Beau Jo’s owner sells the iconic Colorado pizza shop to employees (Local News Tips & Reviews)

Story first appeared in:

IDAHO SPRINGS — After the congressman, commissioner and mayor heralded the 50th anniversary of the Beau Jo’s pizza restaurant in downtown Idaho Springs, owner and founder Chip Bair climbed onto a rusty truck bed on a sunny Saturday on Miner Street and leaned into the mic. 

“I’ve got an announcement,” Bair said, standing before his sprawling eatery clutching a Tommyknocker Pick Axe Pale Ale branded for Beau Jo’s to celebrate the day 50 years ago when he spent $7,500 to buy Beau and Joanne Foulk’s pizza shop. 

Miner Street was blocked off for the Beau Jo’s birthday party. The crowd raised their champagne glasses as Bair stood outside the historic building he transformed into a 650-seat pizza joint that has served somewhere around 3 million pies and employed many thousands of workers. 

“I’d like to tell everyone I’m selling Beau Jo’s,” he said. 

He paused for a second. A lot of his workers were watching. He’d spoken with them earlier that morning. They were smiling widely. He told them that he was crafting an Employee Stock Option Plan. Soon all Beau Jo’s workers would own the Colorado business. 

“It’s the employees who made us and they’re the ones who are going to continue to make us,” he said as the cheers erupted.

Chip Bair grew up in northern Minnesota and came out to Colorado after high school to visit his sister in college. He never left. 

“I was not college material but wow did I love Colorado,” he said. 

He scraped up $7,500 to buy a 15-seat pizza shop in Idaho Springs from a couple who moonlighted as caretakers for the Crazy Girl Mine up the road. They had built a shower in the back of the pizzeria because there wasn’t any running water at the mine. That was a perk for Bair, who called his pizza shop home in those early years. 

“At that stage of the game, 35, 50 bucks was a big day,” he said. 

Bair moved the restaurant into the circa-1880 building on Miner Street in 1974. It sat 44 and had a walk-in cooler. 

“I would work all day and at the end of the night I’d push the tables to the side of the dining room and roll my sleeping bag onto the floor and turn on ‘Mork and Mindy’ and go to sleep,” he said. “I’d wake up early and go up to Loveland to hand out flyers and be back making pizzas by lunch.”

TOP: Beau Jo’s Colorado Mountain Pie, with braided crusts rolled by hand, is sold by weight, with an extra large pie weighing in at 5 pounds. BOTTOM LEFT: In 1974, Beau Jo’s moved into a building on Idaho Springs’ main street that was built in 1880. BOTTOM RIGHT: Server John Caldwell said the restaurant’s new employee ownership plan adds “a whole other level of ownership of our work.” (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

TOP: Beau Jo’s Colorado Mountain Pie, with braided crusts rolled by hand, is sold by weight, with an extra large pie weighing in at 5 pounds. MIDDLE: In 1974, Beau Jo’s moved into a building on Idaho Springs’ main street that was built in 1880. BOTTOM: Server John Caldwell said the restaurant’s new employee ownership plan adds “a whole other level of ownership of our work.” (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Bair quickly replaced the dehydrated peppers and canned mushrooms with fresh vegetables. He started using honey instead of sugar in his dough. In the 1970s, as economic forces spiked prices for ingredients, he started hand-rolling crusts so his pies could hold more stuff, turning his pies into a meal for four. Thus was born the “Colorado-style mountain pie,” which is sold by weight, with an extra large pie weighing in at 5 pounds. 

He was among the first pizzerias in the country to offer a whole wheat crust. In 2005 he debuted a gluten-free crust, with specific requirements for kitchen workers handling those crusts to prevent contamination that troubles celiacs. He started putting squeeze bottles of honey on the tables alongside the parmesan and crushed red peppers, so pizza crusts could become desserts. And he plastered his walls with napkin art created by kids waiting for their pies. (An informal survey of several families with young kids waiting 45 minutes for a table on a recent busy Saturday afternoon ranked those honey bottles as a top motivator for pulling off I-70 in Idaho Springs. The napkins and crayons were up there, too.)

Over the next half-century he would remodel and expand “oh, about 30 times,” he said. He defied a tried-and-true restaurant mantra to grow slow and steady, building for what he called “surge capacity” to meet the wave of skiers cruising down from ski areas. 

“We’re dead at 3 o’clock every Saturday and by 3:30 we’re full with a line out the door,” he said. “Been like that for 50 years.” 

Beau Jo’s hostesses greet customers. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Today, the Idaho Springs restaurant is a labyrinth of dining rooms and staircases with room for 650 diners. And he’s got locations in Arvada, Evergreen, Fort Collins, Lone Tree and Steamboat Springs. A new restaurant is planned for Denver. He’s got 252 workers. He’s proud that his managers never work more than 45 hours a week. On a big day in Idaho Springs, he’ll serve 2,500 people. 

“I never really followed any kind of rules. I march to a different drummer, I guess,” he said. 

Skiers who grew up on the Front Range invariably recall ski days that included a stop at Beau Jo’s, scribbling art on napkins that would get pinned on the wall and squirting honey on gnawed crusts for post-pizza dessert.

Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, standing on that truck bed on Miner Street last Saturday, called Beau Jo’s “a rite of passage.” A host of dignitaries followed the congressman, reading long proclamations heavy on the whereases. Gov. Jared Polis, who missed the 50th anniversary while traveling on a Colorado investment mission to Japan, penned a proclamation naming April 1, 2023, Beau Jo’s day. Then came county and city leaders. Everyone noted Bair’s support for thousands of local workers and his endless stream of checks for any and all local charities.

“His generosity is legendary,” Neguse said, calling Beau Jo’s “a Colorado institution.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse chats with Beau Jo’s owner Chip Bair during the 50th anniversary party. Neguse’s district includes Idaho Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“I don’t think Chip has ever said no to helping anyone in this community,” Idaho Springs Mayor Chuck Harmon said after handing a framed copy of the city proclamation over to Bair. 

In the dining room on April 1, Idaho Springs locals shared their Beau Jo’s stories. Almost all of them spoke of working in the pizza joint. Many talked about their kids — Gold Diggers from Clear Creek High School — tossing dough or serving pies. 

“She would be finished at the end of her shift and realize she hadn’t even taken a break,” Harmon said of his daughter. “She’d be going a million miles an hour and suddenly realize her shift was over. She learned a lot about the working world in this room.”

It’s the employees who made us and they’re the ones who are going to continue to make us.

— Chip Bair, owner and founder of Beau Jo’s

The restaurant industry has a large graveyard. The National Restaurant Association estimates about a third of all restaurants don’t make it through the first year. In economic dips, the failures spike. (And, as it turns out, pandemics are particularly brutal for restaurants, with somewhere around 80,000 eateries shutting down permanently in late 2020 and early 2021.) 

“We have had some hard downturns in this town, too,” Harmon said. “We’ve had stretches where half the businesses downtown are closed. But Chip and Beau Jo’s have been our rock. It’s success stories like this that have kept Idaho Springs funded and alive.”

“No question. Beau Jo’s has saved this town,” said Mary Jane Loevlie, the Idaho Springs entrepreneur who gathered more than 30 local investors to revive the town’s Argo Mill. 

It wasn’t just Bair’s pay for employees that kept Idaho Springs humming for a half-century. 

Clear Creek County Commissioner Randy Wheelock made $100 in the early ’70s scraping plaster off a brick wall in the restaurant. Wheelock’s construction company has helped Bair with many expansions since then.  

“I’d turn in a bill and get a check within 24 hours. Nobody pays that fast,” Wheelock said, standing across from an ax-tossing booth on Miner Street April 1. “From Day 1 he knew to take care of everyone because he knew everyone would take care of him.”

Bair is not a spotlight guy. He’s always deflecting to his employees and his community. His responses to most questions about his business start with “You should talk to … ”

A close up look at the crust of the pizza.
A server holds a copper mug while chatting with a table.

LEFT: The Jose pizza, a Tex-Mex pie with hamburger, green peppers, onions, taco chips, salsa baked under chedder cheese. RIGHT: Server Emily Lucas greets a regular during lunchtime inside the 19th century building. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

TOP: The Jose pizza, a Tex-Mex pie with hamburger, green peppers, onions, taco chips, salsa baked under chedder cheese. BOTTOM: Server Emily Lucas greets a regular during lunchtime inside the 19th century building. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

About four years ago he started scheming a way to keep his workers in the money and in the community. He’s watched his neighbors suffer as the Henderson Mine laid off more than 200 workers in 2015 and never rebounded. The mine will be closing for good soon, stirring a gloomy economic horizon for Clear Creek County. 

Beau Jo’s is one of the larger private employers in the county. Bair hopes employee ownership will help grow the pizzeria’s legacy. Employee ownership plans offer workers shares of the business. Bair is still working on the details. He has hired a firm, Praxis Consulting Group, to develop the employee ownership structure.

“You know when I got into this business, we knew we had something good,” said Bair, who has shepherded the Beau Jo’s empire with his wife, Donna. “We could have done a whole lot more over the years, I guess, but I’m not that organized. I think we’ve done pretty good. And the employees really should get credit for that. That’s the biggest driver here. Now we will start teaching the employees what it means to be an owner … and hopefully that creates an atmosphere in the restaurant for pride, inclusion and people working together.”

The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade counts 230 employee-owned companies in Colorado. The office’s Colorado Employee Ownership Office offers myriad tools for business owners considering selling to their workers, with incentives like grants and tax credits. 

“Employee-owned businesses promote a higher quality of life for employee-owners including higher wages, less turnover, access to better benefits, and job security,” reads the state’s pitch to small business owners. 

Many companies that offer employee ownership are startups looking to attract top talent. 

“You don’t normally see a company that’s, you know, over this many years of being so successful, deciding to go that route and give back to its employees,” said John Caldwell, taking a break serving tables during a very busy Saturday. “That’s pretty special.”

Colorado Sunday Issue 77: "Beau Jo's plan to share a piece of the pie"

This story first appeared in
Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members.

Experience the best in Colorado news at a slower pace, with thoughtful articles, unique adventures and a reading list that’s a perfect fit for a Sunday morning.

Caldwell, wearing his 50th anniversary T-shirt and a few strands of gold Mardis Gras beads, suspects the employee ownership plan will keep younger workers on board for longer. He’s 56 and came to Beau Jo’s a year ago after working at the Tommyknocker Brewery a few doors up Miner Street.

“I see this as adding a whole other level of ownership of our work,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at cooks loading steaming pies onto a stainless steel shelf. “This is an incentive to see this work as something a bit more long term.”

Alex Dunn worked at Beau Jo’s during college and in the summers when she was a teacher. She started working full-time at the Idaho Springs restaurant 17 years ago and now she is the general manager. She said she’s “still wrapping my head around” the idea of employee ownership. 

She expects her teammates will take even more pride in their service and their food.

“And it’s going to make Beau Jo’s a very competitive place to work for,” Dunn said. “I mean, Chip has always taken care of us. We get Rockies tickets and ski passes and great benefits. So this is just amazing. Really, could there be a better boss?”

Customers who traveled from Louisiana, Jenifer Auffenberg, left, and Cory Blanchard dine under a collection of historical mementos. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Source link

The post Beau Jo’s owner sells the iconic Colorado pizza shop to employees appeared first on Keelys News.

from Keelys News https://keelyslist.com/beau-jos-owner-sells-the-iconic-colorado-pizza-shop-to-employees/

Leave a Reply