Home sweet home

Chocolate Soup settles into Grand location

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— Lisa Ciraldo-Freese and her husband, Michael Freese, think the ingredients they bring to Chocolate Soup will provide a recipe for success.

Chocolate Soup is a pastry cafe near the base of Steamboat Ski Area. It's the first permanent occupant of the row of 11 retail storefronts that face Mount Werner Circle on the ground level of the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel.

7:30 a.m. until 5:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday

7:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Sundays 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.

Closed Mondays

The commercial spaces at the Steamboat Grand have been empty since the hotel opened in fall 2000. The real estate division of American Skiing Co. sold the spaces to a Denver-based business entity late last summer.

Chocolate Soup, which opened in late February, is the first gives evidence that the hotel's streetscape, in the heart of the mountain village, could finally come to life.

"We always said we wanted to be downtown," Ciraldo-Freese said. "We love Old Town. But we were attracted to the fact that this space is built into the hotel, and it gave us the opportunity to finish it ourselves. We were able to make it exactly the way we wanted it to look."

Most importantly, Ciraldo-Freese and Freese purchased their commercial condominium from The Shops at the Grand, which gives them more security than a lease would, Freese said.

The couple purchased two spaces comprising 1,700 square feet at a price of about $350 a square foot. Lisa worked through the long process of getting financing through the Small Business Administration and the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority helped secure the Grand location. They were given a 20-year loan at a fixed rate of 5.65 percent.

Listing Realtor Giles Howard of Coldwell Banker Silver Oak in Steamboat Springs told the Steamboat Pilot & Today in September 2005 that he had five spaces under contract and hoped to see them open before the

end of the ski season. Most of those five have changed plans. However, Howard said he expected to close Friday on the sale of a space that will be transformed into a high-end "logo shop" for visitors to Steamboat. The shop will sell Steamboat merchandise of higher quality than a T-shirt shop, he said.

Howard said he is working with three other prospective buyers. But plans for a new gallery have fallen through, he said.

He has two spaces that are approved for street-level offices, an increasing rarity in Steamboat. Howard would like to see a high-end Western wear store open in the Shops at the Grand, which could sell hats, boots and perhaps Western belts with tooled silver buckles.

Chocolate Soup

As the name implies, the Chocolate Soup cafe serves a rich dessert soup layered with melted chocolate, espresso and cream. But the truth is that Ciraldo-Freese came up with the name first and the concoction later.

"Mike is a genius when it comes to soup, and my passion is chocolate," she said.

The couple met while working as lift operators on the Bar UE chairlift at Steamboat Ski Area. They began planning their business almost as soon as they fell in love.

Freese, a veteran chef of 20 years, went on to work as sous chef at Tobiano with Richie Billingham.

"I made a lot of friends and a lot of contacts working there," Freese said about the now-closed restaurant.

Ciraldo-Freese went to school to learn to become a pastry chef and left Steamboat to serve a three-month apprenticeship at a patisserie in Switzerland.

Before purchasing their space at the Grand, Ciraldo-Freese and Freese moved home to Westchester County, N.Y., where they saved money by living with her parents and holding down corporate restaurant jobs.

"We were building up our resumes and skills," Freese said.

Upon returning to Steamboat, they focused on their goal of opening a cafe.

With the help of architect Patrice Lorencen of Eric Smith Associates, Lisa realized her vision of a European cafe that borrows nothing from the Western theme of the hotel above them.

"There couldn't be an antler or a peeled log in this cafe," Ciraldo-Freese said with a grin.

Instead, there are slate tile floors, a granite countertop and a retro tin ceiling. The tall cafe chairs and tables arrived from France just days before the planned opening. A row of barstools allows patrons to gaze into the kitchen and trade conversation with the staff.

Mike expedited the tenant finish by serving as a go-fer for the crew at Snow Country Construction.

The menu at Chocolate Soup defies description, largely because there is no menu. That's too boring for Mike and Lisa. Patrons can count on an endless supply of delicate pastries such as the chocolate berry tarts Lisa makes.

Mike creates soups such as carrot ginger from his imagination. There are German-style soft pretzel sandwiches and rustic personal pizzas, all for $6.

Chocolate Soup also serves wine and a selection of European beers.

And the cafe was able to add Dave Merlina, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of New York and a former executive chef in Aspen, as its baker. He arrives early each morning to prepare baked goods for customers. Steamboat personality Penny Hamilton is the cafe's manager.

Howard said he think the recent auction of Steamboat Grand's residential condos, coupled with the urban renewal authority, bode well for increased retail business on Mount Werner Circle. Mike and Lisa are thrilled to have the storefront closest to the main entrance to the Grand, and they are eager for new neighbors to join them.

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