October 1, 1997

Quaint Mama Rose’s feels like turn-of-century house

Estes Park restaurant grapples with seasonality

ESTES PARK — As we ate dinner in Estes Park on a recent Tuesday evening, I asked our waitress if one of the owners was around so that I might ask him or her a few questions.
"That˜s her over there, bussing tables," she said, pointing to a woman scurrying around the room with alternating dirty, then clean, dishes. So it goes for some in the business of restaurant ownership. You don˜t always get to walk around with a glass of wine schmoozing up the patronage. Sometimes you have to do the work, too.
The restaurant was Mama Rose˜s at 338 E. Elkhorn Avenue, and the owner was the female half of the John and Donna Sinnott husband-and-wife team. She came to our table when things slowed down a little and told us some of the history of their "project."
She is from Rhode Island via Cheyenne, Wyo., after spending eight years as a cop. He˜s from Omaha, Neb., They used to own a cleaning service together. They bought the restaurant from the developer who built the Plaza in which the restaurant sits because he was impressed with their work ethic.
They cleaned buildings in the Plaza, and he thought they would be great to take over his already successful restaurant. I became so turned around listening to this atypical story that I forgot to ask how they ended up in Estes Park in the first place. No matter, the important thing is that they are there.
The developer˜s name was Richard Barlow, and he helped the Sinnotts reopen the restaurant after he sold it. Donna had years of experience in food service, but John had none. They bought the place three years ago and spent the first couple of those years nearly living there. Donna told us they spend 90 to 100 hours a week in the place while they were learning the ropes and getting adjusted to their new life. If you could call it a life, I suppose.
All this hard work has translated into success, though. When we went up, the place was packed, and it was well after the bulk of the tourist season had wound down. They do more than 500 covers a night in the middle of summer, and for a place that size, it is a remarkable figure.
Mama Rose˜s has a wonderful airy feel to it, owing to the high ceilings, soft lighting and expansive glass windows that look out over the Big Thompson River. Even though the building was created in 1990, it has the look and feel of a turn-of-the-century old house. Most "retro" looks smack of phony kitsch to me, but this place actually pulls it off.
Wonderful chandeliers, oak trim, floral china, a softly burning fireplace and bud vases on the tables all contribute to the cozy feel. They have a patio for summer dining that allows a view and the pleasing murmur of the aforementioned river, but it was thankfully cool when we went up. After two months of relentless moist and warm weather down in the "valley," some real fall temperatures were a welcome change.
Jennene (half wife, half lizard) didn˜t bring clothes warm enough for the evening, but this is not exactly news.
Donna told us that the biggest challenge facing Mama Rose˜s is something that all Estes Park establishments must deal with — seasonality.
With no skiing close by, it is hard for the town to attract crowds in the winter. I grew up with the impression that Estes was little more than T-shirt and salt-water-taffy shops, so if enough of us flatlanders share my sentiments, I can see her point.
The restaurant closes completely in the months of January, February and half of March. This means that they need to make at least three-fourths of a year˜s revenue in the three big months of summer. Every facet of the business, not just the cash register, has to take this cycle into account. Ordering, advertising and especially the work force.
The kitchen, run by John, is staffed in large part by Mexican nationals who work up here in the summer and then tend floral farms outside Mexico City in the winter months. The wait people and bussers flock into town during the summer and then head out in winter to other vocations like so many tray-carrying birds. Some of these folks teach school, some head to other mountain towns to work and ski, and some simply get in the unemployment line.
Donna said that they try hard to keep good staff people in order to help them deal with the quirky demand cycles they are forced to endure.
The wait staff from our perspective seemed to be swift, mature and professional. We live in Fort Collins and have had it up to our earlobes with the "it˜s just a college job" mentality demonstrated by so many of the town˜s service staff.
Mama Rose˜s offers long-term staff medical benefits, paid vacation time and guarantees of work if they return for the next season. Where was this kind of ownership when I waited tables?
The menu seems to us to be geared for the high volume that Mama Rose˜s thrives on. It˜s simple, fairly short and value-oriented. Dinners were filling and rarely broke the $10 mark. The food is well-executed, but not exactly exciting.
Playing to the no-surprises-needed tourist audience, no doubt. Most entrees come with a pile of iceberg salad and can be ordered with optional soup, fried bread (zappoli — sort of an Italian sopapilla) and spumoni ice cream for 3 bucks extra.Everything, even the sausage, is made on premises, with the exception of the spumoni. We loved the spumoni, and know in our hearts that it would be much more popular in this country if fruitcake hadn˜t given preserved fruits a bad name.
There are several nice wine choices, and these bottles are priced $5 to $10 cheaper than you˜ find in most places. They have a no-compete clause with a joint across the plaza that makes it impossible for them to serve pizza, but we didn˜t miss it.
We were impressed that Mama Rose˜s seemed to have a clear business vision and was executing it expertly.
Next time you head up the hills for a T-shirt or some taffy, stop in and see the Sinnotts at Mama Rose˜s. Your belly and checkbook will be glad you did.

Estes Park restaurant grapples with seasonality

ESTES PARK — As we ate dinner in Estes Park on a recent Tuesday evening, I asked our waitress if one of the owners was around so that I might ask him or her a few questions.
"That˜s her over there, bussing tables," she said, pointing to a woman scurrying around the room with alternating dirty, then clean, dishes. So it goes for some in the business of restaurant ownership. You don˜t always get to walk around with a glass of wine schmoozing up the patronage. Sometimes you have to do the work, too.
The…

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