A landmark Jackson restaurant is undergoing big changes, but one of the goals is to make sure they are changes that won’t change the customer experience.
The Blue Lion deal officially closed Feb. 1, sold by Ned Brown to Joe Rice’s Blue Collar Restaurant Group. The takeover began with behind-the-scenes activity about two months before.
Rice, best known as owner of Sidewinders American Grill, Merry Piglets Mexican Grill and Bubba’s BBQ, said he plans no big alteration in what diners will experience at The Blue Lion.
“The first thing people say is, ‘Oh, my God, you’re not changing it?’” Rice said a few days ago. “And I say, ‘Of course not, why would we do that?’
“We’re keeping it as it is; nothing’s changing,” he said.
That was a deciding factor, Brown said: “I’m glad to hear that he’s going to keep it just the way it is, which is what I wanted.”
The Blue Lion was one of Jackson’s earliest fine dining restaurants, started in 1976 by French-trained chef Karen Scott. She sold to Brown in 1978. Operating in a remodeled house built in the 1930s, it’s best known for its lamb, elk and fish dishes and also for its distinctive mud pie.
Brown is retiring after a restaurant career spent almost entirely with one establishment, though he had restaurant jobs in Colorado while he went to college. After graduating he came almost immediately to Jackson and learned The Blue Lion was for sale. Brown likes to tell people that he thought, at the time, of making The Blue Lion a barbecue joint or a Mexican restaurant but decided to stay with what his employees knew and what customers had already come to expect.
Chef Tim Libassi was in the kitchen for more than 25 years, and “came back in to help train Joe’s cooks” to adjust to a new menu, Brown said, and “make sure we were doing things the way he did them,” according to Rice. Brown said Libassi “helped create the Blue Lion and what it’s known for.”
Some employees have been at The Blue Lion for more than two decades, Rice said, and he said he’s happy to have many stay. Brown mentioned Jim Weaver and Rob Cerami, both with about 25 years on staff, waiters “who people ask for.”
Changes at The Blue Lion thus far have been only in management, Rice said, though he foresees some improvements. He’d like to enlarge the bar at some point, and also hopes for a bigger outdoor deck. The restaurant now seats about 60 inside and in summer can handle another 20 on the deck. Rice hopes the enlarged deck he plans might also have a cover to extend its season, especially given the uncertainties imposed by pandemic limits on the business.
Rice said he didn’t see purchase of The Blue Lion as a redevelopment opportunity, as is the case with many sales of old structures these days: “We’re not going to get rid of the building,” he said. “That’s what The Blue Lion is about, the old building.”
Brown said he first began thinking about retirement about three years ago and asked around informally then about someone to take it over. He said he did nothing then because the interest he heard wasn’t about the restaurant or the building, but about the land.
The house was first remodeled as a restaurant in 1974, when it became a fondue place called The Tourist Trap. When Scott bought it two years later, fresh out of school and working her first real job, she combined her mood about becoming an adult, blue, with her sign of the zodiac, Leo the lion. And so, The Blue Lion.
It’s nearly the oldest restaurant in the valley, eclipsed only, it seems, by one place.
“About all I can think of is the Mangy Moose,” Brown said. “But nothing that has had the same owner.”
When Brown approached Rice last August to see if he was interested in buying, the two were professional acquaintances but not close friends. And Rice said that with busy restaurants here and in Bozeman, Montana, he wasn’t looking to expand, but the fact that it was The Blue Lion made a difference.
He called a family meeting that was also a business meeting: His wife, Denise, daughters Brooke Rice, Nicole Davis and Ellie Woodfin and her husband, Blane, all work for Blue Collar. Also involved were longtime Piglets manager Tracy Joralemon and Blue Collar GM Brian Izard.
Though not restaurant shopping, Rice said he couldn’t ignore that The Blue Lion was “one of the most well-respected restaurants in town ... and those are the kind of relationships we want.”
Blue Collar was founded in 1989 when Rice and his wife moved here and bought Merry Piglets, then a summer-only business that sat customers at picnic tables under an awning at Crabtree Corner before it was redeveloped. Piglets moved to North Cache in 1993 in a space especially built for it.
Rice started Sidewinders in 1997, across and slightly up Broadway from where it now operates, and opened a second in Bozeman in 2017. Bubba’s, another Jackson institution, was bought by the group seven years ago. Blue Collar also runs Noodle Kitchen and Liberty Burger.