After decades in the restaurant business, Henry and Kris Arcolesse are looking to pass their legacy and passion on to a new owner.
MEEKER | “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” You know it, I know it, and Henry and Kris Arcolesse of Meeker definitely know it. After careers in restauranteering that span decades, they’re ready to try something new.
Kris grew up in Denver and later Steamboat, and her family has owned and operated Italian restaurants in both cities, as well as the much loved Ma Ma Mazzola’s in Meeker, which closed its doors in 1982.
“I feel like I’ve grown up in a restaurant,” she said in an interview with the HT. “I can remember pushing up a little stool to wash dishes. That’s how little I was. It seems like that’s all we’ve ever done.”
Henry hails from Bristol, Pennsylvania and later moved to Albany, New York. He started working with his cousins in the pizza business around age 10, and later in the bakery business. “I wasn’t a sit behind the desk individual,” he said, “but I can’t say that I ever thought I’d be in the food service industry.”
In the early 1980s, Henry’s cousin proposed a joint pizza business venture in Steamboat Springs. After weighing the decision, Henry took the offer, even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to get back into the pizza business. “I really loved the area. It was a small town and everybody knew each other like Meeker.”
However, authentic Italian cuisine didn’t exactly come naturally at first.
“I never saw myself as a chef. I had no chef training, no cooking training. When I moved up to Steamboat, my cousin (and business partner) comes over for spaghetti and meatballs and sits down and he says, ‘Well, where’s the sauce? I don’t see you cooking any sauce.’ So I went into the cabinet and I grabbed a can of Ragu and he kinda looked at me cross-eyed and then said, ‘Well where’s the meatballs?’ I grabbed the frozen food meatballs that I had in the freezer and he said, ‘Okay, this is the only time this will happen. You will never serve sauce out of a can again and meatballs out of the freezer.’ That is the true story about my introduction into the restaurant business.”
LOVE AT FIRST SMELL
Henry and Kris chanced to meet not at an Italian restaurant, as one might suppose, but at a dentist’s office. “I love our love story,” Kris said. “I was working in the dentist’s office at the time, and six months before, my father had passed away. When he (Henry) walked in the door for his dental cleaning appointment, I had my back to the door and I smelled him. I always tell people I ‘smelled in love’ with him because he smelled just like my dad because he was working at the restaurant, and it’s history from there.”
Henry and Kris worked in the restaurant business for nearly 20 years, owning and operating successful Italian restaurants in the Steamboat Springs area. After their kids graduated, they didn’t like the idea of being empty nesters, so they sold their businesses and toured the country in a motor home. “The idea was let’s do something while we’re young enough we can enjoy (it).” We traveled a lot.” They spent time with their daughter in the Northwest and with their son near Tuscon, Arizona. “At the time it was our spoken and unspoken thought that we would never get back into the restaurant business because we had been in it for quite a while.”
Then life happened.
“We had to come back here (Meeker) for a wedding, and one of Kris’s sisters mentioned to us that our old family’s restaurant was for sale, which is the location that we’re at now. I conceded that we’d at least go and look at it. I was still not in the mode of being back in the restaurant business.” The owner showed Henry and Kris around, including the upstairs apartment Kris and her siblings lived in when the building was Ma Ma Mazzola’s, complete with the same 1980s decor. Henry and Kris tried to be discreet about the connection, since getting back into the restaurant business wasn’t supposed to be in the cards, but when the owner asked them what kind of restaurant business they’d been in, the jig was up. “We explained to her that it used to be Kris’s family restaurant …her (the owner’s) eyes got about twice as big as they had been and then she put the hook in. We moved back to Meeker, lived in our RV for a while and tried to make it happen.” “And it happened!” Kris added, “and the rest is history,” Henry continued. “So so much for never getting back into the restaurant business and living near my family. Never, nevers!” he said with a chuckle.
BACK IN THE KITCHEN
Henry and Kris officially opened the doors of their new venture in 2005. Their reputation preceded them and they “were accepted into the community with open arms right away,” Henry said. They expected it to be a much different experience than they’d had previously. “We thought, ‘well, we’re moving to ‘Mellow Meeker.’ It’s not going to be busy, a lot different than the restaurant we had in Steamboat because it was busy all the time,” Kris said.
Meeker’s boom-bust economy had other ideas, however.
“Six months in we did a remodel, stayed open through hunting season, then shut down and did a major remodel.” Six months after that — nine months after they purchased the business — the oil boom hit. “It went crazy,” Kris said. “We were really, really busy. So here we were back at it again and it was really, really successful and we were really, really pleased but surprised.” Of course, the oil boom didn’t last long. By 2011, the frenzy of activity had all but disappeared, and the Arcolesses started looking for ways to diversify.
Along with their in-house and take-out business, they started offering delivery service. “It took a few years to catch on but that ended up being another positive part of our business,” Henry said. Then, they started catering events. “We do a lot of business with the agencies in town, the school, the mine, so we have a lot of built-in business on a pretty regular basis,” Henry said. Recently, Ma’s attained a wholesale license. You can find their take-and-bake pizzas at the local grocery store, and they plan to expand to other areas. “We’ve had to adjust a little bit to the ebbs and flows of the economy and I think we’ve done a really good job,” Kris said.
It is obvious when talking to the Arcolesses they are passionate about their business and greatly enjoy what they do.
“What I love about it the most is the people. I have always run the business like somebody is coming to my home for dinner. I have made a lot of great friends and that’s what keeps me going, those regular customers. It’s a wonderful part of the business and I love it,” Kris said.
For Henry, “one of the things I like about the business, especially in a small town is the simplicity of it, the things that we deal with every day are pretty much focused on just a few as opposed to living somewhere else and having to deal with traffic and a lot of other things. We can really focus on the business, the people in the community and the people in the business because it’s much smaller.” He also enjoys being able to accomplish a lot in a small period of time. “Every time we have a customer that walks in the front door or the phone rings, there’s a deadline, so that’s where the majority of my focus comes into play. I’m in the back making sure my end of the business runs as smooth as it can and we just kind of pilot together and move the ship forward.” The couple did mention that sometimes they have to draw ‘battle lines’ with Henry not being allowed out of the kitchen and vice versa for Kris.
“For better or worse, but not 24/7, and you can quote me on that,” Henry said with a laugh.
For prospective owners, there are also many benefits of purchasing an established restaurant. “Someone who wants to buy a business as opposed to opening up their own business, I mean, that’s great, that’s what the entrepreneurial spirit is all about, but you’re going to start from scratch. It’s going to be much more of a challenge. Buying an existing business, all you’re basically doing is walking in the front door and taking over everything that’s already going on, which is substantial. From the get-go, you’re making money,” Henry said.
“We’ve sold two businesses already and one of our philosophies is we want to pass something on that’s doing well. We have a lot of positive things going on right now,” Henry said, adding, “it’s a multifaceted built-in business that lends itself to somebody being more creative. There’s plenty of room for expansion. And there’s a lot to be said for taking over an established longstanding business with a really good reputation over the last 35 years in Northwest Colorado.”
FINDING A GOOD FIT
Although both the planned and unexpected portions of their careers have been deeply rewarding, the Arcolesses are ready to give retirement another try. Ma Famiglia is listed with Western Exposures Realty of Meeker and 8Z Real Estate of Longmont, Colorado. They are looking for a buyer who is a good fit, and who understands the benefits of buying this particular business and the reputation that comes with it. “It is really, really important to us that there’s a smooth transition between us and whoever happens to come along next,” Henry said. “They really need to be committed to the business, committed to the community. That’s what a small community is all about. If you have the intention of being a good part of the community … the business will take care of itself.”
Kris added, “I think it’s hard for us to think about somebody else being in there, but it excites me because the passion that we feel and the things that we’ve gained from owning this business have gone beyond my expectations. I’m ready to share that with somebody and see them have that passion that we have. It takes a lot of drive and it takes a lot of time, but it’s worth that time. I want to pass that along to somebody else.”
After the restaurant sells, Henry and Kris have no plans to leave town. “We obviously are never going to leave Meeker. We love it here, this is our home.” Also on their list? Number one is spending time with their family and their grandchildren. Kris would also like to garden, get a puppy, and work with special needs children. Henry would like to potentially stay involved with the restaurant in some capacity, devote more time to day trading and enjoy the great outdoors. “We did learn between selling the restaurants and getting the restaurant here that we’re workers. We can’t just sit there. So we will be working and doing something because that’s just who we are,” Kris said.
View the listing online at tiny.cc/mafamiglia.
By CAITLIN WALKER | firstname.lastname@example.org