After an abrupt closure in late April, El Rancho Brewing Company
in Evergreen has reopened "in taproom mode," says owner Paul Vincent.
Vincent and his two brothers purchased the historic El Rancho, which has its own exit off I-70, in 2015. The lodge-style building was constructed by the Jahnke family in 1947 and opened as a restaurant the following year.
Mildred and Ray Zipprich from Milwaukee purchased it in 1953, and it was run by their daughter and son-in-law, Donna and Paul McEncroe, until 1988. They grew the spot into a tourist destination with a lounge, live music and a gift shop — and were instrumental in securing it that highway exit. But after the McEncroes sold it, El Rancho went through a series of owners — and an "identity crisis," as one former employee put it when she wrote about working her first restaurant job there in the late ’90s
It sat vacant for two years before the Vincent family stepped in, purchasing the building and doing a renovation that included adding a brewery before El Rancho Brewing Company debuted in January 2016. But now its future is uncertain: The restaurant has a large financial debt and is embroiled in legal disputes.
The details of how the historic business got into its current situation are messy. Allegations about money mismanagement are coming from both Vincent, who took over operations after his brothers moved out of state, and former general manager Glen Fountain. But one thing the two can agree on is the toll the dispute has taken.
"It's kind of traumatic," Vincent says of the current situation. "I've been here pretty much full-time for the last five years, sometimes 24/7. There are a lot of moving parts here. My goal has always been to at least break even and to build a self-sustaining, wholesome business with a good culture where people want to work. It's pretty disappointing to end up where we are."
"It is truly devastating and heartbreaking," Fountain says of his experience with El Rancho. "It has so much history and love for it from the community, and from my family."
Fountain came on board at El Rancho in June 2020, while the business was still shut down because of COVID. He'd recently started the Mountain Zoom
delivery service and owned the Anthony's Pizza
location in the Evergreen Safeway shopping center; that September, while working at El Rancho, he also opened Evergreen Deli
. Although he still owns and operates the deli, he says that he closed Mountain Zoom and sold the Anthony's spot in order to focus on El Rancho. He is also on the board of directors for the Evergreen Chamber of Commerce
"I was really optimistic, he had a lot of really good, fresh ideas," Vincent recalls of their initial relationship.
"I became obsessed with the place, I became a historian of the place," Fountain says of his time at El Rancho.
While they disagree on the details, both acknowledge that Fountain joined the team with the ultimate goal of becoming a part-owner.
From the outside, it appeared that El Rancho was forging a new path after nearly thirty years of rocky operations. It had a talented chef and an award-winning brewer on board, and its Yelp reviews, which had been dismal in years past, improved throughout 2021.
But both Fountain and Vincent say that behind the scenes, it was a different story, with each blaming the other for amassing unpaid taxes, bills and payroll. Fountain resigned on April 26 of this year. By April 27, two-thirds of El Rancho's employees had left as well.
Though Vincent tried to stay open for dinner-only with the remaining staff, he says, "We just couldn't keep the schedule filled, so we shut down for a few weeks while I tried to gather information."
Unfortunately, many private events, including weddings, were scheduled during that shutdown — there are Yelp reviews and comments on El Rancho's Facebook page from people saying they were never informed about the closure despite having booked the venue well in advance.
But now El Rancho has reopened — partially, at least. "I'm sitting on about 20,000 pints of beer," Vincent says. And so, helped by one remaining employee, he's opening up four days a week in hopes of selling the inventory. The current hours are 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Because El Rancho has a brewpub license, 15 percent of its sales must be food, so along with beer, it's offering one daily self-serve special.
"We're in bootstrap mode right now," Vincent admits. He knows that to get by long term, he'll need the support of a solid staff, but at this point, he notes, "I'm trying to sell beer and get the bills paid."
Fountain isn't optimistic about the business's future. "I personally don't think that it will ever reopen as a restaurant," he says, citing the current labor shortage, El Rancho's shaky reputation and its current debts. "Plus, it's choice real estate. It'll end up being a hotel or a strip shopping center. I'd be worried if someone tried to open a restaurant there."
"At this point," says Vincent, "I'm considering everything from bankruptcy to looking for partners or investors to just selling the place outright. There's a lot of possibilities here."