By John Colson
Sopris Sun Correspondent
A very special lunchtime was approaching on Tuesday, May 5 at the Village Smithy restaurant in Carbondale — it was precisely 40 years earlier that restaurant founders Chris and Terry Chacos had first opened the doors of what was arguably to become the most popular eatery in town.
Serving breakfast and lunch (“Dinner was too complicated,” Chris Chacos noted that day) the Smithy, as it is known, has become almost the automatic choice for locals looking for good food and a place to encounter friends and neighbors.
It also has been what politicians now like to call “a job-creator,” offering employment to a broad swath of local residents in a town that, in the mid 1970s, had a population of roughly 1,000 people.
During its years of operation, Terry, who is 72, estimated that the restaurant has employed about 400 people, an estimate that Chris, who turns 82 next week, neither debated nor doubted.
“She was the bookkeeper,” he said simply, by way of confirmation.
An anniversary party for present and former Smithy employees is scheduled for June 13, at which the owners hope to bring together generations of locals whose work over four decades has helped make the restaurant a success.
The Chacos couple settled in at a window table overlooking Third Street at about 11 a.m. that Tuesday and, over the following couple of hours, held informal court for a parade of well-wishers, current and former employees and long-time customers.
“I love this place,” enthused Steve Skinner, manager of the KDNK radio station and a long-time devotee of the restaurant’s fare. “Thanks for not changing. This town owes you a lot.”
In between greetings, they talked about their years together, the circumstances that preceded the founding of the restaurant, and some of the high times and odd occurrences they have witnessed and been part of over the last four decades.
At times growing teary-eyed as he talked of the past and of his personal feelings of satisfaction, honor and humility about the business, Chris recalled that he and Terry met in the mid-1960s in Denver while both were working there as physical therapists.
Chris remembered that his first reaction to Terry was, “God, she’s cute, I’ve got to meet her.”
Laughing at the memory, he added, “Her first reaction was, ‘He’s kind of short!’”
It wasn’t long after that when he became interested in work being done by U.S. nonprofit organizations to help Vietnamese people traumatized or maimed as a consequence of the Vietnam War, Chris ended up working with the American Friends Service Committee, or Quakers, operating a daycare center in a village Chris said was named Quangi.
Terry joined him there in early 1968 without telling him in advance, which Chris said both amazed and delighted him, especially since “we had only dated a couple of times.”
While working with the Quakers, the Chacoses met the late Paul and Ginny Lappala, who also were working with the Quakers to supply much-needed prosthetic limbs for Vietnamese farmers injured when they tripped hidden landmines in their fields.
Forced to leave Vietnam by the bloody Tet Offensive in 1968, during which the Viet Cong targeted a prison in Quangi in order to free the prisoners, the Chacoses returned to Denver and got married.
Moving to Aspen in 1970, they reconnected with the Lappalas, who lived in Carbondale and owned the historic blacksmith shop building in the middle of town.
It was the Lappalas, Chris recalled, who encouraged the Chacoses to convert the old smithy to a restaurant, in a town where the dining opportunities were few and uninviting. It was an invitation that Chris, who as a child had been tantalized by observing operations at the Greek restaurants in his hometown in Ohio, could not resist.
So, on May 1, 1975, the Village Smithy was born, with Chris working as chief cook and Terry doing the bookkeeping and myriad other tasks.
“I wish Paul and Ginny were here to see this,” Chris remarked at one point, tearing up at the memory of his late, lamented friends.
The telling of their tale was interrupted every so often by local fans, such as Carbondale native Julie DeVilbiss, daughter of Peggy and the late District Judge J.E. DeVilbiss. Now living in Vermont, but on a cross country, 40th birthday jaunt with her husband, Ben, DeVilbiss stopped at the table to engage Chris and Terry in a group hug and tell them, “I’m the same age as this restaurant!”
Also stopping by was Cathy Zimney, a former dishwasher, salad and soup chef and pastry cook who treated the Chacoses and the entire restaurant to a tuneful rendition of “Happy Birthday, Village Smithy!”
Zimney, who started at the Carbondale restaurant in 1978 and was part of the team that opened up the short-lived Village Smithy II in Glenwood Springs in the early 1980s, regaled the table with tales of her time as part of the Smithy family. They included a day when she was preparing dough for the day’s baking and got her hair caught in the industrial-strength Hobart mixer.
Recalling being twisted around and rendered speechless as the mixer pulled her hair and her head into the machinery, unable to call for help, she said, “Here I stand by the grace of God and Jack Jones.” Jones, a long-time local who happened to walk in through the kitchen door at that moment, turned off the machine in time to prevent serious injury.
Zimney said they had to pull the blade assembly from the mixer and take her, still tangled in the blades, to the hospital to be disengaged.
Casting back in her memory, Zimney remembered, “When I started working with them (Chris and Terry), the refrigerators were in the alley with padlocks on them.”
Chris, laughing so hard he could scarcely talk, added, “We kept them open during the day, and then locked them up at night” so the food wouldn’t be stolen while the place was dark.
Ann Keller, who has been the restaurant’s celebrated baker since 1994 and is believed to be the longest-term employee of the place, also sat down to chat before being called away with an emergency question from a customer about making a certain pie.
“It’s a living entity,” she said about the restaurant and the actual and virtual family of people who have worked there. “It really is.”
Currently, the restaurant is run by the younger son of Chris and Terry, Charlie, (Zimney recalled teaching him how to chop vegetables when he was a child, and telling him, “You’ll be making your own soup here some day”) and his partner, another Carbondale native, Jared Ettelson, 40, who grew up with Charlie and became a partner in 2009.
“I’m about six months older than the restaurant,” Ettelson mused with a grin, recalling that his first working experience was when, at 16, he got a job washing dishes there.
“It was kind of a rite of passage for us kids,” he said, noting that many of his high school friends did the same thing.
Prior to joining the Smithy, Ettelson said, he worked for a Texas-based Italian restaurant chain, helping to establish 11 “stores” in Colorado before leaving nearly a decade ago, experience which he said has served him well in his current role.
Charlie’s older brother, Eric, also has done work at the restaurant, but instead of working in the kitchen or waiting tables he was the maintenance man — a task he continues at Charlie’s other local business, the Bonfire coffee house, Chris said.
After another long-time customer stopped at the table and told Terry and Chris, “You both are such a blessing to the community,” Chris teared up again and emphasized, “We’re blessed, so blessed. It just went so fast. I can’t believe it’s been 40 years.”
Looking around the busy restaurant at one point, he said softly, “It wasn’t work. It was a labor of love.”