CooperSmith’s Pub changing hands after 25 years

FORT COLLINS – Scott Smith, who founded Old Town Fort Collins icon CooperSmith’s Pub & Brewing in 1989, will pass ownership to three long-time employees of the establishment, Smith said Friday.

CooperSmith’s general manager Sandra Longton, brewer Dwight Hall and operations manager Chris O’Mara will buy the majority of Smith’s shares in the company, taking over ownership. The deal is in the works now, Smith said, and will be complete any day now.

Little will change at CooperSmith’s with the new ownership, Smith said, as Longton, Hall and O’Mara have been running the restaurant’s day-to-day operations together for the past five years.

Smith got out of the daily operations of the business several years ago, opting instead to spend the summer months in a second home in northern Wisconsin with his wife, Jane Liska.

Those summer trips began five years ago and lasted two months, but have progressively lengthened as time went on. Meanwhile, the three new owners of CooperSmith’s ran the restaurant with less and less help from Smith.

After 25 years at the helm of CooperSmith’s and 31 years in Fort Collins, “it’s time to go see other places,” Smith said. He will step aside as president and take on the title of “occasional visionary officer,” passing a new idea along to the new generation of owners from time to time, but spending the majority of his time fishing or relaxing otherwise.

Smith founded CooperSmith’s with the help of Gov. John Hickenlooper, who founded Colorado’s first brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Co., in downtown Denver in 1988. Hickenlooper, Smith and 28 other investors put money into CooperSmith’s, which was the third brewpub in the state.

Since then, the investor pool has whittled down to 15, and the employee count has grown to 120. The brewpub’s concept is unique in Northern Colorado, featuring two restaurants in one.

Diners and drinkers file into a cobblestone alley between CooperSmith’s “Poolside,” complete with regulation-sized pool tables and bar stools, and “Pubside,” where noises from the kitchen permeate the atmosphere. The menu varies, depending on which side of the restaurant one chooses, but the options on either side reflect the local nature of CooperSmith’s, with items such as Red Feather chicken strips.

The beer menu features similarly named suds, including Horsetooth Stout and Linden Street Wheat.

The goal is to make the transition so seamless that patrons won’t notice any difference, O’Mara said.

O’Mara started out as a line cook at CooperSmith’s in the 1990s, but rose through the ranks over the years.

“Coops has always been about rewarding hard work and dedication,” he said, wearing a spotted chef’s jacket and cap as restaurant staff prepared for the lunch rush Friday.

Longton, who started out washing dishes in the early days of CooperSmith’s, has worked in every position in the restaurant, with the exception of brewer, but spent time brewing as part of her cross-training.

“The goal is to continue to improve on Scott’s legacy,” Longton said. “It’s a lot to live up to.”