Jeff Hulsmann has been in the restaurant business for more than two decades — and now he’s creating the perfect recipe to turn the sleepy town of Palmer Lake into a dining mecca.
The ingredients are already there, a collection of independent restaurants with diverse menus: steak and burgers at O’Malley’s Pub; Italian cuisine at the Villa; pizza at Bella Panini; music and French Canadian-inspired dishes at the Speedtrap; soups, sandwiches and dessert at Rock House Ice Cream & More; pierogies at the Parked Pierogi; fine dining at moZaic; and Mexican food at La Rosa, the newest restaurant.
It only requires one additional element — patrons to visit the small town and view the charms. It’s not just a matter of boosting the community, says Hulsmann, who owns O’Malley’s, it’s a matter of survival.
“We have eight restaurants in Palmer Lake right now,” he said. “A town of 2,800 can’t support that. So we have to draw from out of town, and we do. We really do.”
O’Malley’s is proof that his ideas work. On any given weekend night, the steakhouse and pub is full of a varied crowd.
“We have Air Force Academy cadets, we have bikers riding down from Denver, we have moms in station wagons,” he said. “You can look out the window and see a horse tied up next to a Harley with the Harley parked next to a mini-van, and next to that, a Porsche. We don’t know why it works, it just works.”
Hulsmann opened O’Malley’s in the 1980s.
“It’s owned me for about 27 years,” he says with a laugh.
In that time he’s learned some things about being successful, and now he’s passing that knowledge on to a new Palmer Lake restaurant. He and fellow restaurateur Chris Bohler bought a vacant building — once housing the B&E Filling Station restaurant run by Bohler, his wife and another couple — and set up a from-scratch Mexican restaurant known as La Rosa, which opened earlier this month.
“It’s a good fit,” Hulsmann said. “We don’t have an independently owned, from-scratch Mexican kitchen here. It’s going to work out for all of us.”
Hulsmann believes that competitors can be more than friendly; they can help each other grow. That’s why he created the Palmer Lake Restaurant Association to help its members grow and prosper as much as he has.
“We want to make Palmer Lake a dining destination, just like people go to Manitou for the shops,” he said. “They don’t even have to decide until they get here. If they want to go to the Villa and it’s full, they can come here, they can go next door to the Speedtrap for the music, and come here for a drink before. If they want pizza, they can go to Bella Panini’s. After that, they can walk down to the Rock House for ice cream.”
La Rosa is the newest restaurant on the block, but Parked Pierogi opened in November. Both are part of the restaurant association, which held a summertime “Taste of Palmer Lake,” and is considering a progressive dinner, where people can sample food at each restaurant.
“We’re even going to provide the bus,” Hulsmann said, referring to the O’Malley’s bus that often takes people home after a night of fun at the pub. “People can park and we’ll take them around to the restaurants. It’ll be fun.”
Making it fun for customers is one of Hulsmann’s secrets of success. O’Malley’s puts on a Broncos breakfast — steak and eggs — for every early-starting game.
“We lose about $1 on every meal,” he said. “But there was no one in here for 11 a.m. games. This way, we served 75 breakfasts in 20 minutes last time.”
The events bring people in, he said. That’s why he held an “End of the World” party Dec. 21 and an ugly sweater event the next night.
“It brings people in, they like to win a little something, and they want to have fun,” he said.
But the restaurant business isn’t all fun and games.
“It’s not your living room,” he said. “It’s your business. Treat it like a business. Don’t give away food and drinks to your friends and act like it’s your personal party. It’s a business.”
And it’s usually a difficult, cutthroat business, he said. Small, independent restaurants, including those in the Palmer Lake area, have to compete with chain restaurants.
“They can buy items in bulk with national contracts,” he said. “So they save money, but the prices are cheaper here than somewhere like Outback. That always surprised me. And that’s one reason we started the association, we can offer eight or nine contracts at a time. It just makes sense.”
Helping the community just makes sense to Hulsmann as well. That’s why the restaurant association is putting money into and applying for grants to improve the town-owned park and Palmer Lake, dry now from the drought.
“We’re going to fix up the park, fix the lake,” he said. “It’s a way to bring more business here, make Palmer Lake an attraction people want to drive here for — the restaurants, the outdoors, the lake. O’Malley’s and Palmer Lake represent what people think of when they think of Colorado. We’re not in a big city — we’re in the foothills of the mountains, we’re so close to the outdoors, to great trails.”
And dining at the restaurants is something everybody who visits should do, he said.
“We’re local, we’re independent,” he said. “Our food is fresh; we don’t have frozen wings here — they’re fresh. And it’s like that at all the local restaurants. We don’t have a changing staff; our staff knows our customers. They’re friendly. The management is always here, not in some faraway city. And the ingredients are chosen carefully, not based on a single, standard recipe.”
Once his carefully crafted recipe is completed, Hulsmann is convinced even more people will make the drive to try out the cuisine at Palmer Lake — and that they’ll return.
“We’re going to turn this place into a real destination,” he said. “We really are small-town America here, really are all about Colorado. It’s a great place to visit.”