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DINOSAUR I To drivers in a hurry to consume the arid stretch of highway between Craig and Vernal, the small shop along Highway 40 is a blur of color, a punctuation mark of flags and awnings amidst beige and sage.
To those with a more leisurely mindset and a moment to linger, the BedRock Depot, billed as “The Place to Stop in Dinosaur, Colorado,” offers quality coffee, ice cream and sandwiches while embodying a word that echoes through its guest book like a mantra: Oasis.
The Depot, originally envisioned by Blue Mountain resident Leona Hemmerich and Rangelyite Bill Mitchem as an ice cream/coffee shop and photography studio, came to life when the friends, who worked together at Dinosaur’s Colorado Welcome Center, saw a need for travelers making the trek along Highway 40 farther into Colorado or west into Utah.
“We saw so many people coming through who wanted some refreshment, and there just weren’t a lot of places to get that around here,” Mitchem said. “It was a pretty altruistic endeavor. It’s been fun.”
But while “oasis” eventually captured the Depot’s singular character, creating that environment felt, at times, like a desert journey. In 2003, Hemmerich and Mitchem, along with spouses Robert and Martha, bought the building that once housed the Dina Freeze and a gift shop named The Ugly Coyote. Renovating the building to suit their needs meant substantial work at the outset, loads of help from family members and more upgrades in subsequent years.
“We had to saw out trenches in the cement floor to put in drains for plumbing; it was totally re-plumbed,” Mitchem said. “A lot of electrical work was done. There was no insulation in the ceilings, so we had to cut out a strip of ceiling and blow in insulation.
“The cement floor was off level, so Robert put in some wood strips and covered it with a beautiful hardwood hickory,” he said. “It just was an awful lot of work.”
In the fall of 2003, when the store opened briefly before its grand opening in May 2004, the Mitchems and Hemmerichs knew the work was worth it, even when their initial vision for the shop evolved into something quite different.
“When we started this, part of what we wanted to do never happened,” Hemmerich said. “We were going to do a (photography) studio. But the gift shop took off in a big way that we never planned. That was due to a consultant who told us how we needed to be set up.”
That consultant, Judy Walden, teaches businesses how to offer customers an experience connected to an area’s distinctive cultural offerings.
Walden said that BedRock Depot needed to provide food and inventory that relayed the unique character and heritage of the high desert. She also urged Hemmerich and Mitchem to carry high-quality gifts and food products.
So, in 2005, Hemmerich and Mitchem added the gift shop and expanded their food options. Travelers had been stopping in for shakes or coffee but were often hungry for more. When Robert first suggested adding sandwiches to the menu, Leona flatly rejected the idea.
“I did not want to do sandwiches; I didn’t dream of doing sandwiches,” Hemmerich said. “I was pulled into that kicking and screaming. Yet it’s one of our biggest draws.
”Enough people came in and said, ‘We would like to eat first,’” she said. “They didn’t really feel like driving somewhere else to eat and then coming back.”
Soon the Depot was offering not only cold sandwiches but hot sandwiches as well, with specialties like the BedRock Reuben, which has a cranberry/elk sausage option, or the Allosaurus Delight, a chicken/apple sausage creation with eggplant and roasted red peppers. The decision to refrain from putting burgers and fries on the menu let them focus on other fresh, homemade options.
So did “Trading Up,” the book Walden sent shortly after her visit. The book argued for higher-quality products to draw customers in and inspired Hemmerich and Mitchem to apply the philosophy to food.
Soon, BedRock Depot was using fresh vegetables and sauerkraut on their homemade sandwich rolls (Leona makes up to seven dozen rolls per week), offering bottled drinks made with cane sugar and concocting several flavors of ice cream using fresh cream from Grand Junction and, whenever possible, local fruit. It also began selling inventory like handmade Peruvian jewelry, dinosaur-themed souvenirs and creations reminiscent of the shop’s desert backdrop.
“Once we went that direction, we knew we didn’t want it to be a trinket shop where people came to look for your standard souvenirs,” Hemmerich said. “It’s funny because I collect thimbles. But I don’t sell thimbles.”
BedRock Depot’s customer base is also broader than the corner of northwest Colorado it occupies. “Locals,” according to Hemmerich, include a few customers from Dinosaur and Rangely, while the majority of visitors come from Vernal. Several people stop in each year who call home towns that range from Steamboat Springs to Park City.
“We may see them only a few times a year, but they stop here as long as we’re open,” Hemmerich said. “So it’s kind of a strange local, but if they’re regular, I consider them local.”
Working at the Colorado Welcome Center taught Mitchem and Hemmerich that national and international visitors would also be part of the drop-in crowd. Most passersby come from the East and West coasts, particularly California, Germany and Switzerland, and northern climes like Denmark and Norway.
Strangely, there’s only one U.S. state Hemmerich can’t recall ever having a visitor from.
“I don’t know that I’ve had anybody tell me they’re from North Dakota,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I haven’t, but of those I’ve asked, I think that’s the one state I haven’t heard.”
For the last three summers, Mitchem and Hemmerich have also housed and employed international students from the Summer Work and Travel Program. College students from Russia, Lithuania and Siberia, so far, work in the U.S. for approximately three months, then travel the country for another month. All have stayed at the Mitchems’ home in Rangely as part of their employment contract.
While most students expect to pay rent during their time in the United States, BedRock Depot employees do light work around the house instead, like the shop’s laundry.
“We’ve enjoyed having them here,” said Bill’s wife, Martha. “It works out real well. We provide a car for them to drive. You get acquainted with people from other cultures and learn something a little different. …Our student this year, Aliiya, enjoys being here very much. She likes all the open spaces.”
Ten years into BedRock Depot’s adventure, a visitor log marks the passing-through of lives that, after a time of rest and refreshment, move on to the next leg, the next stop and the next journey. Many of those lives carry impressions that last beyond the oasis itself:
“Vanilla latte from HEAVEN! Great experience and great folks!”
“We have heard the ravings about the amazing sandwiches here! So glad we finally got to try them. Hidden treasure in Dinosaur.”
“Best coffee in U.S.A.! Thanks! The Austrian Harley Crew.”
Or, as one man said after a spontaneous conversation with Hemmerich in which she shared historical facts about the area: “I just came in for ice cream and I got so much more.”
Bill Mitchem, who will turn 84 this year, fancies himself an ice cream shop retiree once business wraps up in October, returning to BedRock Depot as a customer or to help make the occasional tub of ice cream.
Leona Hemmerich envisions a business that might, or might not, one day undergo an expansion or even operate year around.
“Assuming things are going strong, I think it will continue to grow,” she said. “I think we’re offering what people want, and we want to continue that. It’s something different and it’s something good.”