A funny thing happened to Joe and Annie Staufer on their way to California. The night before the couple was to leave the island of Bermuda—where they met while working at a resort—to fly to Santa Barbara for a job at the Biltmore Hotel, Joe received a phone call from his friend, Martin Mosshammer, the assistant manager at a newly built, small hotel called The Lodge at Vail, located at a nascent ski resort in the mountains of Colorado.
“Just come see it,” urged Mosshammer, who knew of Joe and Annie’s plans. “You can fly to Denver, rent a car, drive west to see Vail and then drive on to California.”
The conversation peaked the couple’s interest well, Joe’s, anyway—as Annie, who is from England, was looking forward to enjoying the appealing California climate. But, she was game. And so began the Staufer’s adventure.
Arriving in Denver, the couple rented a car and asked for directions to Vail. “There’s a Vail Pass, but there is no Vail,” replied the rental agent. Minturn and Frisco were on the map, but no Vail. So the couple drove west on Highway 6, over Vail Pass until they saw chimney smoke coming out of a log cabin where Vail Mountain School is now located, and got directions from a man who answered the door.
The couple’s first night was spent at the Avon Country Store, where they were given an upstairs room with a lightbulb on a string. Far different from their little Bermuda cottage. “It was January 3, 1963, and it was very cold, and before we even saw anything, Annie was ready to go,” recalls Joe, with a laugh. “I can’t remember whether it was Pete Seibert or Earl Eaton that took me up the mountain in a snow cat, the next day. But, that changed everything.
“When I came off the mountain, Annie asked, ‘Are you ready?’ She was already packed. And I said, ‘No. We’re going to stay for a while. This is going to go.’ Though, looking back, many times we were in trouble and it looked as though Vail was going to go belly up.”
In the beginning, Joe managed the restaurant at Mid-Vail, where the kitchen was very limited, and people complained about the length of time it took to get something to eat. So, Joe took a charcoal grill up the mountain to cook hamburgers and hot dogs and, best of all, nobody had to take off their skis. Joe named the place Hamburger Heaven.
“It was a crazy time,” says Annie, with a laugh, who worked reservations at the Lodge after Joe eventually became its manager. “We had to entertain ourselves. We played a lot of charades. One night might be poker night. On Sundays the bars closed at seven, so we’d all go to a movie in Minturn, where the screen had a tear in it and the seats had no cushions. And then you’d see a parade of cars coming back to Vail.”
“There was always something going on and we had a lot of fun,” adds Joe. “I remember that there was a gondola on Highway 6 with a mannequin in it. I guess it was there to let everyone know that there was a gondola ride somewhere. So, one night, we pulled the mannequin out and, at first, thought we’d put it in the gondola at the gondola terminal, but it was locked and we couldn’t get it. So we put the mannequin at the door of our friends’ (John Donovan and Phil Lamantia) apartment, knocked on the door and when they opened the door, one of them shot the mannequin. It was really the Wild West!”
But with all the fun and games, everyone’s focus was just to make Vail successful. At that time, there was much discussion about the Lodge staying open in the summer, as so much money was lost in the winter. Joe was adamant that a summer season had to be created. “Eventually, my argument worked,” he says, “and I opened the Lodge June 1, 1963.”
Over the next couple of years, Joe’s expertise in many areas proved invaluable to many business owners. Yet, Joe’s wish was to have a business of his own. After next moving to the Christiana and then Manor Vail to open their restaurants and where the promises of becoming a partner had not come to fruition, Joe was contacted by the new owner of the Plaza Building, which is where Vendetta’s is now located. “He did not really know anything about the restaurant business and he was the first to offer me interest in the ownership. So that’s where I went,” reflects Joe. “Later on we bought an inn, which is now the Austria Haus and then we purchased the Vail Village Inn. Eventually I bought my partner out,” shares Joe. Soon Joe’s brothers, both restaurateurs, came to visit and they, too, moved to the new resort: Hermann opened Lancelot and Gottfried, Ambrosia.
In time, Joe became a United States citizen and got involved in the town’s civic activities, including the Resort Association and the board of the water and sanitation district. He soon became active on the town council where, let’s just say, his voice was loudly heard! “The first issue was that they wanted to build a garage instead of a parking structure,” relates Joe. “It was going to be a four-story structure and my feeling was that it would ruin the whole village atmosphere. We had 300 registered voters at the time, and I collected 200 signatures to stop it.
Then we brought in a firm that designed something that would fit into the village atmosphere. And for $1.5 million more, we got what is now the present parking structure. The voters overwhelming approved to spend the money to make it right.
“The next thing was Ford Park,” continues Joe. “It had already been approved for 500 condos, and when I suggested that the town buy the land, the argument against the idea was that ‘the town isn’t in the business of buying land to take it off the development market.’ It was a huge fight, but I had the support of John Donovan, Joe Langmaid and Dick Bailey, once more, who were able to convince others on the council to vote in favor of buying the property. “We (the council) fought like hell between ourselves,” admits Joe with a laugh. “And then after the meeting we would all get together and have a beer.” Yet, Joe had one more “fix” to make. It was his opinion that the children should be able to go to school in Vail, and not have to travel to Minturn. “My position was that we had a church, we should have a school. So I went to every school board meeting. And, almost every time, they would finally call on me at the end of the meeting, sometimes 1 o’clock in the morning,” he recalls. But, finally, building a school in Vail—Red Sandstone—was approved.
“Joe was very outspoken,” says Annie, proudly. “We were all trying to make Vail go. Everybody was on the same page.” Quips, Joe, with a wink, “I don’t think I was too bad a citizen.” Annie, too, did her part. When her son, Jonathon turned ten in 1978 she opened, Annie’s, a gift shop. “At the time, I thought we needed a good gift shop, and Joe was building retail as an expansion of the Vail Village Inn,” Annie says. “We had the store for just over 20 years. We had a wonderful time, going to the gift show in New York City twice a year. And Joe would always find good restaurants.”
The Staufers have wonderful stories of “old” Vail. When King Hussein from Jordan was staying in one of Joe’s condominiums, the butler thought it would be nice to light a fire in the room, so it would be warm when the king returned from skiing. But he forgot to open the flue and the fire alarm went off. “So there were the firemen standing with their hoses facing the king’s bodyguards with their Uzis,” recalls Joe. “It was the funniest thing.”
Another time, President Ford went out of his way to meet Joe’s parents who were visiting from Austria. “My parent’s were staying at my brother’s, who lived next door to the president. They had been out for a walk, when I initially wanted to introduce them to him,” says Joe. “However, the next day, when President Ford was playing golf, he had someone go to my brother’s and bring my parents out for a photo. And then, later, President Ford took them fishing. He was a great guy.”
Certainly, that was a simpler time. And,still, Joe and Annie’s way of life remains simple. They live in the original home that Earl Eaton built so many years ago. It’s more like a cottage, cozy and warm. It’s on an acre in Potato Patch. “Annie and I used to come up here to get away from the council arguments and sit in the sun,” recalls Joe. “And we always thought how wonderful it would be to have a house up here,” adds Annie. “It was nothing but a dirt road.” Then one day, the couple heard that the house was for sale, and two weeks later, they owned it. “Nothing was written down. Earl and I just shook hands,” Joe says. “Areal estate company offered Earl cash, but he turned them down. ‘I already shook hands with Joe,’ he told them.”
When the Staufers, who have been married for 60 years, moved into their home in 1971, there was a dirt road and no sewers. The pavement stopped at the Potato Patch Club and the couple had no service from the town. “So every time it snowed, I put a bottle of booze on top of the trash can,” shares Joe, and both he and Annie laugh, recalling those days. “We did the same for the folks who plowed the snow.”
“We had water, electric and skunks,’ says Annie. “We had a cat and when she banged on the piano, the skunks took off. “Life was crazy, wild and wonderful.”