It’s occasionally said that Denver is racing to become Portland, Ore., as fast as it can. The statement is wildly subjective, but the roots of what truth it holds may be found in the Mountain Sun Pub on Pearl Street in downtown Boulder. In the early ’90s, long before anyone was connecting those two dots, founder Kevin Daly got the inspiration for the iconic downtown bar during his stint in Portland. Daly, a student at Lewis & Clark law school, frequented the Fulton Pub, one of the McMenamins chain. There, he got his first taste of the burgeoning craft brew scene in the northwest and decided to open his own brewery in Boulder. Daly aped everything from McMenamins brews to its classy pub grub to its interior design style. The result: Mountain Sun.
Daly first opened the doors in late 1993, and this month, Mountain Sun is officially celebrating its 20th anniversary, a milestone that will be marked with no shortage of pomp and/or circumstance. Mountain Sun will be holding a large KGNU benefit concert on Feb. 1 at the Boulder Theater, featuring members of the String Cheese Incident, Mofro, Lettuce, The Funky Meters and more, playing as The Pearl Street All- Stars (see story, page 31), and the anniversary will also mark the start of the increasingly popular Stout Month.
“I think in Boulder, in the restaurant business, it’s a pretty huge accomplishment,” says Managing Partner Tim McMurray. “You see restaurants come and go all the time.”
McMurray has been with Mountain Sun almost since the beginning, starting out as a line cook in 1996 and working his way up to partner over the course of his 17 years with the company. He’s seen a lot of expansion in that time, but not a lot of evolution.
“We did a remodel of the back hallway 10 years ago,” he says. “But it’s pretty much as it was. It’s the original bar; it’s the original booze. All the artwork has been hanging in there for 20 years.”
But if it ain’t getting fixed, that’s probably because it ain’t broke. Mountain Sun was enough of a hit to open a second location in South Boulder in 2002. Six years later, they opened a third location in Denver. Then another Boulder location in 2012, and a soon-to-be-opened fifth storefront in Longmont.
Though business types joke that Mountain Sun succeeds despite doing everything wrong, if doing it their way is wrong, McMurray doesn’t want to be right.
“That [wrong] is the wrong way to phrase it,” says McMurray. “We do things differently, and not by the book.”
What do they do differently? A bit of everything. Start with the beer. While most micro-breweries are racing to build their brand by pushing into the grocery store market, Mountain Sun doesn’t do bottles.
“It’s not in our business model,” says McMurray. “It’s a whole other beast.”
Then there’s the sheer volume of varieties. Though Mountain Sun has a relatively small brewing operation, only 12 barrels at its largest location, the number of beers it brews is staggering.
“We have upwards of 100 recipes,” says McMurray. “Last year was kind of a big year, we brewed 60-80 different kinds. This year, we’re going to slim down a bit and only do 50-60 kinds depending on the season.” Only 50-60 kinds.
Whereas the average brewery might do 10 of its own beers, Mountain Sun keeps 21 of its own taps stocked.
“We had a brewer start in ’98, his name was Michael, he brought us up to 10 or 12 taps, and everyone became used to that, and then it got to the point where we had 21,” says McMurray. “Once we started doing it, it was hard to take back, because people expected it and it was part of who we are.”
And in addition to not accepting credit cards, probably the most curious part of how Mountain Sun operates is that everyone there does everything. The cooks are the servers are the hosts are the bartenders, and so on.
McMurray says the close-knit family feel of that team system is a big part of why he stuck around, and that it’s a big part of why people like Mountain Sun, as the employees tend to self-manage, giving them a sense of pride and ownership in their work that isn’t present in top-down managerial systems.
“If employees are having fun, then the customers will as well,” says McMurray.
That said, McMurray also readily admits that the team approach comes with flaws, such as the potential for over-service from the sheer volume of servers, and limitations on what you can do in the kitchen without specialized cooks. But those are flaws he can live with.
“It’s not for everyone, and not everyone likes it, but I definitely think it has a lot to do with who we are,” he says.
Another thing McMurray says Mountain Sun does its own way is to take baby steps.
“All of our growth has been a natural process,” he says.
The next baby step Mountain Sun is taking will be to open a pub in Longmont, probably in spring or late summer. After that, maybe another Denver location or a ski-town. They haven’t given it much thought, preferring to wait for each restaurant to develop its own character at its own pace.
“We don’t really have a five-year plan,” he says.
That approach makes it hard for McMurray to predict what the next 20 years might hold. But if history is any guide, it should be a steady upward trend of doing things “differently.”
“We’re really happy for what the community has given us,” says McMurray.