How Evergreen’s famed El Rancho restaurant completely unraveled

In late 2020, El Rancho Brewing Co. was preparing to make a comeback.

After a prolonged closure due to COVID-19, co-owner Paul Vincent brought on a new partner, local businessman Glen Fountain, to manage the restaurant, which has been a fixture in the foothills town of Evergreen since the 1940s.

Fountain hired entirely new staff, including a chef to reimagine the menu as a Colorado-inspired steakhouse serving local game meats and elevated fare. It was part of his vision to give the community, where he owns and operates the Evergreen Deli, a place to “eat a good steak and have a nice glass of wine in a prime location,” he told The Denver Post.

By early 2022, the place was humming.

Reviews on social media gushed about the food and the house-brewed beer. The downstairs space, rebranded as the Aspen Room, regularly hosted live music and became a hot spot for special events. The restaurant expanded to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner thanks to a staff of more than 60 people, many of whom told The Denver Post that working at El Rancho felt like a big family reunion each day.

But behind the scenes, Vincent and Fountain were arguing, the bills weren’t being paid, and things were beginning to unravel. In April, Fountain walked away from his position, and several of the staff members he’d hired, including chef Taylor Kellenaers, resigned shortly thereafter. By the following pay date, May 5, El Rancho couldn’t make payroll, Vincent said, and many more staff members fled. El Rancho was forced to close for more than a month, Vincent said, citing “an empty bank account and no staff to continue generating income.”

El Rancho reopened briefly on a very limited basis, with Vincent himself and two employees serving beer and chili. In mid-August, however, the Colorado Department of Revenue seized the property for failure to pay more than $90,000 in taxes. El Rancho is now going through foreclosure and is expected to remain closed until further notice. It hits the auction block in late-September.

In interviews with The Denver Post, both Vincent and Fountain have accused one another of mismanaging the business’s finances and misrepresenting the terms of their partnership.

The details are difficult to sort out, but the effects of El Rancho’s painful demise aren’t. Some of the brewpub’s former employees say they are out thousands of dollars, and at least two are suing Vincent, while others have filed complaints with the state.

“That (last) pay period included Easter, which was one of our busiest days ever. So there is quite a bit of money owed to people,” said Jack Yovovich, the restaurant’s former general manager. “I do believe it is in the range of $100,000 total.”

A storied history

Opened in 1948, El Rancho was originally a cafe and trading post, and because of its prominent location on U.S. 40, it became a popular gift shop and post office. In the 1970s, once Interstate 70 was built, the cabin-inspired building functioned as a lodge and conference center. To this day, it maintains its own exit from the highway.

Vincent, his brothers Robert and Thomas Vincent along with their wives Yvonne, Laurie and Kiria, bought El Rancho in 2015 after a series of ownership changes and intermittent closures. El Rancho was vacant at the time the Vincent family picked it up. Paul Vincent, formerly an engineer with Raytheon, said his brothers had been looking for a retirement project and he was enticed by the idea of getting into the craft beer industry.

The Vincents turned El Rancho into a brewpub by adding a beer brewing system, and Paul was supposed to be in charge of managing all things related to the brewery. In the years since, it has won multiple awards, including a gold medal at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival and a silver at the most recent World Beer Cup.

Paul is the only Vincent brother still involved with El Rancho, though the others and their wives remain owners, he said.

“My brother Bob left in 2017, and my brother Tom and his wife, he had to move away for health reasons in 2018,” Vincent said. “I’m an engineer by background, not a restaurateur. So I tried to bring in some people with more experience than I had and that was met with some success and its own set of problems.”

“Not getting paid was the ultimate slap in the face”

El Rancho’s abrupt closure came as a shock to Conifer resident Corey McTaggart, who was planning to host her wedding reception there on June 10 since she loved the Western-style vibe and outdoor space. A few months earlier, she’d plunked down a $3,800 deposit to reserve the Aspen Room, but in May, she heard something with the venue might be awry and tried to follow up.

“We went by and, of course, they were closed,” McTaggart said. “They never contacted me once. Nothing to tell me the event couldn’t go on, wouldn’t go on. Not a single word from them.”

McTaggart was able to get reimbursed because she disputed the charge with her credit card company.

Yovovich, the former GM, estimates there were a couple dozen special events on the books when El Rancho closed.

More than a half dozen former employees told The Denver Post they also did not see the closure coming. Bartender Seddona Johnson found out on her day off, when she got a text message from a co-worker who said the following day, April 26, would be the restaurant’s last.

Johnson was shocked and reached out to many of her regulars telling them to stop by for one last Old Fashioned cocktail.

“I told my customers to come in and see me. My credit card tips from that night were $619. Just from one night,” Johnson said.

That money was supposed to bridge the unexpected gap in employment, but Johnson said she never received another paycheck. (Credit card tips were added to each employee’s twice-monthly paycheck.) She’s now suing Vincent in small claims court.

“I’m facing being evicted, I’m facing losing my vehicle because I can’t pay for it. I can’t pay for anything. I have negative money in my checking account,” Johnson said. “I am owed this money, I worked for this money. Barely any of that is hourly wages, all of that is tips from my customers.”

Other former employees cited similar troubles. Brandon Perez, a former cook, called the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office on May 5 when Vincent “was refusing to pay him” and more than a dozen other employees who showed up that day expecting a check, according to a police report. Since then, he’s been forced to take out a personal loan to bridge the gap in income.

Sarah Straut, another former employee who worked back-of-house, is also suing Vincent for lost wages. The Colorado Department of Labor said it received 10 complaints against El Rancho between May and June of this year. All of those are still being investigated, a spokesperson said.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot overall, but $2,000, that’s rent,” said Straut. “When you risk losing the roof over your head, it’s devastating.”

Aside from lost wages, Yovovich said it was “painful” to watch El Rancho collapse after all the hard work he and the staff had put in to revitalize the business and its reputation.

“This was more than just a job for me. This was my family, my team. I was working 12- to 15-hour days regularly, but it’s because I believed it in it… That’s what makes it so sad for most of us, too, is we really did believe in it,” he said. “Then not getting paid was the ultimate slap in the face after the work that was done and put in.”

Most of the former employees The Denver Post spoke to worked alongside Fountain and resigned from El Rancho in response to his departure or shortly thereafter. Straut and Perez currently work for Fountain at Evergreen Deli.

Shalisha Hammond began as a server at El Rancho in December 2021 and was one of the two remaining employees. She decided to stay on staff based on her experiences working with Fountain and Vincent. The end-of-April paycheck is the only one she hasn’t received, she said.

“I understand it’s a paycheck, but sometimes doing the right thing isn’t about money and I thought Paul needed someone to have his back,” she said.

Future of El Rancho is uncertain

How exactly El Rancho got to this point remains a complex web of accusations. Vincent and Fountain agree that their partnership was contingent on the business becoming successful, but they disagree about how that’s defined or whether El Rancho ever was.

Both men acknowledged the company was behind on bills, including tax and loan payments, though each said the other was responsible for paying them. In separate interviews, both Vincent and Fountain hurled allegations of fraud and tampering with bank accounts, among other things.

Vincent said he felt “awful” that the staff missed a pay date, while Fountain praised their work.

“I had the best team and I loved those guys. We were like a family,” Fountain said. “They probably said I pushed really hard, but they rose to the occasion.”

One thing that is for certain is that the historic restaurant and brewery is going through foreclosure. In July, its lender, FirstBank, sued El Rancho for failure to pay outstanding property taxes and failure to make the monthly payments, as well as other violations of the deed of trust.

Vincent is now trying to sell El Rancho before the public trustee sale date on Sept. 22, at which point either the bank will make an offer to repossess the property or interested buyers can bid on it . Whether the building or the business lives on as El Rancho will depend on the new owner.

“It’s a little bittersweet, I guess. It’s necessary just because the amount of debt we ended up getting stuck with,” Vincent said. If the property sells, he’ll use the money to pay the bank, El Rancho’s vendors and the former employees their missing paychecks, he said.

Subscribe to our new food newsletter, Stuffed, to get Denver food and drink news sent straight to your inbox.

Source: Read Full Article