- Jeanne Davant
- Jason Wells, the former Manitou Springs city administrator, has a new business challenge.
Six weeks ago, Jason Wells had no inkling he would soon be opening a restaurant and bar.
It seemed impossible, but in just four weeks, Wells and partner Jenna Gallas managed to get the Armadillo Ranch in Manitou Springs up and running for a soft opening July 4.
The new place occupies the former home of Manitou’s legendary Ancient Mariner Tavern.
Wells, Manitou Springs’ former city administrator, had been working as interim town manager for Green Mountain Falls.
“Jason’s time was coming to an end in Green Mountain Falls,” says Wells’ partner Jenna Gallas, who also is event coordinator at the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce. “I happened to run into Shemi [Shlomo], the building’s owner, and I said, ‘I heard that the Mariner’s closing.’”
Shlomo confirmed that the bar was shutting down. When Gallas asked him what he was going to do in the space, Shlomo said he wasn’t interested in running a bar, so he’d probably put in retail.
“I thought, ‘but this is THE live music place in Manitou Springs. We can’t lose that,’” Gallas says.
The couple and Gallas’ 9-year-old son have lived in Manitou for five years and wanted to stay.
“Truly, the opportunity just presented itself,” Gallas says.
Wells was skeptical but says Gallas’ enthusiasm won him over. They came up with a concept — preserve the historic status of the Mariner as an entertainment venue but put more emphasis on food service, especially lunch — and a name. Armadillo Ranch refers to the farm in Connecticut where Wells grew up and honors his family’s help in financing the venture.
Wells hired crews to refinish the dark floors; do electrical, plumbing and repair work throughout the building; and polish and seal the copper bar. He replaced the kitchen equipment and tapped Chef Lyn Ettinger-Harwell to create a menu that features Italian dishes and barbecue — two kinds of cuisine Manitou lacks.
Wells’ mother, Pat, designed the restaurant’s logo — five dancing armadillos, a riff on the classic Grateful Dead dancing bears. His father, Andy, paid a visit and declared it would take until September to open. That motivated Wells to prove he could do it faster.
“It took an unworldly amount of professional and friendship help” to make it to opening day, Wells says. That included friends at Manitou’s other bars and restaurants, who provided insight, support and a crash course in running a business. It seemed that a little magic happened as well.
“We didn’t know we were going to be able to open on the Fourth until about 3 p.m. on the 3rd,” Wells says.
Manitou’s City Council approved his liquor license July 2, and he received the license from the state the next morning. On July 3, the business passed a final health inspection.
“We couldn’t even get an inventory [of liquor] until Wednesday at 10 a.m., but we managed to have a full inventory the day before a holiday,” he says. “Things just miraculously fell into place at a lot of different turns … and the timing just sort of worked out.”
Gallas hired Big Sky, a beloved Grateful Dead-based cover band, to perform, and Ettinger-Harwell whipped up a menu for the Armadillo’s opening four-day run.
“The Fourth was amazing, considering we didn’t even have a sign, not even a sandwich board out there,” Wells says. “There was a lull throughout town Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but it was more than satisfactory.”
The business made a little profit in its first four days, then closed for three days while the team finished uncompleted chores and hired more staff. The Armadillo reopened July 11 on a full 11 a.m.-2 a.m., seven-days-a-week schedule.
Armadillo Ranch is the third business to occupy the site of the much-beloved Ancient Mariner since the bar’s first owner sold the building in 2016.
While Wells is preserving the original Mariner’s heritage as a prime place for music, he and Gallas will tweak that formula.
“The entertainment will be a little bit different,” Gallas says. “We’re going to do some midafternoon jazz-blues. We’ll have Thursday-through-Sunday music but not always 9 p.m.-1 a.m.”
They’ll also place more emphasis on daytime clientele and lunch service, especially for locals.
“There were plenty of times when we were just looking at each other like, ‘Crazy,’” Wells says. “Admittedly, I was a skeptic, but Jenna was the eternal optimist and motivator. …
“It seems like word of mouth has spread. We’ve got some great friends in town, and it’s an important location, so I think people are going to be eagerly eyeing what’s next.”
This article first appeared in the Colorado Springs Business Journal.