
“It came out of nowhere, and I don’t know if it is the right time, but I’ve always looked at that building and daydreamed about it because Craftsman’s been so busy. We’re cranking and we need more space,” Schmidt said. “I think we have a chance, if we do it right, to really be a staple in this community, and that means a lot for me.”
Honing the craft
Schmidt grew up in and around restaurants. Both his parents worked as restaurant managers, leading him to decide at a young age that he wanted to be a chef. At age 15, he started his first job frying up eggs and bacon at a Waffle House in Georgia. Schmidt quickly moved into the world of fine dining, starting his second job a year later at a local country club.
“I’ve just always loved creating things; it’s the challenge of creating and making delicious food and seeing a smile on people’s faces when they eat something you worked so hard on,” Schmidt said. “It’s not an easy life, it’s not an easy industry, but it’s very rewarding, and I’ve just always loved that.”
Schmidt’s career in the world of food and fine dining would take him to Atlanta, New York City, Denver and, ultimately, to Vail, where he served as the head chef at Sweet Basil. Throughout the years, he gathered all the inspiration, knowledge and experience he would need to one day open his own restaurant — aiming to do so by age 30.
“We were two weeks away from opening on my 30th birthday,” he said.
With Craftsman, Schmidt wanted to take his background in fine dining and do something more approachable.
“I just wanted to take a step back and do something a little less pretentious, if you will,” he said, adding that he had begun fantasizing about creating “cool, chef-driven sandwiches” while in Atlanta.
Which is ultimately what Craftsman brought. With counter-service, a small dining area and a bar, the restaurant serves up a variety of unique sandwiches.
At the time he opened Craftsman, Schmidt had also contemplated opening a brewery but instead decided to merge this passion for brewing by supporting other craft breweries in the restaurant — making it not only a food destination, but a beer destination, as well.
And so far, so good.
The restaurant found success and large community support. Even through the pandemic, while it brought a full set of challenges to the entire restaurant industry, Schmidt said it also brought a “ton of local support” as well as some hard lessons about the business.
“COVID was hard; it was a brutal year,” he said. “Just look at where the industry’s at now with staffing: It’s so hard to find good people or young cooks that want to learn, that want to read cookbooks, that follow restaurants, that are truly passionate about what they do. That’s always been a challenge in the mountains, and I feel like post-COVID, it’s just been even harder.”
However, Schmidt noted that these challenges forced the business in a different, and even positive, direction — consolidating where it could, shifting hours to prioritize work-life balance and taking better care of its staff.
And now, coming out on the other side, busier than ever, Schmidt is ready to take Craftsman to the next level.
The vision for the old Gore Range space is Craftsman 2.0, he said.
“As corny as that sounds, I don’t want to get away from what Craftsman is and made people fall in love with us,” Schmidt said.
However, the new space will allow for the brand to grow in several areas, including not only an opportunity to expand the size of the space and its offerings, but also the chance to bring brewing in-house.
Schmidt will partner with the Frisco-based Outer Range Brewing Co., and its head brewer, Lee Cleghorn, for that component. The duo has partnered before, when Schmidt brought the Thai-inspired fried chicken concept Bird Craft to the brewery’s expanded taproom, which opened in 2020.
“They kind of gave me full range,” Schmidt said about the partnership. “Ultimately, it’s what they did for me, I just want to let them run with it. They’re amazing brewers. I love what they do. I don’t want to put some constraints on them.”
Schmidt said Cleghorn will bring in a brewer for the space, overseeing the operation and consulting on the branding and recipes.
With the new space, Schmidt is looking forward to also expanding the menu — mainly its small plates and salads, while also potentially adding some large-format sharing dishes — and expanding into a full-service bar that will include not only the beers brewed in house, but also craft cocktails, wines and a large whiskey collection.
“We’re just building on what we’ve done,” he said. “We’re just really excited about the future and what we’re going to do.”
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