BOULDER — A 21-year-old buying a 70-year-old ranch just outside of Boulder and serving traditional German food doesn’t necessarily sound like a recipe for success.
But in late June 1963, Chris Mueller did just that, and he has been in business at the Red Lion ever since. On July 4, the Red Lion Restaurant is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a traditional German barbecue.
“Only the very good restaurants last that long,” said Bruce Ozga, director of Culinary Education at Johnson & Wales University in Denver. “A great number of (restaurants) go out of business within the first five years, usually due to finance.”
Red Lion Restaurant manager Tina Mueller — the owner’s daughter — attributes part of her family’s restaurant’s success to its prime location. Nestled in the hills of Boulder Canyon, 3 miles west of Boulder, the Red Lion was built in about 1893.
The establishment was called Blanchard Lodge and originally served as a resort. Early brochures for the ranch advertised hiking, steak-fries and evenings of gossip around the fireplace.
To offer vacationers a place to sleep in addition to the bedrooms in the upstairs of the main building, cabins were built between 1905 and 1920, and some still are inhabited. In 1941, staying in a single room with no bathroom cost patrons $3 per night or $20 for the week. If one wanted to live luxuriously, a single room with a bathroom was $5 nightly, or $33 to $36 a week.
Blanchard Lodge was later bought by the Doherty family and renamed the Red Lion Inn. Bonnie Schnell bought the establishment in 1957, and sold it Mueller six years later. Schnell still lives in one of the cabins on the property. The “Inn” was dropped in 1998, due to confusion with the hotel chain.
Tina Mueller said the restaurant maintains almost all of its original appearance, including much of the original decor. The original light fixtures still hang from the ceiling, and the restaurant’s entryway is flanked by stone pillars that carriages used to pass through when dropping off guests.
Tina Mueller said the structure was built before foundations were in, so today the floor is constantly shifting with the ground. Tina said every new door has to be specially fit because nothing is level.
Although much of the original 4,000-square-foot building remains, there have been some additions. A deck stretches along Boulder Creek, where guests can dine next to the water. In 1995, a large circular dining room was added on the restaurant’s north side so that the Red Lion could better accommodate the 50 weddings a year it hosts.
A traditional menu accompanies the preserved physical image. However, there are no longer advertisements for dinners running between $2.50 and $3.95, as there were in 1967.
Prices have changed, but the first page of the current menu still offers oxtail soup, sauerbraten and other items the restaurant has been serving for 40 years.
Chris Mueller said that consistency over the last four decades has been his restaurant’s key to success.
“We are here to satisfy people who know what they’re getting,” he said.
Ozga said keeping a restaurant in business is achieved by providing excellent service that keeps customers coming back. “Its easier to bring back the same customers than to try and get new ones,” Ozga said.
Tina Mueller said one of her favorite things about her job is the patrons who come in with memories of the Red Lion that span decades. “Every day, someone comes in here and says, ‘I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid,’” she said.
Chris Mueller adds, “They’re gonna get a good meal, but it’s also something from memory lane.”
Over the past 40 years, the Red Lion essentially has become a member of the Mueller family. Both Tina and Chris said they don’t consider the restaurant a business. Tina said she has three children: her daughter, her son and the Red Lion.
She said that last year, the Red Lion saw a 40 percent drop in business due to the bad economy, and this year is 30 percent off normal.
“Fine dining has just been decimated,” she said.
Mueller said that during hard economic times, she has been asked why she doesn’t sell the Red Lion, and her response has been, “Why don’t you cut off your right arm?”
Annalise Kinkel can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 389, or by e-mail at email@example.com.