The Mishawaka Through the Eyes of Its Employees: Community, History and Hardship

Via: Izzy Smith

The Mishawaka is a restaurant and music venue full of rich history and passionate values embedded in its perpetual focus on community and music. Since 1916 the Mishawaka has been attracting visitors from across the globe. In an interview with The Mishawaka Restaurant Manager & Special Events Coordinator as well as the Restaurant Operations Manager for The Mishawaka, The Aggie Theatre, and The five Chipper Lanes Bowling Alleys in the Front Range, it became clear that The Mishawaka is a one-of-a-kind destination that is enjoyed by all different ages of individuals.

As someone that has been traveling through Poudre Canyon since before I can remember, The Mishawaka has been an important landmark to my family and I as we own a cabin off of The Poudre Canyon. In 2012, our cabin almost went up into flames from the High Park fire, and we watched the news carefully hoping The ‘Mish’ stayed safe as well. Now, in 2020, I have the opportunity to talk to employees of The Mishawaka and understand more about their business, values, and experiences.

Pictured: Gary Duvall. Via: Instagram

Gary Duvall is the restaurant manager and special events coordinator for the business. Duvall took over Louie Leber’s position when Leber got promoted to oversee all seven businesses that owner & CEO Dani Grant is in charge of. Duvall has a lot on his plate, he enjoys weddings as they are quite common at The Mishawaka due to the pristine mountain location and friendly staff. In 2019, The Mishawaka had 30 special events and 18 of them were weddings.

Louie Leber oversees all of the restaurant operations at the seven locations Dani Grant is CEO of, and has seen the company thrive more than ever since Dani Grant has become the owner of The ‘Mish’. He’s been with the company through many hardships and maintains a great deal of knowledge on The Mishawaka.

Izzy: What drew you to the Mish for a career?

Via: Izzy Smith

Gary Duvall: I have been coming to The Mishawaka since ’99 when I moved to Colorado. I saw somewhere online that they were hiring a kitchen manager three or four years ago, and I applied for the kitchen management job which just didn’t work out. I interviewed Louie and interviewed with Dani the owner. Dani said to stay in touch as something might happen, something might come up. So I did, I would email Dani every once in a while and see if I could stop by the office in Old Town for some coffee or to talk and I’d come by and talk and we’d basically just shoot the shit about the restaurant business. In February of 2018 she texted me one day and asked if I was ready to come work for The ‘Mish’. So, here I am.

Louie Leber: I am originally from Massachusetts, I came to Fort Collins to go to CSU and the first year I was here I was living in the dorms. The second year I moved into a house with two complete strangers that were the managers in the kitchen here and so the following summer I started working here as a summer job on my breaks from CSU. I majored in fine art photography at CSU.

What are some of the values that the business lives by?

GD: We are really big into community and doing stuff for not only the Fort Collins community, but also the canyon. One of our main goals is: let’s keep the canyon beautiful. That’s why we push the shuttles. We don’t want 950 people, which is our capacity, driving up here and parking on the side of the canyon road and litteringl. I mean, it’s about sustainability. We’re really big into the community and keeping the canyon beautiful. We’re heavily into sustainability and giving back. We have the Mish Initiative program, we give money to artists or people that are having a benefit and we’ll give them silent auction stuff to give away. We have local artists play here a lot. I would say all of our shows inside are local. Head for the Hills kicks off the season every year for sixteen years and they’re local.

LL: Pretty local, decent amount of support acts and openers are local too.

Would you say that seasons changing negatively affects the business, or do the indoor and outdoor venues draw equal crowds here?

GD: In the winter it’s hard.

LL: Yeah, it’s tough.

GD: We slow down considerably. Now, it has gotten busier in the winter even the last two years since I’ve been here. That’s because we do events like winter wonderland, we decorate outside. We have Santa come for two days. We also just got through with our Valentine’s Dinner Special which was a big hit. We have the occasional show inside. We also do maker’s markets which are always a success we do one in the fall and one in the spring where local artists, vendors, and people who make arts and crafts come sell their wares here so that’s a big deal. Very community driven. The winter does make it tough to get people up here, people think we’re closed in the winter even though we promote it like crazy that we’re open in the winter. We’re open now seven days a week. A lot of people think they can’t get up here in the winter, but the roads are plowed. When we had that big storm in November I was coming up (the Poudre Canyon) the day after we got all the snow and the roads in town were horrible, but when I got to the canyon the roads were awesome.

The ‘Mish’ during Winter Wonderland. Via: Instagram

The High Park fire in 2012 definitely impacted the community. Did that at all change the outlook of how the business was run?

Via: Izzy Smith

LL: No, I don’t think it necessarily changed the outlook, if anything it solidified the whole community aspect even more. Once we got back open after the fire for the better part of the year, if anyone was affected by the fire we would give them free lunch. Definitely any of the first responders, any of the fire people. They’re not allowed to pay for anything here. But also locals in the canyon too. We did a lot of community dinners because everybody lost their fridges. The power was out, that was the main thing. If your house didn’t burn down, your power was out for 21 days or maybe a month. Everybody came back and were instructed to duct tape their fridge closed and put it on the side of the road, don’t even open it. Here, we had to clean out a full walk-in fridge of food that had been sitting here for a month. It was pretty disgusting. We had to do some maintenance and some reworking. We opened the Mish up, everyone was having troubles without a fridge and eating dinners.

GD: I wasn’t here but I’ve heard all the stories. We’re still do everything we can for first responders . There’s a lot of people in the canyon, even some that work here that are volunteers. A couple of years ago when there was that fire down at Gateway, people would come in that had just been over at that fire that were volunteers and we gave them dinner for free. Still every year we do a fireman’s dinner for the volunteers, they come up and we treat them and put out a big spread. We still do everything we can for them. Those first responders, the volunteers, we’re forever in their debt.

LL: They (first responders) saved us twice, like actively. Foam in the building, on the deck with fire hoses fighting the fire across the river, there was even a helicopter. If you look out the window you can see a burnt stump, it’s insane how close it got. The letter from the firefighters ‘Long Live The Mish’ is framed on the wall over there. That’s the letter that was sitting on the bar when we came back in after 21 days.

GD: Speaking as someone that loved going to The Mish before I worked here when the High Park fire happened that was a big topic amongst me and my friends. “Did you hear anything about the Mish? What’s going on? Is it there?” You know, I mean there were people in the middle of it like Louie that were just in shock but also people that love The Mishawaka and love coming here were also scared for it.

LL: We had a benefit concert that summer after the fire and just raised as much money as we could for those guys (the fireman). We did anything we could for them, they definitely saved us.

How do you think the history of The ‘Mish’ contributes to its uniqueness as a business and a venue?

The outdoor concert venue at The Mishawaka. Via: Izzy Smith

LL: The biggest thing that connects it throughout history is the music. The gentleman who homesteaded the place in 1916 was a musician from Fort Collins and had a little music store down there. He started it and built this dance hall that we’re sitting in which is pretty close to the first thing. They had square dances and hoedowns back in 1916. Pretty much from day one that’s the one major thread that’s gone through The ‘Mish’ over the years is just the love of music and having this beautiful spot to let people play their music at.

GD: The music is huge, when people come in and they’ve never been here before one of the first things they always do is look at the pictures on the wall to see everyone that has played here. Some of the artists on the wall take people by surprise. They can’t believe some of the people that have played here. If it’s somebody huge, it was normally before my time like Derek Trucks played here years ago. If people don’t know about the Mish that’s the first thing they’re drawn to is the music.

LL: The community too, I think the community aspect of the place. Back when this was first homesteaded they had parties, square dances, hoedowns, but it also doubled as the community center. Poudre Park wasn’t quite as developed as it is now it was more just a collection of homes. They didn’t have a community center down there so the mish ended up kind of being the default community center. It was pretty much the biggest building in the canyon area. People would come to have community meetings. Community and music.

What are your thoughts on having The ‘Mish’ become a National Historic Landmark?

LL: I think there is that possibility because of the age and everything like that. The one thing from a business aspect is that once you are considered a historic landmark then something like redoing the floors would need approval and make sure it doesn’t affect anything in terms of the history. Once you get that designation as a historical landmark then you’re locked in to keeping it historical. Once it’s historical it has to stay the same, you can’t really make improvements or adjustments. From what I’ve heard it’s nice to have that designation, but it kind of ties your hands on a lot of things and makes it a little bit tougher to do business. The school up at Stove Prairie Road has a section of their building that has a historical designation, so they’re in that boat of not being able to do anything to that section. They can add on new sections and do whatever they want with those because they’re not historical but that one room schoolhouse that they started with they really can’t change much without approval. I’ve never really looked into it but it would be nice to have some protection.

What sort of crowds does The Mishawaka tend to attract?

Leber & Duvall in unison: It’s everybody.

GD: There’s a lot of people that come from Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, it’s kind of a destination.

LL: The concerts for sure are probably more people from Colorado and Wyoming. But, the whole other half of The Mishawaka that I kind of look at is before we have concerts in the evenings on the weekends we’re insanely busy for lunch on the deck. Just for Saturday and Sunday lunch. That clientele is even more collective, it’s like tourists from all over the place. You know, people from Germany, England, international tourism just because of the scenic byway and it’s close to Fort Collins so we get everybody. Retired people, families, little kids.

GD: Like Louie was saying, it’s not just the demographic of a certain type of person. They might be out of state. I mean we get hikers in here, families all the time. Come up here for an EDM show and you’ll see a very diverse crowd, very different from a crowd for the bluegrass show. We get a lot of different people here.

LL: The lunch crowd comes in, then they all clear out and then a whole nother set of a thousand people come in for the concert. It’s rare that we have somebody come in for lunch and hang out for the concert. Sometimes they’ll come in for lunch and then go do something in the canyon because that’s the other demographic we get all the rafters, kayakers, hikers, bikers, everybody doing all sorts of activities and then stop by for a beer afterwards.

Out of the 104 years The ‘Mish’ standing strong, do you believe it is among its most successful days?

LL: Definitely.

GD: It’s growing every year.

Are there any plans to bring in more people?

The Poudre Canyon, a few miles east of The Mishawaka. Via: Izzy Smith

GD: In the summer, I don’t know how many more people we can handle.

LL: I’ve been here before Matt and Dani bought the place and I saw a major increase when they bought the place. They had much better marketing skills than the old ownership did so they really brought a lot of attention to it. Also, the fact that the Front Range is really just growing a lot so population growth and better marketing have been key factors. We’re kind of getting close to not being able to handle any more people, but then again I said that to myself seven years ago. Every year it’s just more and more and more but we handle it so I guess we can do it.

GD: I guess the ultimate would be if we sold out every single show. When we have a sold out show, it’s not just out there (referring to the outdoor venue) that we have all these people. Because it’s such a unique venue everybody wants to come in, eat, hangout for a little bit, and then go to the show. They want the whole experience. You can’t go to Red Rocks and get a table and rafting. You can’t do that anywhere else. There’s always room to grow, and we are. Every summer. Every year it’s been more and more. We definitely want to get as many people as we can in the summer but a lot of what we do is work towards winter, trying to get more people in here in the winter. We’ve got a crack marketing team and that’s a lot of the reason for success, especially in the winter.

Is it hard for the owner Dani Grant to share her time between The ‘Mish’, the Chippers Bowling Alleys, and The Aggie?

LL: She’s one of those people that’s always busy. She’s nonstop, she handles it totally fine. She’s also not doing it all. Like Gary said, we have a crack marketing team, good production people and stuff like that. She does have a ton of work too, but she got to where she is now by having awesome people under her that know what they’re doing. She never stops working. She goes on vacation and says, “Email me, I’m working.”

GD: The majority of her time is meetings. She meets, and then she delegates.

Interesting Facts/ Stories:

LL: I’ve been here 24 years and I do a lot of maintenance. I’ve been under this building I don’t know how many times. God knows how many times. Last fall, I went under there and I saw something sticking out of the ground in the dirt and I was like, “What the hell is that?”. I shook it off and it was this super old coke sign that was on the building in 1955. It’s now in the indoor venue area on the wall.

GD: There are a lot of pictures of The ‘Mish’ from the 40’s and 50’s on the wall, and a lot of landmarks that can be seen in those pictures are still here today.

LL: Another thing about the sustainability, there used to this little island in the river damned and they had a holding pond and had a water wheel and a retaining pond that generated power for the Mishawaka. A channel went under the stage and fed the water wheel. That’s another thing that makes this place unique, good or bad, you would not be able to build this place where it is today. It would have to be up on the mountain, out of the flood plain, all that stuff. You just can’t do this anymore. You can’t make another Mishawaka.

Anything you would like to add?

Duvall & Leber in unison: Long live The ‘Mish’.

Gary Duvall and Louie Leber gave great informative insight into The Mishawaka’s values, goals, and history. The ‘Mish’ is amidst its most successful days due to passionate employees that dedicate their lives to community and music. Long live the ‘Mish’.

Check out The Mishawaka website and Instagram.

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Izzy Smith

Aspiring science communications journalist at Colorado State University