Morton Hoj has met enough foreign officials during his long restaurant career that he finally decided to open a new restaurant in Steamboat Springs with his wife, Ellen, called The Diplomat. It is the first announced commercial tenant in The Victoria, currently under construction at 10th Street and Lincoln Avenue.
"I like the sound of The Diplomat," Morton said this week. "Don't you?"
The name has meaning for Hoj. He spent some of his early years as a chef at the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Hojs currently own and operate Steamboat Yacht Club, just a block and a half form The Victoria on Yampa Street. They will continue to operate both restaurants beyond the planned opening of The Diplomat in June 2008, but just until the Yacht Club lease reaches full term.
"I've wanted to do a very elegant restaurant," Hoj said. "When you enter the restaurant, it will feel more like arriving at a home (or an embassy) for a state dinner."
The restaurant will occupy the corner entrance of The Victoria and employ a carefully designed entrance to create a hallway that shields diners from cold air coming in the front door.
Commercial real estate broker Hal Unruh of Prudential Steamboat Realty said landing a restaurant as the anchor tenant for the building was high on his list.
"A restaurant is always a great drawing card for other prospective tenants because they understand that it will attract people who will also notice their business," Unruh said.
His colleague at Prudential Steamboat, Pam Vanatta, is listing the residential condominiums at The Victoria.
Unruh added that he has two other commercial spaces under contract, but the owners have specific reasons for not announcing their plans at this time. A 2,600-square-foot space next to The Diplomat and fronting Lincoln Avenue remains available. Unruh said it could be split to serve two businesses.
Unruh said it's possible to gauge the value of investing in downtown commercial space by looking at the experience of buyers at the nearby Waterside Village on Yampa Street. They paid $250 to $275 a square foot a little more than two years ago. Prices at The Victoria range from $400 to $450 a square foot, he said.
By design, The Diplomat will be very different from the Yacht Club. The Hojs employ 60 people in the peak of the summer season at the Yacht Club. Hoj wants a small restaurant and an admittedly pricey menu.
"We'll be very expensive and have very few employees," Hoj said. "Maybe a chef, a sous chef, dining room manager and two to three wait staff. The bartender would double as a host. We'll only have 12 tables."
Hoj would be satisfied with a single seating of about 30 people most nights and intends to limit the nightly reservations to no more than 50 dinners.
"I'd rather do 30 people who have a memorable experience than 50 people who don't have that same experience," Hoj said. Ellen Hoj added that when preparing a business plan for The Diplomat, they based their calculations on a single seating.
Denise Peterson, who is developing The Victoria with her husband, Steve, said they think Steamboat has room for more fine dining restaurants.
"Steve and I are real excited that a high-end restaurant is coming into the building," she said. "We hear it in general conversation when we go out to dinner."
She said general contractor Holmquist Lorenz Construction Co. is on pace to make the commercial spaces available for the start of tenant finishes in January and expects the exterior materials will become apparent by the time Winter Carnival rolls around in mid-February.
Ellen Hoj said the ability to purchase their 1,266-square-foot commercial condominium at The Diplomat was a big part of their decision to make a change in their operations. In addition to providing them with more security than a lease can, and giving them an investment that's independent of the business, it provides them with an exit strategy when they want to step back from the demanding restaurant business.
"We want to have the opportunity of selling the restaurant to our long-term employees," she said. "It gives them a chance to own a business here."
The Hojs will go further.
"I want the employees to be part of the business, and I want to share the profits with the employees," Morton said.
He has hired Keith Gillihan, the former executive chef of the Caribou Club in Aspen, to be the chef of The Diplomat. Another Caribou Club alum will run the Yacht Club after The Diplomat opens and eventually transition to the new restaurant.
The Hojs are leaving a spectacular riverside location at the Yacht Club, but Morton feels he has the energy for one more start-up restaurant in his career, and the opportunity at The Victoria is the right one.
"We had a great run the last eight years at the Yacht Club," he said.
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