Kirby Cosmo’s celebrates 15 years as Minturn’s “Cheers”
The secret’s in the smoke — and of course the sauce
Who opens a business on New Year’s Day? Mark Tamberino, that’s who — because when the winds blow in your favor, you set sail. The owner-operator of the much-loved Kirby Cosmo’s BBQ in Minturn bought what was originally JB’s BBQ, which came with the recipe for the best barbecue sauce he’d ever tasted. And after a short period of time that included a remodel, a green light from the health department and the happy news that he and his wife, Emily, were going to be parents, he opened his doors for what would be a 15-years-and-counting foray into restaurant ownership. He changed the name to Kirby Cosmo’s, in honor of a beloved German Shorthaired Pointer, and the rest is history — with some blood, sweat and tears for good measure.
Kirby Cosmo’s is more than a restaurant. It’s a gathering spot, social center and neighborhood bar. During an average non-pandemic day, there might be tables full of EMTs or ski patrollers, families with kids, a packed bar, locals who don’t need a menu and visitors stopping in for the first time or a once/year visit to their favorite “best kept secret spot.” Everyone gets the same service — warm and friendly — and nobody leaves hungry.
“It’s such a compliment to have people eat here time and again,” Mark said. “My dad always said, if you feed the UPS or FedEx guy, then you’re doing pretty well because those guys go into every place, every day; they can eat whatever they want.”
What most people want to eat when they come through Kirby’s door is barbecue — Carolina-style with smoked meats, a balanced sauce and classic sides. As for the age-old question: what’s more important, the sauce or the rub, Mark has his own opinion.
“I really think it’s a matter of the type of smoke that you put into the meat and the sauce that complements it,” he said. “We source peach wood from the Clark Family Orchard in Palisade, just a couple hours down the road. Our sauce is an Eastern Carolina vinegar-style sauce. It’s really smooth. It’s got just enough tang, just enough sweet, just enough smoky flavor in it to be really well-balanced.”
Fan favorites include the pulled pork, chicken wings, pig wings and the St. Louie short ribs.
“They’re awesome, meaty, fall-off-the-bone tender,” Mark enthused.
Devin Schow, Minturn resident and Kirby Cosmo’s regular for a decade, opts for the Cowboy Cup: baked beans, pulled pork, cole slaw, jalapeño mac and cheese and barbecue sauce layered into one hedonistic cup. His wife, Krista Driscoll, is a sucker for the pig wings, and the wintertime-only turkey chili.
“When we get really busy, Kirby’s is 90% of our diet,” Driscoll joked. “Every time you go in there you know at least one person, so you’re never drinking alone.
“It’s kind of like Minturn’s Cheers,” she added.
“It’s a super popular place in summer,” Schow said. “It’s the first bar if you’re coming down from Two Elk, or walking back from the concert series. Mark loves the locals, but he also loves random families from wherever. It makes it a homey kind of restaurant. And there’s never a feeling of being rushed out the door.”
Mark grew up in the Baltimore area, as did Emily. They met in high school, “dated each other’s best friends,” and then went off to college. They re-met after graduation, fell in love, got engaged and decided to move to Southern California. She worked at the Windward School, teaching celebrity’s kids among others, and he pursued a career in environmental science, which had been his major. But they longed for Colorado. Emily’s family had a home in Vail, so it was a special place they visited often throughout her childhood. Emily introduced Mark to Vail, and it became just as special to him. In fact, they got married at Piney River Ranch, which Emily described to Mark as “the most magical place in the world.”
“We knew we wanted kids, and our hearts kept getting drawn back to Vail,” Mark explained. “It seemed like the perfect place to raise a family.”
And so they plotted another move. He flew out and couch surfed while perusing the Vail Daily classifieds, looking for a job and a place to live. Emily took a job at Vail Mountain School before heading to Vail Health, where she still works. Mark ended up at Minturn-based Arrigoni Woods, as a project manager, where he worked for a year. It was a fortuitous landing spot, as Balz Arrigoni helped him remodel the interior with his European wide-plank natural wood when he bought JB’s BBQ.
In fact, much of his life helped prepare him for owning a barbecue joint. His father was a meat man, heading down to the railroad tracks to walk through the cattle cars and hand select the cows that would be sent for butchering and processing. After working for Oscar Meyer for a couple of years, Mark’s dad opened his own shop, selling meat to restaurants and the public. He had the business for 47 years, and Mark worked his way up, learning about quality meat, primal cuts and other butchery lore. He also worked in restaurants since his high school days, starting as a busboy.
“By the time I was a junior in college, I was tending bar,” he said. “Did it all my life, I was always in the F&B industry in some fashion.”
Experience can only get you so far though. Mark’s love of service has gotten him the rest of the way.
“We learned as we went along,” Mark said. “It was trial and error, but I think the consistency is now what shines through.”
For the first couple of years, he and Emily lived nearby in Minturn.
“I figured the only way I’d have a successful marriage and family life was if I didn’t live next door to my restaurant,” he said, laughing.
And so they moved first to Wildridge and then to Gypsum.
The Kirby family
Part of that consistency is long-time employee Ingrid Marroquin, who’s been with Kirby Cosmo’s for almost 13 years.
“She’s our kitchen manager, so she makes sure that the kitchen runs on a day-to-day basis,” Mark said. “She takes a certain pride in the food that goes off the line. She keeps the consistency here on point. And that’s a testament to our 15 years. We’re very proud of her, and very happy that she’s part of our team.”
And while Emily does all the marketing for the business, the couple’s daughters — they now have two — also get involved at times.
“They’re pretty good at it,” Mark said with pride. “Lucy loves to work in the kitchen, doing things like making our scratch sauces and the banana pudding. Hannah really likes to ham it up with our customers, she’s really good out front with the customers. They’re both such hard workers.”
And as for Emily, in addition to doing the marketing, she also is supportive by doing all the family sort of things like taking kids to lacrosse games that so often are impossible for restaurant owners to do.
“That is a lovely woman right there — can’t say enough about her,” Mark said.
This past year has been a challenge for the restaurant — harder even than the economic downturn of 2008. But Kirby Cosmo’s has managed to ride the pandemic wave, thanks in part to the easy portability of its menu as well as the diversity of its offerings.
“Kirby’s has so many different angles of a business: we’re a farmers’ market business, catering, bar and restaurant, we’re to-go, we’re stewards in the community,” Mark said, listing the different aspects of the business. “Kirby’s is a pretty well-rounded business. I never dreamed it would be so well-rounded and versatile.”
And it’s also intrinsically part of the vibrant Minturn scene — it certainly wouldn’t be what it is in another corner of the world.
“The town of Minturn has shown such incredible support for Kirby Cosmo’s,” Mark said. “Without this community, we never would have made it. Minturn rocks.”
For more information, visit http://www.kirbycosmos.com or call 970-827-9027.
Kirby Cosmo’s BBQ
474 Main Street, Minturn, CO 81645
Current hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; take out or dine in
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