Chris Dunaway of The Little Nell in Aspen, CO, on Getting Creative with Empty Suites and Maintaining the List - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Chris Dunaway of The Little Nell in Aspen, CO, on Getting Creative with Empty Suites and Maintaining the List

Chris Dunaway started his trajectory working at a small wine bar outside Lexington, KY, before moving to NYC. After a few years with restaurants such as Corkbuzz, Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, he headed out to Aspen in 2015, and has served as wine director at The Little Nell since spring 2019, where he oversees operations for the hotel’s restaurant operations, including Element 47, The Ajax Tavern and more.

What was the arc of 2020 like at The Little Nell?

We were able to operate under 25 percent capacity throughout the holiday season and shut down after that. Yesterday there was a meeting with the Board of Health.

About March 15 is when we shut down. We were on full lockdown until June. Then we opened the second week of June to 50 percent capacity. We were able to have a fairly successful summer—the most successful summer we’ve had since I’ve been here. What happened is that so many people were ready to get back to something resembling normalcy. When restaurants opened back up, we saw a massive amount of people booking. At the time, we could fit everyone outside. We expanded out into the rest of the gondola plaza on top. Throughout the summer, we were doing very elevated dining experiences on top of the mountain. We also got creative regarding the suites. We are a 5-star hotel and we have these beautiful luxury suites. When one wasn’t being booked, we’d change it into an intimate private-dining experience. It was pivoting and finding a way to provide a safe and high-end experience. We’d reach out to the guests and ask them what they like and what they enjoy. Depending on what we had seasonally, we put together these beautiful menus with them. When indoor dining resumes, we might do that again.

Your wine sales went up this year! Why do you think that might be?

With reduced capacity, of course you think your sales will go down. In all of our outlets, we staffed lower. We had no idea what was going to happen in April and May; no one’s seen this before. The Food + Wine Classic wasn’t going to happen, and it was safe to assume that the Fourth of July wouldn’t be that big for us. These are critical times for business in the summer. We had this explosion of tourism with people that wanted to get out of the city and escape the restrictions—but being able to get out and go to a restaurant, get out and go hike somewhere? This was very appealing to a lot of people. What ended up happening was that we had all these guests that might normally travel to Cabo St. Lucas or Europe, and when they couldn’t go there they decided to come to Aspen. Our wine sales surged to an all-time high in the summer. A lot of it had to do with renting the restaurant out to private parties.

The crazy thing about all this is, despite being open at 30 percent capacity, we didn’t open Element 47 for indoor dining other than renting the space out for one group. The fact that we were able to produce that level of success without one of the restaurants open, it was mind-blowing. You go into a season with low expectations, grateful for being open. It went from that to being in the weeds every day when I woke up.

You’ve got a huge list (2,800 wines). Has managing that during furloughs proved challenging?

In regards to staffing, we were very lucky that our director saw the value and strength in our team. Each of them have been here for at least four or five years at this point and they’re incredibly valuable to our operation. He said, no matter what happens, we’re in the long game here, so we were able to keep everyone on board and everyone’s still here.

My focus on the inventory—what I’ve been doing over the past month—is trying to figure out what people want and maintain that level of quality. Fortunately, in our market we get a lot of direct-import offers and some wines with age, I take a look and see what works when and where, and maintain the capacity. 

We’re prepared to go into a busy summer. I feel for my suppliers and maintaining those relationships is incredibly important and vital. I had a couple smaller suppliers that were in danger of going under—between the pandemic and the tariffs—so I took a look at where we could help them out and bought pretty heavily. We have a great ownership that supports our vision; I’m fortunate to have the resources to buy what I do. They haven’t asked me to deplete inventory. They see the value in buying things when the opportunity is great.

Corey Warren is the Tastings Editor in addition to covering the wines of the Loire, Southern France, Argentina and South Africa.

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