When restaurants were shuttered in mid-January to indoor dining—again—under level-red COVID-19 Restrictions, an uncharacteristic wave of panic rolled through a community that typically prides itself on an unmatched quality of life. With the restaurant and service industry at the heart of Aspen’s local resort economy, the restaurant owners’ struggle signaled a serious reality-check: even Aspen was not immune to the hardships of COVID-19.
At least not until longtime locals and owners of Meridian Jewelers Robin and Kenny Smith stepped in.
The husband and wife team came up with the idea to match donations for restaurants with a gift certificate program. What resulted was a tidal wave of support, one that would mobilize the giving spirit of the Aspen community.
Across the Roaring Fork Valley, people have come together throughout the pandemic to help an increasing number of those in need. “The response has been unbelievable; really humbling and inspirational to say the least,” says Robin Smith. “People wanted to help—they were just looking for a way. Everybody wants Aspen to survive and to continue to thrive, even during tough times.”
Aspen’s Bread and Butter
When it comes to food, Aspen doesn’t mess around. That’s true even when the meals are free. Throughout the pandemic, food has been provided for those in need through a variety of programs. The Aspen Mobile pantry has been providing fresh meat, produce, and other necessities on a weekly basis at the Aspen Golf Course and Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel.
Facilitated by the Pitkin County Board of Health and Human Services in a combined effort with the local non-profit Aspen Family Connections, the Food Bank of the Rockies, Aspen Skiing Company, Lift-Up, and The Aspen Community Foundation, the goal has been to remove the stigma of a food bank by creating more of a grocery shopping experience and providing healthy, quality food that is locally sourced. “This stigma people feel about going to a mobile distribution of food pantry is something we’re trying to break,” Samuel Landercasper, economic assistance manager for the Pitkin County Department of Human Services told The Aspen Times in a recent interview. This massive collaborative effort serves over 2,000 families in the valley every week.
The Crown Jewel
The inspiration for Kenny and Robin’s Smith donation matching program stemmed from a desire to see more positivity during another restaurant shutdown and to provide an option for action at a time when people felt helpless. “It was in the spirit of giving the community a new way to come together, and it’s working really well,” Kenny Smith says.
Restaurants are, after all, at the heart of the Aspen community both literally and figuratively. Hundreds of workers depend on restaurants for employment, and restaurants struggle to meet the demands of a high rent district and the culinary standards of a world-class clientele. This simple program enabled everyone from longtime locals and visitors to support their favorite haunts. “Everyone wants to help the community even if they haven’t been able to be here lately and to visit,” Kenny says. “They’ve made connections with people, they know owners of restaurants, they know waiters in restaurants. They have been feeling that pain of that particular industry, even following it from afar, and this was an easy way for them to help.”
Gift certificates can be mailed or picked up in person at Meridian, even held for future use when Aspen is open and thriving again, and will be matched up to $200. “We came up with an idea that would kickstart support,” Kenny Smith said. “We tried to make that easier by taking payment and then going and distributing gift certificates from the restaurants. Then we can get the revenue to restaurants right now when they need it and they can provide a service later.”
That was all it took to launch what has become a massive city-wide effort for Aspen’s restaurants with the match now being provided by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. Meridian’s whole staff manages the logistics of this massive effort, from fielding phone calls to walking around town to distribute the funds—in addition to hawking Rolex watches and some of the finest jewelry in the world, of course.
How you can help: To participate in the gift certificate match program call Meridian Jewelers (970) 925-3833.
There Is Such A Thing As Free Lunch
In response to red level restrictions and financial challenges surrounding COVID-19 restrictions, The Aspen Art Museum’s rooftop eatery, SO café, is closed to the public but is offering a “Lunches for Locals” program. “By partnering with the AAM, we’ll be providing a nourishing and delicious lunch to those in need of a little lift in their day,” said Julia Domingos of Epicure Catering, who operates the café. “We’ve been part of the Aspen hospitality industry for more than two decades, and the least we can do for our fellow locals.”
A vegetarian and regular meal option is being offered on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from noon to 1:30 p.m. All that’s required is to sign up online for one of the three 30-minute time windows. Meals can be picked up at the Spring Street entrance. The effort was made possible by a collaborative effort between Julia and Allen Domingo, AAM, the Aspen Community Foundation, and several local philanthropists.
For more information: visit aspenartmuseum.org/visit/aam-cafe
Respect Your Elders
Senior citizens from more than 90 homes down-valley are receiving restaurant-prepared meals delivered to their doorstep five days a week thanks to Valley Meals and More, sponsored by Senior Matters, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for aging people in Carbondale and its surrounding communities. A combination of federal, state, and county funding made the program possible with over $225,000, including additional donations from local non-profits including the Aspen Community Foundation’s COVID Response Fund, Colorado COVID-19 Relief Fund, 2020 Rescue Fund, the Morgridge Family Foundation, Harvey Family and Friends Foundation, Area Agency on Aging, St. Mary of the Crown and St. Vincent Catholic Churches, and many other private donors.
More than 20 volunteers deliver the ready-to-eat meals prepared by several area restaurants, including Homestead Bar and Grill, Whole Foods, Rivers Restaurant, Slow Groovin’, The Village Smithy, and Peppino’s Pizza, and more.
In addition to prepared meals, Valley Meals and More lives up to its name by providing grocery delivery, rides to doctor’s appointments, and even a pen pal exchange with students from Aspen and Roaring Fork high schools.
“Some of these recipients, this is their one thing that happens every day. Otherwise, they’re by themselves,” Mary Kenyon, who founded the program in early 2020 told the Sopris Sun. It’s not about the meals, it’s about the connection to the community.”
How you can help: To make a donation or volunteer, visit the program’s Facebook page, Valley Meals and More or call (970) 404-1193.