Nina Lee likes to consider her recreated Westside business as part of a movement to make Colorado Springs more attractive and enjoyable for young professionals. Last year the 27-year-old helped her mother transform the historic Dutch Mill Tavern into 503W (503 W. Colorado Ave.), open kitchen and craft bar. Lee told the Business Journal about becoming a business partner with her boyfriend, the movement she hopes to help catalyze and what 503W has to offer for young professionals in the Pikes Peak region.
What can you tell us about your professional background?
I was born in Colorado and went to high school here at Cheyenne Mountain. After high school, I went up to Greeley my freshman year and hated it, so I transferred over to Fort Collins and that is where I got my bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in graphic design. I minored in business — I’ve always had an interest in marketing — and that is where I met my boyfriend, Rollie. He applied to a bunch of different master’s programs and the best one was in Hawaii. So we moved there and my first job was for a nonprofit, helping them with their marketing. I got involved with a land management company, which really opened my eyes to environmental conservation and networking. … Eventually an advertising agency picked me up as junior art director. I was in Hawaii for two and a half years.
What brought you back to Colorado Springs?
Rollie was interested in coming back to Colorado to get into his field, which is green energy consulting. So we came back and stopped in Colorado Springs, where my mom, who ran the Dutch Mill for 18 years, was kind of on her last leg. She owns the building, so she was thinking about either trying to sell it or completely changing everything — and we thought it would be a great idea to change everything. So she brought us on as partners and we had this business plan of what we thought would be really relevant and also would work in everyone’s benefit.
What was that transition like, and what challenges did you face?
Because the Dutch Mill Tavern was established since 1947, there were generations here that considered this the local neighborhood bar: blue-collar clientele, union workers, city workers. It was a place where you would get a domestic beer and a burger, and my mom did a great job for 18 years keeping that up. So the challenges that we faced in coming in and changing everything — the aesthetics, the environment, the food and even the beer selection — really insulted a lot of regulars who had been coming here for a really long time. Our idea was that we wanted to be more in-touch with the community. … We wanted to focus on a clientele with a younger demographic, on men and women who appreciate microbrews. So we faced a lot of challenges because we changed the entire business model.
How did living in Fort Collins and Honolulu influence the reinvention?
We spent over four years in Fort Collins, which is kind of a hub of craft brews and a lot of restaurants and bars that we loved. We loved frequenting those places with different types of food options — not just your standard pub menu. In living out in Hawaii, we both experienced a different culture, where it was all more like street food with a lot of fusion and flavor. My mom is Korean, and one of her biggest highlights is her food. … So my mom and Rollie collaborated on the culinary side, and we kind of just combined the idea of street food with offering a variety of microbrews.
Have you completely taken over operations for your mother?
We’re still shifting, as far as making it legitimate and filling out the paperwork, but we are working toward that. When it was the Dutch Mill Tavern, it was all my mom, but 503W is all under Rollie and me, as far as the business side.
As a young professional, how does Colorado Springs compare to the other places you’ve lived?
Honolulu per capita is larger than Denver, so it’s a pretty happening city. Fort Collins very much had young professionals all around. It seems to me, from my experiences in those places, that there was more of a community and a synergy that was happening.
I think that Colorado Springs is starting to build that with its young professionals and business owners. Seeing that start to come together has been exciting, and I definitely see it continuing to grow.
Do you consider 503W to be part of a catalyst for that movement?
Definitely. We wanted this establishment to be more of a reflection of what we see happening in Colorado Springs. … We definitely wanted to be part of a catalyst and we wanted to see an environment develop that is more reflective of our generation, with different demands: different types of food, environment, experience. Colorado Springs is a big small city, so hopefully we get to see more development like that.