Pinery empire climbs Bijou hill

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Twice as large as initial plans, the Pinery on the Hill takes shape overlooking downtown Colorado Springs from west of Interstate 25.

Twice as large as initial plans, the Pinery on the Hill takes shape overlooking downtown Colorado Springs from west of Interstate 25.

In a matter of months, the Pinery at the Hill has transformed from a blighted empty old building atop West Bijou Street into a behemoth two-story structure where couples soon will wed in front of a downtown Colorado Springs backdrop.

The 24,000-square-foot, $13 million facility will specialize in full-service, all-inclusive weddings and events. Parties are booking the venue for dates as early as the end of September.

“But that’s only part of the story,” said majority owner Mitch Yellen. “There’s so much more. This almost didn’t happen.”

Yellen and his wife bought the former hilltop restaurant at 775 W. Bijou in 2007, intending to turn it into a wedding and event venue. Yellen had plans for a single-story, 13,000-square foot facility ready for development. Investors had committed $7.5 million.

But before the Pinery at the Hill, there was the Pinery at Black Forest. Yellen, an investment banker and financial planner who moved his family here from northern California in 2000 for better schools and a quieter life, had hoped to partner with the former Pinery owners in 2004.

It was just a piece of land and an idea at the time. Yellen loaned them money expecting to be a partner, he said, but ended up simply as the lender. Disappointed, he bought the Bijou property to build a competing venue.

“I was ready for them to buy me out, pay me back,” Yellen said. “But they couldn’t get a bank loan.”

When the Black Forest property owners defaulted in 2006, Yellen foreclosed and took it over. He eventually invested another $3 million in that building and paid almost $1 million in liens.

But when Yellen was ready to focus on the Pinery at the Hill, the economy was collapsing and several investors eventually backed out.

“It was like the end of days around here,” he said. “Remember that? People were freaking out.”

Yellen, a religious man, had first visited Colorado Springs in 1992 when, by chance, he had to fly into this airport instead of Denver for a religious organization meeting in Boulder.

“I remember flying out of here and looking out the window at Colorado Springs,” Yellen said. “I heard the voice of God say, ‘You’ll live here one day.’”

So, when Yellen’s wife told him he had to sell the Bijou building in 2010 so he could return investors’ money, he prayed about it.

“I was attached to it,” he said. “You’re not going to find another property like this in Colorado Springs.”

The next day, a buyer appeared — actually a church. The building was under contract for months, until the church backed out three weeks before closing.

This time, Yellen’s wife didn’t tell him to keep trying to sell it.

“She said I passed the test,” he said. “That’s when I realized this project wasn’t about me. It’s bigger than me.”

Soon the Yellens “blew the dust off the old plans from 2007,” but the Pinery company had grown, having bought Alpine Catering and Garden of the Gods Gourmet. It was doing swift business in the forest and winning awards.

The project’s scale doubled.

Business plan

Yellen, not a traditional financial planner, says a lot of accountants and financial planners don’t like him and disagree with his methods. But he has several local high-wealth investors working with him, mostly doctors and lawyers.

“Most people’s retirement investments have been flat or down from 1999 to now,” Yellen said.

Instead of mutual funds, he advises clients to put their money in self-directed IRAs and invest them in projects like his Pinery. Yellen is 51 percent owner, and 26 other investors, 21 using self-directed IRAs, own the other 49 percent.

“It’s that way because you can’t have 27 chefs in the kitchen,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”

Soured on partnerships in his mid-50s, Yellen has decided this strategy works. There is no bank debt, reducing investors’ risk. He makes decisions and sees his vision through.

“I’m a guy who gets things done,” he said.

Once the Bijou location is established, Yellen expects it to generate $7 to $10 million a year in revenue. Combining all of the Pinery’s holdings, he says revenue could top $20 million a year.

The two Pinery locations share ownership in the food providers. Because of new plans to expand Garden of the Gods Gourmet, Yellen invited extra investors into the fold this spring and still has room for three more, he said.

Yellen bought a 3,000-square-foot former restaurant at the corner of 26th Street and U.S. Highway 24. He’ll move the catering company and its food shop from nearby Cucharras Street and open a natural foods market and restaurant in the more visible location.

The two Pinery locations and their investors will share ownership in that location as well, Yellen said.

It’s expected to open at the same time as the Pinery at the Hill in September.

Early bookings

Onsite wedding planner Megan Dobson, in less than two weeks at the Bijou location, has six weddings booked for 2014, a couple before the end of the year, and holiday parties in December. She’s doing about three tours a day for future brides.

“The Broadmoor would say they do more than that all the time,” she said. “But I think that’s pretty good when we’re not even built yet and have just started advertising.”

The new facility will have rich high-end finishes with the theme of offering “Four Seasons quality at Embassy Suites prices.”

An all-inclusive wedding for 150 to 200 guests will cost about $18,000, Yellen said — lower than most comparable local venues. After the Bijou location opens, Yellen plans to build eight more Pinery venues around the country, starting with Austin, Texas; Tulsa, Okla.; Omaha, Neb., and Indianapolis.

“When this is all done,” he said, “it’s time to get on a plane to Austin.”