By Dawne Belloise
There isn’t a long-timer in town who doesn’t have a memorable story about an experience at Donita’s Cantina from the past 40 years, whether it was a party, a wedding, a memorial, the stacked blue tortilla specials or even not remembering after imbibing several of their infamous $4 pitchers or $1 drinks during Margarita Night back when they were in the Elk Mountain Lodge.
When the last dinner is served, and the last margarita downed on September 29, owners Don Cook, Kay Petersen Cook and Heli Mae Petersen will close the doors of the beloved restaurant for the very last time. Yes, loyal friends and patrons are freaking out. Where will the God Squad go for their weekly Thursday night dinner gatherings that have been going on for years? Kay imagines that on Donita’s last night, people are going to come in and lay claim to a table and not want to leave. “It’s going to be like last chair on a powder day, only it’s last chair at Donita’s,” she laughs, albeit through tears.
As far as margarita night, that ended a while ago when someone hid two pitchers under their coat and got busted trying to sneak into the Eldo with them. Although there are a very few select patrons who are grandfathered into margarita night from the Way-Back Machine at the Lodge, and Heli confesses, “We were drinking there, too.”
A long history
Donita’s Cantina was birthed from a restaurant started by Oklahoman Linda Blackledge (White now), who used her grandmother’s recipes, in the Elk Mountain Lodge in 1980, but not under the name Donita’s. It was just the Elk Mountain Lodge. The Reids owned the Lodge at the time and the Mexican food restaurant was successful from the get-go.
Don Cook (Kay’s hubby) was working at that restaurant when he lost his spleen in a ski accident, and Kay stepped in to fill his waiter job. After he healed, Kay decided to keep Don’s shifts. “I didn’t give him his waiting job back. That’s how I started working there, just one month after it had opened.”
Don remained a prep cook when he got back on his feet. The Reids sold the Lodge to Harold Vernon, grandfather of Jason Vernon, the former owner of Soupçon. When Harold bought the building, he offered the restaurant business to Linda, who declined.
At the same time, Gary and Donita Reitze had just moved back from Truckee, California, and they, along with Kathleen Ross, opened the place that soon became Donita’s.
When Kathleen Ross decided to leave the business, Kay became a partner in 1985. Donita’s moved into its current location in 1984, into the building that once housed the Chinese food restaurant, the Way Station. When they moved into the place, it had three enormous built-in woks with single burners underneath, all of which had to be removed., “They wok-ed away,” Heli jokes. Three of the solid oak tables came from the Twister House and the rest of the booths and tables were built by Craig McLaughlin and Clifton Harlan.
Kay had moved to town in 1979 with Heli Mae following in 1982, both relocating from California. Heli Mae was working as a dishwasher and prep cook at Donita’s in the Elk Mountain Lodge location, later taking on the role of line cook and kitchen manager, and Kay took over the front of the house when they moved to Elk Avenue. In the halls and on walls are 40 years of crew photos, taken every other year at their employee parties, where Bob Brazell was hired to capture the moment. Kay and Heli Mae hope the museum might take the photos as keepsake of an era gone by in Crested Butte’s history.
Employees, parties and drinking
“We’ve been really blessed with great employees,” Kay says of the staff over the four decades. “Tom Mally has been the backbone of that kitchen for 25 years. Anybody would be really lucky to have him as an employee. I can’t do this without him. He comes up with the dinner specials, he shows up at 2 p.m. and does all the grunt work. The other guys come in, too, and, bless them, they work hard but Tom has been this rock for us for a long, long time. He worked for Donita and Gary, too.”
When asked about some of her favorite memories, Heli Mae laughs in that deep booming laugh of hers and asks, “You mean when I was drinking or when I was sober?” She continues, “In the ‘80s it was pretty much a blur but the ‘90s was when everything started to happen. We had free skiing and we had the X Games here before Aspen had them. It brought all the beautiful people to town, the skiers and the whatnots, but I remember some great nights with people hula-hooping up on the bar and just some great memories of the parties that have been here.”
Like Caleb Weinberg’s birthday celebrations held annually for 20-some years. “His grandmother would finance his birthday parties here,” even before he was of drinking age, Kay recalls, “until about four years ago. His grandma would tell him, ‘You go out and have a great birthday party with your friends and I’ll pay for it.’ His birthday was at the end of January, which was a really slow time, so we always looked forward to having that party, plus, it was really fun. One year some guy showed up with all those stupid superballs.” Kay remembers they were bouncing all over the place. Heli chimes in, “Yeah, that guy’s sober now.”
The sisters also recall that food fights during the X Games were the worst. “They didn’t just throw food, they threw plates. The guys with their teams showed up and they had a food fight downstairs. They hucked whole plates of food at people. And our plates are heavy. We charged them $500 to clean up the mess and you know what they said? ‘That’s the least we’ve been charged anywhere we’ve been.’ The room was a disaster,” Kay says. She recalls thinking she should have charged them much more.
Mostly they think, Kay says, “Snarky people don’t come here. The best is when people come in here and they just love the food. They love the service, no matter how busy it is. We have people here every night and there’s a queue out the door. We get old people in here, they love us.“ Heli Mae grins. “Because we’re old, too.” Kay continues, “There are times I’ll look in that dining room and I think, God I love old people, and they’re here at 5 p.m. when we open.”
Heli and Kay have been known to take a fussy child and carry them around the restaurant while they work so their parents could enjoy their meal. “Yes, we have a lot of old people but kids love us, too. We have families, old people, young people, and kids who grew up and ate here now bring their kids—third generation,” Heli says. They have regular weekly groups of loyal clientele who they’ll automatically save a table for because they know they show up on the same night weekly.
With word of Donita’s closing, they’ve received texts and emails of appreciation, love letters in a sense, from their clients and friends, thanking them for four decades of memories, friendship, great food and drinks. “It puts you in tears and gratitude,” Heli says. The souvenirs are gone—t-shirts, bags and pint glasses, and the water jugs disappeared a long time ago.
A gathering place for community
This year, Donita’s closed down to host the memorials of some long-time locals and friends, because that was more important to them than being open on a prime Friday night in the summer. “The memorial for Frog [Chuck Gifford] was like a 40-year reunion. Same thing for Diner,” and it made the sisters’ hearts sing through the tears. “When I stood there and looked around, and when you talk about if our community is gone, the answer is nooooo. This is our tribe, this is our community. It’s gonna be a tribe night when we close. The spirit of Crested Butte is still here and it’s in each of us,” Kay says, and they both agree.
The partners had put the business up for sale a few years ago, and had a buyer ready to sign two years ago, but the sale didn’t go through. Heli Mae was setting up for a wedding when Kay came downstairs and said, “They called it off,” to which Heli asked in shock, “They called off the wedding?!” Kay replied, “No, they called off the sale.” Heli’s reaction was classic: “Oh, who cares!”
She continued to prepare for the wedding party, and further explained, “It’s better to stay in the moment than to future-trip about all of it.” Besides, they weren’t quite ready to let go of Donita’s at that time. They were actually relieved.
So why does a successful, 40-year business decide to shut its doors? The partners give three reasons: the first is escalating, unreasonable rent. When you’re already paying $10,000 for rent, the lease is up and the landlord is raising rent by essentially 50 percent, well, that’s a lot of burritos. Secondly, the employee shortage, because, they feel, of the affordable housing shortage. The third reason, they resoundingly agree upon is, “We’re old! After 40 years, it’s a ton of work to run a restaurant. It’s time to retire,” Kay concludes.
Although Kay is ready for her next chapter of free time, Heli Mae is not quite ready for that yet. She’s putting the restaurant equipment in storage after selling what they need to, and then she’ll take the winter to evaluate.
“There’s a lot of change going on with kitchens and there are plenty of dark kitchens, meaning, someone is using it during the day but it’s available at night,” Heli says of the space-sharing concept. “I’ve been exploring those possibilities but I’m staying focused on Donita’s until the end, because that’s what I need to do,” and she notes that it won’t be easy moving out of 5,000 square feet.
They’re going to keep the website up and running, donitascantina.com, at least for a while. Maybe a recipe book will be in the future. People want Kay to do a wildflower book with all her magnificent photos from her rides and hikes. She’s thinking maybe a combination of wildflowers and Donita’s recipes, but for now, she’s taking a gap year.
Heli feels you have to step back. “One door needs to close before the other door is going to open.”
Emotions are running strong and deep. There are a lot of tears and many hugs between Don, Kay and Heli Mae and their customers and good friends. It’s not just a restaurant, it’s a community. It’s the times changing and the end of an era that so many remember, life in a smaller, closer, more untamed and ungroomed Crested Butte when we were younger. “We’re not leaving,” the sisters affirm in unison. “Next summer, what I would like to do is have a potluck and maybe we’ll do the salsa and chips and invite everyone, because it’s a fellowship. It all comes from a place of love,” Kay says and Heli adds, “This community is wrapping us in so much love. We’re gonna be okay.”