Family legacy continues with new restaurant opening in Vail
First Chair will serve fast casual food designed to keep skiers on the slopes until it's time to gather to share stories at aprés
Drew Riley didn’t always plan to be a restaurateur. But now, the son of Ron Riley, owner of Russell’s and Los Amigos, is continuing the family legacy by opening a restaurant and bar at the top of Bridge Street in Vail Village.
The restaurant, called First Chair, will have a concept that speaks to the active mountain lifestyle. “If we could have an essence of our bar, it would be the essence of skiing,” Drew Riley said.
The food at First Chair, like skiing, is for everyone, according to Riley. One motto he mentions is, “fur coats not required.” “That phrase — ‘fur coats not required’ — is basically just trying to appeal to the people that think that Vail is too high-end, too luxury, too expensive, too everything like that,” Riley said. “If you’re here to ski, we’re here for you — and anything that you’re doing during the summer, just again, quick food is what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Path to First Chair
“First Chair sort of spawned out of COVID,” Riley said. “When Los Amigos had the bar outside on Bridge Street, there were some days that little stand did a third of all of the business that Los Amigos did for that day.”
“We had so many people come up to the bar (at Los Amigos) and order a burrito, a beer and a shot on their way up to go skiing. So that’s the proof of concept, as you would say,” he said.
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The basis of First Chair’s setup is to feed hungry people, quickly and affordably. “We are a bar for outdoor enthusiasts. Skiers, snowboarders, getting up early, rushing to get up there, got to get a burrito and head on up there. So all of our burritos are designed to be eaten on the chairlift,” Riley said.
Riley, who has his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, started Bridge Street Lockers with his brother before taking over at Russell’s and Los Amigos.
“I’ve grown up in restaurants. My first job when I was 14 years old was bussing tables at Los Amigos. So I’ve been in the restaurant industry for my entire life. My dad has been in the (restaurant) industry for a long time, and I always looked up to him,” Riley said.
When 7 Hermits, the former tenant in the space that will soon become First Chair, moved out, Riley saw an opportunity. “People want quick food at a reasonable price, quick good food, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Riley said.
“We also looked at just what Vail has become and evolved to, because I grew up here, I definitely remember the old days, and my dad even more remembers the old days (when) Vail was about skiing, and that’s how it started,” Riley said.
Innovative techniques and recipes
The menu will feature breakfast burritos — “modern burritos,” as Riley calls them — in creative flavors such as biscuits and gravy in addition to more classic styles. The lunch and dinner menus will be similarly inspired, featuring a katsu panko chicken sandwich and a smash burger. Customers arriving for après ski will be greeted by warm chocolate chip cookies and a menu full of comfort foods.
First Chair will be rolling out a set of unique features on top of its creative menu. Customers will place orders via QR codes, and regulars can receive 75% off drinks between 8 and 10 p.m. by purchasing a seasonal membership for $225.
Another nontraditional element of the restaurant will be the way the food reaches customers. The food will be made off-site, and reheated and wrapped in the onsite kitchen. This cuts down on the time between ordering and receiving food for customers.
“It’s an interesting concept on how that could work in general. I don’t think anybody else is doing what we are trying to do. And even some of my other chefs at Russell’s or Los Amigos thought that, ‘hey, if this company could prep an XYZ in our kitchen, that could also save (us) a ton of headache and hassle at the same time,'” Riley said. “So we’re going to see how it works, and I think it’s an interesting business model, so I’m curious to see what happens with it,” he said.
The layout of the restaurant and bar will be the same as it was for 7 Hermits. The biggest changes will be to the décor. Riley plans to put up old skiing prints and posters on the walls, along with a few televisions and a neon sign that says, “first chair, last call.” “It’s going to be a lot simpler. It’s going to be a lot cleaner,” Riley said. “Just trying to elicit those feelings of why people went skiing in the back of the day, and it was for just the joy of skiing,” he said.
“We’re trying to just have everybody have a good time and share stories about their day on the mountain,” Riley said.
Riley will continue to run Russell’s and Los Amigos as First Chair opens, and will operate all three restaurants as individual entities. “They are completely independent. So they are their own businesses, they are completely separate, they have different identities, different clientele,” Riley said.
He will consider carrying some of the innovative tactics he is testing at First Chair, such as the QR code ordering, over to the other two restaurants if they are successful.
Riley is also taking lessons he has learned through operating the two restaurants into his management of First Chair. “Definitely the biggest thing is supporting your staff,” he said. “That’s huge because they’re the ones taking the grenades in the trenches every single day. Supporting your staff and trusting your staff. Those are the two other biggest things to do. And I love my staff.”
The other top priority, according to Riley, is practicing “preventative maintenance. One hundred percent keep things clean and in good working order,” he said.
Riley is going into First Chair with his two brothers-in-law as minority partners. The three of them came up with the ideas for the ambiance and the operation of the restaurant together and have been completing some of the remodeling, as well. “Every Wednesday night is the three of us working in the restaurant, just changing light fixtures, painting, sanding, building, fixing, cleaning,” Riley said.
To Riley, the goal of First Chair is to enhance the experience of getting outside for everyone, regardless of the amount of time they spend on snow, or their skill level.
“Skiing to me is going up with my kids, and just having fun on the mountain, and skiing for two to three hours, coming down and just participating in a break at that time. So whatever skiing or the mountain is to you, we’re here to help you along that path to achieve enlightenment, refreshment,” Riley said. “I mean, everybody feels better after going up and skiing, right?”
“I just hope to do the town proud, and I want to have people like the space and really like what we do,” Riley said.
First Chair is scheduled to open on Dec. 1. The restaurant will be open from just before the first chair of the day through 10 p.m., serving breakfast, lunch, après ski, and dinner.