Eat This Week: The Assembly faces COVID-19 challenges as a new restaurant
Special to the Daily
The night Caleb and Jaimie Mackey signed a contract to purchase the unit that would turn into The Assembly Food + Wine, Jaimie went into labor with their daughter. The day they took over the space, they had yet to find a chef to plan the cuisine. And at their grand opening on August 9, 2020, Eagle County restaurants operated at 50%, or 34 guests in The Assembly’s case. But when a passion is supposed to manifest, it does — despite an apparent lack of chef, a first-born child coming into the world or a global pandemic.
Food, wine and cooking has been a cornerstone of the Mackey’s relationship: they have bookshelves loaded with cookbooks, and they plan their trips based upon what they’ll eat. And, last August, their dream of owning a restaurant not only came to fruition, but also was embraced by the community.
Although the Mackey’s didn’t have any sit-down restaurant experience, Caleb brought his small-business knowledge from owning Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Silverthorne, while Jaimie contributed her hospitality expertise as a former luxury event and wedding planner.
When they moved to Eagle in 2017, they did so with the intention of planting deep roots in the community and hopes of opening a restaurant “someday,” they said. In the meantime, Caleb worked for a bank and kept an eye out for the perfect commercial space. Then, in the summer of 2019, they found the space where Luigi’s used to be, and they knew it was perfect.
“It was kind a pipedream that turned into ‘Let’s do this now.’ It’s where we want to be … in a part of town that’s really ready for revitalization,” Jaimie said. “We thought: If we don’t do this now, we’re going to regret it forever.”
On Aug. 20, 2019, they signed a contract to buy the unit, and Jaimie went into a very, very long labor that night.
In November 2019, they began a full renovation of the restaurant. By the time COVID-19 made it clear that businesses weren’t opening at full capacity anytime soon, it was too late to back out of their dream. So, they opened late last summer.
“There were a lot of challenges, but we benefitted by opening a few months in(to the pandemic),” Jaimie said, explaining that they simply built in COVID-19’s new safety protocols into their staff training. “It was a blessing in disguise, because we didn’t have to retrain staff on cleanliness. Keeping things safe had been built into the opening.”
Though The Assembly opened at 50% capacity, three months later, Eagle County dropped restaurant capacity to 25%. The Assembly closed its dining room for a few weeks and offered solely take out from a three-course menu, which changed weekly — from downhome fried chicken and roasted potatoes to Asian stir fry or Belizean inspired dishes.
On Jan. 27, the dining room reopened at 25% capacity, and The Assembly kept the to-go, three-course meals, which attracted regulars every week. But as the to-go guests began to stay and dine, they also began to request take-out from the dining room menu. So, on Feb. 17, The Assembly stopped offering the three-course to-go meal, and, instead, allows guests to order off the dining room menu, which currently offers four entrees: charred cauliflower, butter-seared Pacific cod, braised short ribs and ricotta gnocchi, as well as weekly specials. Appetizers and salads include: stuffed dates, merguez croquettes, roasted beets and whipped goat cheese salad, antipasti platter and a house salad.
The Mackey’s lucked out with their executive chef, Chris Aycock, who has worked for some of the valley’s finest restaurants, as well as some of Portland’s most prestigious restaurants.
After honing his skills at the Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy in Portland, OR, he mastered the art of sushi and Asian Pacific cuisine. After living and working in the Vail Valley, he moved to Belize and owned a restaurant for over a decade. In the fall of 2019, he returned to the valley and worked for Sweet Basil.
Meanwhile, the Mackey’s had been searching for a chef, and, two months before the grand opening, they still hadn’t found their perfect match. And then Aycock emailed them, inquiring about the position.
“We just got super lucky,” Jaimie said. “He was a trained sushi chef, and he had a wide-reaching culinary perspective, and that was really important to us.”
The Mackey’s never wanted to pigeon-hole their restaurant — they wanted a variety of cuisine and flavors, “a place where people could bring their ideas and inspiration.”
“He’s so talented, and really creative,” she said.
Aycock expertly blends globally inspired flavors, from North African cuisine to Mexican and beyond. Jaimie said The Assembly doesn’t pretend to create traditional Mexican, African, Asian or other cultural cuisine.
“He mixes flavors together in a more innovative way than traditional Mexican or Japanese (or another culture),” she said. “Not tying ourselves to a specific cuisine frees us. We’d like to introduce our customers to something they may not have tried before.”
And those new tastes don’t end with the food. Caleb has curated a wine list based on organically farmed and produced products from around the globe. Some are even naturally fermented or biodynamic.
The Assembly focuses on smaller wine producers, often with interesting stories. For instance, Lady of the Sunshine is produced by a female under 30, who’s been making wine since she was 22. Other vineyards have an extensive family history.
“We approached the list as artisan products,” Jaimie said. “We see wine as the next wave in craft beverages. First it was beer, then distilleries. … We’re always bringing in new wines and expanding options that are unusual to find in the valley.”
In addition to innovate flavors and unique wines, the Mackey’s aim to foster a sense of community through The Assembly. They prioritize care and hospitality toward their guests, and either Caleb or Jaimie are always at the restaurant, helping out and talking to diners.
“We represent the idea of coming together, seeing friends at the next table, trying something new in a comfortable, welcoming, open-minded (restaurant),” Jaimie said.
They add an automatic 20% gratuity to all checks in order to provide a living wage for their staff, since they view staff as a larger extension of their family.
And, they make donations to nonprofits, like World Central Kitchen and the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, as well as Eagle Valley Community Foundation.
Jaimie said they are adamant about The Assembly playing a role in the community through donations and personally volunteering. They even list: Help Feed Local Families for a $25 donation on the menu.
And, the community is apparently adamant about supporting The Assembly.
“We’re so grateful for the responses and support of the community,” Jaimie said. “I don’t know how we’ll ever accurately thank people for that.”
For more information, visit theassemblyeagle.com.