Vail Daily column: Vail’s ‘food pioneers’
Ryan Summerlin January 21, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first column.
On January 5, 1963, the long-running smash hit “Camelot” finally closed on Broadway. Teenagers were listening to the Tornadoes’ number one hit, Telstar. And on that frigid day, Joe and Anne Staufer arrived in the newest ski resort in the Colorado Rockies – Vail.
The night before Joe departed Bermuda for a job at the Santa Barbara Biltmore, the phone rang. It was friend Martin Moshammer urging the hotelier and aspiring restaurant owner to come to Colorado to see a new ski resort. The fact that it was 48 degrees below zero at night obviously wasn’t mentioned.
Vail was purpose-built as a ski resort. Only ranchland existed in the Gore Creek Valley before Earl Eaton and Pete Seibert stood on top of the “no-name” on March 19, 1957, and saw the future. So it should be no surprise that when Joe asked the Hertz agent at Denver Stapleton airport for directions to Vail, the agent argued, “There is no such thing as Vail.” Out came a map to prove it! No, they weren’t going to Leadville, and Eagle also was not their destination. Vail! Determined, the Staufers persevered and by day’s end arrived in Vail.
Food and beverage pioneer
So why is it so important to know that Joe Staufer almost didn’t come to Vail? Because without Joe, we wouldn’t have his rich memory of what everyone ate in Vail that first season. As a hotelier, Joe was a “food pioneer” in Vail. So when I dove into my research on food and beverage services that first season in 1963, another pioneer, Sheika Gramshammer, directed me to Joe. I hit the mother lode of memories!
As Dick Hauserman described it in his book “The Inventors of Vail,” Joe never made it past Vail to Santa Barbara. Despite Anne’s protests over the cold, they stayed. Before Joe’s planned departure for his onward trip to warmer climes, Earl Eaton and Pete Seibert took him up the mountain in a snowcat to show him the expansive snowfields and possibilities the area held. That’s all it took. Joe had seen Vail’s potential. He was hooked and the Biltmore would have to find someone else.
From the warmth of his condo in St. Croix, Joe described the similarities between both ends of the 50-year timeline of Vail. Like today, workers held down more than one job to get by. Joe worked days at the Mid-Vail basement restaurant under the gondola. At night he worked as server and replacement maitre d’ in the Lodge at Vail’s dining room. And it was frigid cold with “skimpy” snow that season, something that should encourage us since it was followed by many epic powder years before Mother Nature became stingy with snow again.
At minus 44 degrees Fahrenheit, propane gas liquefies. And propane was what Vail relied on those days. They lit bonfires under the tanks to warm them. “It’s a good thing there were no leaks, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to tell you the story,” Joe laughed. In those pioneer days, whatever needed to be done was done. If Hertz didn’t know where Vail was located, no doubt OSHA and other government safety and environmental regulators didn’t either!
Unlike today’s roster of fine dining restaurants, Vail in 1963 had slim pickings. Open the most recent Wine Spectator restaurant issue and you’ll find a number of local restaurants on this prestigious list. But in those days, before dining visionaries Walter and Marie-Claire Moritz and Luc and Liz Meyer opened their legendary gourmet restaurants, Vail’s visitors and residents got by on what Joe charitably referred to as “mediocre” food, although the word “lousy” frequently peppered our conversation.
Like the landscape, the meat was frozen. The valley’s history was rich in cattle ranching, but to get a steak that wasn’t previously frozen before cooked, Vail’s residents made weekly visits to the Diamond J restaurant and bar just east of Eagle on the north side of the river from the present-day Diamond S ranch.
Local historian Kathy Heicher said the Diamond J wasn’t just popular with Vail residents.
“Folks came from all over the state to go fishing and stop there for a steak and a drink,” she said.
A steak and a baked potato was high country gourmet! Joe calls it “the basics.” No doubt the builders of Vail’s mountain infrastructure had discovered the Diamond J earlier as a way to escape meals of boiled cabbage and chicken-friend steak. Sheika Gramshammer recalls a favorite pastime of hers and her husband Pepi was dinner and shooting pool at the Diamond J.
Buffets, now enshrined in the American gustatory psyche, became popular in 1963. The Sunday night buffet at the Lodge at Vail provided a respite from rice-expanded hamburger meat, sandwiches and canned food. For the whopping price of $4.50 (about $32 in today’s prices), one could dine on a “super buffet” that included fresh oysters flown in that day and prime rib. Joe pointed out one drawback to dining at the Lodge at Vail. Coat and tie were required!
“Everybody was upset about [it] since a lot of skiers didn’t think about bringing a coat and tie to go to a ski resort,” he said.
The coat and tie requirement no longer exists, but the aversion to wearing them in Vail still does!
A trip to the grocery store
Many of us grouse about grocery shopping in the high country, at least I do. But we are big city compared to 1963. Today, in Vail alone we can choose between Safeway and City Market. Beyond Dowd Junction in Avon there’s a Wal-Mart and another City Market. Not stellar choices, but certainly more than adequate. According to Joe, on the east end of Eagle County in 1963, Clark’s grocery in Minturn was the only local choice for groceries. Frozen meat and canned goods could be purchased at Clark’s. For a longer shopping list, Joe had to drive to Safeway in Leadville or Cherry Creek in Denver.
Long before Shamrock Foods began delivering food to restaurants, Vail had Joe. The fact that he had a station wagon might have had something to do with that. That made him perfect for grocery runs beyond Clark’s.
Today, a shopping run to Denver for special items means braving I-70. Cherry Creek Whole Foods is less than two hours from Vail. Conceivably, the round trip could be accomplished in half a day. In those days, however, Joe’s bi-monthly trips to Cherry Creek meant at least an eight-hour round-trip drive on a two-lane U.S. Highway 6. That was in good weather. Joe’s son and lifetime Vail resident, Jonathan, told me it could also take as much as six hours each way. Upon returning to Vail, the rear of Joe’s station wagon was filled with about 13 bags of groceries worth $100. Joe’s runs to Safeway were much like our present-day Costco runs. Instead of a station wagon being filled to the brim, we pack our SUVs.
Just how far Vail’s dining scene has come in the past 50 years is evidenced by its world-class restaurants and food and wine events held year-round. Next week, I’ll take you on a stroll through Vail, reliving a recent progressive dinner where diners enjoyed five courses in four restaurants. We’ve come a long way, baby!
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to www.face
book.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.