Chelsea's gets new look

Popular Oak Creek eatery assumes new ownership

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— The sale of Chelsea's Chinese Restaurant came from a chance meeting on the street. Owner Dave Epstein was looking to sell the restaurant and 29-year-old Andy Benjamin was looking to start a business.

But their conversation started about something completely different. Benjamin is on the Oak Creek Planning Commission and Epstein is in the real estate development business. As of late, Epstein has been looking at one acre of land near downtown Oak Creek as a small, affordable subdivision and he was looking to Benjamin for advice.

Benjamin is a landscape architect by trade.

As they talked and Benjamin shared his vision for Oak Creek's future, Epstein's eyes lit up and he changed the subject to the sale of Chelsea's.

"Andy and his wife are perfect for owning Chelsea's," Epstein said. "We had several different people inquire about it, but we kind of went out and hand-picked (the Benjamins).

"They live in Oak Creek and understand the dynamics of the town and of the restaurant," Epstein said.

Epstein and several business partners, who he only identifies as childhood friends, bought several properties in Oak Creek -- many of them on Main Street.

They had hoped to set up businesses in each building and then pass them on to young people like Benjamin and his wife Jaila.

Epstein calls it "growing the town."

"We feel Oak Creek is an affordable community with prospects for definite growth," Epstein said.

He sold the business but retained ownership of the building.

"We're still going to be actively involved in helping them have a successful ride," Epstein said. "We don't want to see empty storefronts on Main Street."

Epstein and the Benjamins have been negotiating the sale for almost three months, since Chelsea's closed this fall.

The couple plans to sign the final papers Tuesday.

They sat at a table in the closed restaurant on Friday afternoon. The windows are still papered over and a sign hangs near the door announcing that the restaurant is closed for vacation.

The booths in the restaurant are piled with plates and rice bowls.

Jaila Benjamin practiced brewing hot Oolong tea.

At 36, Jaila Benjamin has worked in restaurants for 20 years but this is the first restaurant the couple has owned.

"We're frightened, but we are hard working people and I'm sure everything will turn out," Andy Benjamin said.

They feel confident mainly because Chelsea's has a good reputation.

Diners drive from Steamboat Springs often for David Chen's Chinese cooking.

The couple retained the same chef that made the restaurant successful.

Chen lives in Oak Creek with his family.

Chen moved to Oak Creek 12 years ago from San Francisco after the owner of Chelsea's recruited him.

The Benjamins will be the fifth owners he has worked under.

"I've been here a long time," Chen said. "A lot of people know me."

"He is the key to the success of this place," Andy Benjamin said. "More than half of our clientele is from Steamboat and they come here because of (Chen)."

Otherwise, Andy and Jaila Benjamin plan to be owner/operators. Andy will work in the kitchen, he said, and Jaila will work the front of the restaurant. Andy's brother, Danny, will be joining the couple to work wherever he is needed.

Chelsea's will reopen in January but the grand opening is scheduled for Feb. 1, the night of Chinese New Year.

They will be open six nights a week and closed on Wednesdays.

"We heard that Chelsea's has a reputation for irregular hours," Jaila Benjamin said. "We will always be open when we say we will be so that people can feel safe making the drive."

The couple plans to add a special designated driver incentive for people coming to the restaurant by car. With reservations for groups of four or more, Chelsea's will buy the dinner of the designated driver.

"It is a long drive from Steamboat," Andy Benjamin said, "and people like to drink with dinner. It's hard to be a designated driver but we want people to be safe."

The Benjamins are planning for a busy opening. They suggest reservations for the Chinese New Year celebration.

"We are closed, but the phone is still ringing off the hook with people calling to find out when we are going to open," Andy Benjamin said.

As the Benjamins describe their plans for the restaurant, they describe the children they have not yet had and scenarios of how Chelsea's will fit into their family.

"After years of commuting to Steamboat for work, it will be nice to walk two blocks," Andy Benjamin said. "And it will be nice when we have kids, if Jaila needs help I can just run home."

The restaurant will allow their family to grow but also play into the future growth of Oak Creek, he said.

"This town is going to grow," he said. "It may not double in size, but I see this as the blue collar neighborhood of Routt County. People can afford to live here and already a lot of young people are moving to this town.

"Owning Chelsea's will allow us to get more involved in this town," he said.

"We are so lucky to live in this place," Jaila Benjamin said. "We see this restaurant as our future. This is the greatest thing I could ever contemplate happening to us. It's like a gift dropped in our laps."

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