Kemo Sabe Aspen Keeps The Wild West Alive

August 20, 2020

“MTCFI – Make the Customer Feel Important”

If you make those five words the foundation of your business, you will be successful.” -Tom Yoder, Kemo Sabe Founder, Retailer of 35 years, husband, father, friend and authentic Cowboy.

Kemo Sabe horse parking

Aspen Kemo Sabe has VIP horse parking outside of their store | Photo By Tenley Steinke 

While Tom continues to frequent the shop, he has passed the torch to his dear friend, Wendy Kunkle, who is keeping the Kemo Sabe legacy alive. Wendy purchased the business  just a month before the coronavirus pandemic shut-down in March. Prior to purchasing, Wendy had been an employee of the store for 20 years. A zoologist, bartender, and a former employee, she has personally “worn many hats.”

I first met Wendy at Mezzaluna in Willits, Basalt. I was sitting with a friend at the bar and noticed this strapping man adorned in a handsome Cowboy hat, ornate belt buckle on his distressed jeans, the boots, bolo tie, the whole ensemble, and then, behind him was a woman, also sporting a sensational hat, jeans, and spectacular customized jewelry. She was animated and bubbly and made herself known within seconds of walking into the restaurant; everyone knew her. I could visualize her in the old Colorado west, strutting into a saloon and BAM, thrusting the batwing doors open while everyone jerks their heads around and spills their whiskey to see who it is.  

She and I introduced ourselves. She whispered that she just bought Kemo Sabe. Wendy, her husband Gabe, and their son Josh, and Nancy and Tom Yoder were celebrating the sale. I asked who the fabulously dressed cowboy was in her group and she indicated that was Tom from whom she had just purchased the business. Wendy was warm and vivacious and has a VERY strong personality that is not lost in a crowd. I liked her instantly and immediately asked her if I could interview her as the new proprietress of one of Aspen’s most iconic retail establishments. She asked to postpone until she had finished the renovations she planned on and got a little more settled in.  

On March 14, 2020, the ski lifts stopped running; restaurants closed. Wendy had just made a huge investment and now had to shut her doors within a month of purchasing.

Real estate in Aspen, also came to a screeching halt. Aspen and Snowmass visitors cancelled their ski plans and real estate buyers put their purchase plans on hold. Aspen became a ghost town mid-season.  Realtors couldn’t show property or host open houses. Spring in Pitkin County was bleak.  While working from home and waiting to get back into our Engel & Völkers office and back in the field to showcase our luxury home portfolio, I took on a few side writing projects. I reflected on the people I had met in the community over the past several months and thought it may help the locals maintain momentum with their respective businesses if we could continue to offer them virtual attention while we waited to see what would happen in the world.

I followed up with Wendy this past April about an interview, she admittedly was very sore and discouraged and reluctant to chat at all. Like so many business owners in the Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley, she had the wind taken out of her sails when COVID-19 took hold and prohibited any patronage. Finally, I suggested that this would be the BEST time to celebrate her endeavor and urge their clientele to order online in the meantime until they could open again to the public.

Cowboy hats made of beaver and rabbit get fitted to the customers ideal shape

A Kemo Sabe employee gets ready to custom-shape a Cowboy hat | Photo By Tenley Steinke

There are three Kemo Sabe stores: Aspen, Vail and Las Vegas. They feature not only their signature customized, distressed cowboy hats, but belts, spurs, jewelry, boots, and household goods and décor. What was most fascinating, however, was the process of crafting their hats. Kemo Sabe is actually, the brand. Their hats are made with beaver or rabbit felts. The beaver felt hats sell at a premium because there is no farming of beaver per se, and the hats are much more durable and able to withstand drastic fluctuation of temperature and moisture content.  The entire process is exacting and the managers and employees of Kemo Sabe are passionate about sharing their extensive knowledge about the Cowboy hat-making industry and the people for whom they design them.

Wendy, Arna, Kate and Lindsay, Kemo Sabe managers are all in charge of buying their vintage pieces to stock the store. They travel throughout the United States handpicking some of the most unique products to personally design the boots, jewelry, and hat swag.

Wheeler Block Building now the home of Aspen Kemo Sabe

The Wheeler Block Building, built in 1989 | Photo By Tenley Steinke

The Wheeler Block Building, originally established in 1889, has been completely gutted and renovated to serve as a multi-purpose building with storage and stockroom in a full-floor basement, the main floor all for retail, the loft area with a VIP custom-built western fully stocked bar laden with their vintage Navajo, Cowboy, 1876 American flags, turquoise spurs, retro appliances and other artwork and home décor, and then they completely refurbished the very top Penthouse floor to serve as an office space with multiple private rental suites for their visiting vendors, guests, and customers. They also will selectively rent out the loft and saloon bar venue for private parties.

Aspen Kemo Sabes VIP Saloon Bar

Aspen Kemo Sabe VIP Saloon bar can be rented out for private parties | Photo By Tenley Steinke

Kemo Sabe does of course have a known celebrity following of guests, but they do not discriminate. Every visitor to the store is treated equally and the staff is very discreet; preserving anonymity and privacy. Wendy and the Yoder family have also taken great measures and pride in taking good care of their staff, offering competitive salaries, commissions and benefits. They train them thoroughly and while historically it’s hard to keep young employees in a transient ski town, they have employees who have committed long-term to working for the company for over a decade.  This just adds another personal touch to the customer-centered service they provide. Return guests or second home owners revisit the boutique year after year and are still able to work with the same Kemo Sabe representative to find the perfect hat fit for their faces and styles, or to learn about any new merchandise they may have in stock that would appeal to them.

“Every hat is one of a kind,  “Wendy said. Tom Yoder started distressing hats twenty-five years ago, making Stetsons look old, and when he hired Wendy, she suggested distressing very high-end hats; they coined the term Kemo Sabe grit where they distress their own beaver fur felt hats. They would go down to their Basalt hat ranch and sit together in the off-season, just playing with the hats and experimenting with bling such as horseshoe nails, feathers, diamonds, antique hat pins and anything else they could conjure up. Kemo Sabe is innovative, artistic, industrious, high quality, and truly unique, serving the magical and exclusive communities in which it resides.

Aspen Kemo Sabe Cowboy home decor

Aspen Kemo Sabe Wild West Cowboy decor | Photo By Tenley Steinke

In late May a new trend started. Among the discouraging announcements of cancelled festivals, live music performances, and sporting events and activities, the real estate market started picking up momentum at a thrilling pace. Suddenly, Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley started to explode as every major city experienced a mass exodus to flee to the mountains! 

At last, Wendy could re-open her doors as this completely unprecedented summer surge brought droves of owners back into the area who ordinarily would rent out their homes. New visitors are coming to town from all over the country, in addition to our revisiting guests. She said business has been “amazing,” in Aspen, and I’ve seen it myself. Recently, I had friends in town and on two occasions tried to get them into Kemo Sabe, but the red velvet rope was often up, spacing out the customers and clients and not exceeding 50% occupancy. They set up a waiting area outside on Galena Street with compliantly spaced straw bales and fur pelts to sit on while waiting to get into the store. It was so exciting to see the overwhelming patronage and I know first-hand, it’s well worth the wait to be welcomed inside! The employees are stunning models, donning all of Kemo Sabe’s glamorous cowboy fashion and with ebullient smiling faces, graciously managed the herds of people hoping to find their perfect fit! She will now have a steady stream of year round patrons, as many guests are extending their leases or even buying real estate to stay permanently in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Our spring and fall “off seasons” I suspect will now be full-ON! Hurray!

Aspen Kemo Sabe Cowboy hat

Aspen Kemo Sabe’s custom-designed, custom-fit Cowboy hats | Photo by Tenley Steinke

We finished the tour in the VIP loft lounge sipping Clase Azul tequila and learning more about Wendy’s travels throughout the country in search of just the perfect vendors and manufacturers for ribbons, feathers, even the bar from Pennsylvania and the iron work foot rail and stair rail designed by local ironworker, blacksmith and daredevil, Vaughn Shafer.

There is so much more a simple blog cannot cover, but to learn more, stop in this adult and elegant “wild wild west” Disneyland, and pick up a copy of Tom Yoder’s book, Kemo Sabe Wisdom.

Wendy’s enthusiasm and passion for the business is infectious. I nearly wanted to change my career and start working for her on the spot! From the hitching post where you may see actual horses waiting for their owners outside, to classic western building façade and bold doors to the shop upon entering onto the hardwood weathered floors, you really step back in time and into an authentic 5-Star Cowboy realm.

“You will notice that I capitalize Cowboy and why not? The way I look at it, if we are expected to capitalize President and Senator and Governor, then Cowboy certainly deserves the distinction as well.”  -Tom Yoder from Kemo Sabe Wisdom.

Aspen Kemo Sabe Store

Aspen Kemo Sabe retail store has everything you need to live the Wild West dream | Photo by Tenley Steinke

Written By:
Rachel C. Cossman
Engel & Völkers Aspen | Roaring Fork

 Photos By:
Tenley Steinke
Director of Marketing,
Engel & Völkers Aspen | Roaring Fork Valley

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