VAIL — People come and go in this place. New faces in familiar places every ski season is simply part of our lives. Russell’s is a little different.
Russell’s owner Ron Riley recently was asked by an employee if she could cut her hours a bit. Riley thought, “Sure, she’s been here a long time.” That thought led to thinking about how long that employee, and others, had been working at the restaurant on the southeast side of the Covered Bridge. After a bit of research, Riley discovered that a big part of the staff at Russell’s — about a quarter — had worked at the place an average of 20 years.
That’s unusual in the restaurant business. It’s unusual enough that Riley asked a restaurant-owning friend in California about it.
“Forget employees — how many restaurants do you know of that stay open 20 years?” the friend asked.
This is unusual, then.
“We’re an unusual group of people,” longtime bartender Dave Sundberg said with a laugh.
Sundberg landed his job in an old-school Vail way: Shortly after he’d applied for a job at Russell’s — only to be told the staff was set — Sundberg was in the place with a girlfriend, drinking. While there, the general manager and the then-bartender found out they had irreconcilable differences, and there was a job available.
After a little hesitation — should he work in a place that so suddenly showed the door to the previous guy? — Sundberg took the job and has been a fixture behind the bar ever since.
“It’s just a great atmosphere — everybody is really competent and professional,” Sundberg said.
Kristen Olson, who’s worked for Riley since 1989 at one of his two Vail restaurants — Los Amigos, at the top of Bridge Street, is the other — said people at Russell’s tend to get along well. “There’s not a lot of drama here,” she said.
There isn’t a huge staff, either. For instance, there are five people in the kitchen every night — all of whom are lauded by Riley and his employees as the true heroes of the place — whether the restaurant serves 225 dinners or 50 in a night.
But it’s not just the staff that has provided the stability at the restaurant.
“Probably 60 percent of our guests have been here before,” said Mike Marshall, another 20-year veteran of the restaurant. “I’ve watched families come in, watched their kids grow up and have kids of their own.”
KK Broten has seen a lot of those families. She was working at Los Amigos when Riley bought it in 1985, and these days she splits her work time between the two restaurants, so she sees longtime patrons of both.
Asked why he’s stayed on at Russell’s as long as he has, Marshall joked that “people keep wanting money, and I have to work here so I can give it to them.”
But staying at the job is a function of ownership, too, Marshall said.
“We have an owner who refuses to compromise on food quality,” he said.
Riley, meanwhile, gives the credit to Michael Stoughton, his general manager and partner in Russell’s, as well as Mickey Warth, who managed the place for more than 15 years.
That kind of stability has created some deep friendships.
“They’re all my friends, and it’s a good job — we’re like a family,” said Pam Thiesfeldt, who started at Russell’s just weeks after the place opened in the fall of 1989.
Then, of course, is the fact that this restaurant is in Vail.
During a group interview, Olson mentioned she’d just taken a day off from skiing after being on the slopes two weeks straight.
“We’re all athletes,” Marshall said. “We all golf, ski, bike.”
And several of the restaurant’s veterans still live on the east side of Dowd Junction.
Sundberg, for instance, has a town bus stop just outside his place in East Vail. He’s able to leave his car at home most of the winter.
And make no mistake, Vail is home for this group.
Sundberg said the way he knows he’s living in a place he loves is the feeling he gets coming back from somewhere else.
“I’m happy to come back and go to work,” he said.
“You don’t put in 20 years or more if you don’t like where you are,” Riley said. “All these people have found a way to make Vail work them.”
And, after this long, Riley said, “They’re not employees any more; they’re good friends.”