John Kaemmer, Bridge Street businessman for more than 50 years, dies at 86
VAIL — A familiar face on Bridge Street for five decades, John Kaemmer took his last stroll through Vail Village in July, remarking on what a wonderful area it is.
Kaemmer died on July 24 after fighting pneumonia, the most recent in a series of ailments which had caused him complications in recent months. His daughter, Kate Drescher, said his last days were peaceful at the care facility in Denver where he had resided in recent years.
Called Vail’s “first prolific entrepreneur” in an excerpt from the Dick Hauserman book “The Inventors of Vail,” Kaemmer owned and sold Pistachio’s, where Vendetta’s is now; La Pinata, now called Los Amigos; and the Clock Tower. He also managed Casino Vail, the Vail Golf Club Clubhouse Grill and the Red Lion.
The Clock Tower Inn, a steakhouse, was Kaemmer’s first business in Vail. The story of how he came to start that business has become local legend; recently Kaemmer’s son Bradley got to hear the story from one of Kaemmer’s oldest friends in Vail, Bill Hanlon of Wild Bill’s Emporium. Hanlon said while Kaemmer was too weak to recite the tale himself, he was nodding along and mouthing out important details.
“John, in 1964, went skiing in Aspen, and on the way back, he stopped at the Vail Village Inn,” Hanlon said. “John ordered a T-bone steak. Well, restaurants like the VVI were not busy at the time, and so the steaks were all frozen on a Sunday night. So the chef took a frozen T-bone steak and put it on the grill … He served the steak to John Kaemmer, who was a restaurateur, and a very proficient one. John called the waiter over and said, ‘Can you have the chef cook it a little more, it’s still frozen on the inside.’ So the waiter took the steak back to the kitchen. Well, you got a temperamental chef back there then, who’s had his steak sent back to him. So he probably said I’ll fix that son of a bleep, so he took the steak and he put it in the french frier, and he cooked it that way. And he served it to John Kaemmer. And John Kaemmer’s reaction to his fiancée — and his future wife, Julie — was, ‘I think this town is ready for a steakhouse.’ And the next year he opened the Clock Tower Inn.”
‘Treated employees with respect and dignity’
Hanlon worked for Kaemmer for a few years at the Clock Tower Inn in the 1960s and early ’70s.
“He was a very innovative restaurateur, and that’s what was needed in Vail,” Hanlon said.
Joni Weinzapfel Windsor also worked for Kaemmer at the Clock Tower Inn. She said he was a great boss.
“He was extra special,” she said. “He cared about everybody, and he didn’t get caught up in the day-to-day stuff.”
Windsor followed Kaemmer from the Clock Tower to his next business, Pistachio’s, where she was the first chef he hired.
“He was very, very smart in business,” she said. “There were always lines out the door because he had a policy of giving something away. In the summer he would give away the shrimp cocktail to anyone who was seated.”
EagleVail resident Tom “TS” Simon also worked for Kaemmer at Pistachio’s and the Clock Tower. He said Kaemmer went above and beyond the role of a normal employer to help him succeed.
“He treated employees with respect and dignity,” Simon said.
After working for Kaemmer at the Clock Tower, Hanlon became close friends with Kaemmer. Their children attended school together, they traveled to the shores of the Atlantic in Maine together many times, and after getting out of the restaurant business, they both became retailers in Vail Village. Kaemmer last owned the Toy Shop on Bridge Street; Hanlon still owns Wild Bill’s.
Kaemmer last visited Vail in mid-July, catching up with Hanlon one last time.
“He was a visionary of what Vail was going to be,” Hanlon said. “A great person, and a great citizen.”
Kaemmer was on Vail’s first Town Council in the 1960s and was also a supporter of Vail Mountain School. Formerly known as Vail Country Day School, Vail Mountain School was, for many years, the only school in Vail.
Peter Abuisi, who was Vail Mountain School’s headmaster from 1978 to 2013, said he got to know John and Julie Kaemmer early in his tenure, because their kids were in school at the time.
“When I moved to Vail, I was used to wearing a tie to school every day,” Abuisi said. “John, one time, said ,’You have the only tie collection in this town.'”
Kaemmer, through his toy shop, was one of the more memorable donors to the school’s annual auction dinner.
“He would create a mountain of as many different kinds of toys and puzzles and games and stuffed animals as he could stack up,” Abuisi said. “And every year he would donate an electric toy with an engine, caboose, cattle car and all that, and he would put it on a table so it would go in a circle around the toy mountain, drawing everyone to the table.”
Kaemmer was born on May 9, 1934, in Bozeman, Montana. He was raised in Montana and Idaho before attending the University of Denver in the 1950s. He worked for the historic Denver Dry Goods Tea Room, where 2,000 lunches would be served in a single afternoon, before discovering Vail in the same way many skiers did in those days, during a stopover on an Aspen trip.
While Kaemmer loved skiing, he also loved to work, and in Vail he found what he believed would be an idyllic setting to be both an entrepreneur and a skier.
“In the beginning I thought it was the best skiing ever,” Kaemmer told Hauserman in “The Inventors of Vail.”
Kaemmer’s daughter Kate said her brother Bradley and she were raised in a three-bedroom condo at the base of Golden Peak, “because he always wanted to walk to work, and he always wanted to walk to ski,” she said.
“He’d get up early, he’d go to work, he’d come home and he’d go skiing,” Kate said. “He’d ski for three hours, then he’d go back and check on the store.”
In the summers, Kaemmer was regarded as an expert gardener.
“In his restaurants, he always used flowers as his centerpieces,” Hanlon said. “His flair, with flowers and nature, I think was a very important thing from the very beginning, he was always planting things.”
In believing that Vail could provide the settings for an idyllic life, Kaemmer sought to be the proof himself.
“My parents always led by example,” Kate said. “Working hard, being a part of your community, being kind to people.”
When Julia Kaemmer died in 2007, Kate wrote “We teach what we live” on her mother’s headstone at the Vail Memorial Park in East Vail.
In teaching what he lived, John Kaemmer inspired his son Bradley to work in the restaurant business, as well. Bradley is now the CEO of Paul Martin’s American Grill.
Kaemmer’s idyllic life in Vail will reach its terminus at the memorial park in East Vail, where his final resting place will be alongside Julia.
“We have biodegradable urns, and we’ll put them both there together,” Kate said.