In Colorado Springs, Richard Skorman needs no introduction.
The longtime community activist, former city councilman and candidate for mayor made a name for himself by promoting dialogue between opposite factions and working to better the city through the political process.
But there’s more to Skorman’s Springs legacy. He’s also the man who introduced the city to conversation-generating coffee shops and filled a growing appetite for healthy, “earthy-crunchy” food options such as frozen yogurt, whole-wheat breads and alfalfa sprouts — beginning way back in the mid-1970s.
We wanted to learn more about Skorman the restaurateur, so we sat down with him one afternoon at a table near the back door of Rico’s Coffee, Chocolate and Wine Bar, one of four businesses he owns in the building at 320-324 12 N. Tejon St.
Before settling in, Skorman — a self-confessed coffee-addict — helped himself to a 20-ounce latte.
Question: Why did you open a restaurant in the first place?
Answer: I worked in a bookstore, and when the business was sold, I bought most of the paperback books. I opened a little bookstore a few blocks from here. When this space came available, I begged the landlord to let me rent it for a year. I added the café and called it Poor Richard’s Feed and Read. I was the first person to serve espresso in Colorado Springs, among other things — frozen yogurt, gazpacho, quiche and bagels.
Q. What was your inspiration for a café?
A. Probably the worst reason for anyone to open a restaurant: I love to cook and thought I should open a place where I can feed people. Also, I’m from a Jewish family that constantly talked about food and what would be for dinner.
Q. You opened Poor Richard’s Feed and Read in 1977 just after graduating from Colorado College. How did you finance it?
A. The one-year lease was $8,500. I had a $5,000 insurance policy my grandfather had given me that I cashed in. And I borrowed the rest of the money from my brothers.
Q. How did the first year turn out?
A. At first I was really afraid I would fail. But, I was really lucky. We were busy from the beginning. I had a college five blocks away and Palmer High School nearby. That was a cog in the success of the restaurant. The demographics worked for us. At the time, CC was closed for meal service on Saturdays, and students would line up to eat here. I wished I had begged the landlord for a 10-year lease. I was able to pay my brothers back in six months.
Q. What’s the worst thing that has happened during your 35 years of owning a restaurant?
A. In 1982, there was an arson fire in the restaurant, set by a drifter who lived upstairs. Fifteen people lost their jobs overnight, and I had to close for three months to repair and start over again.
Q. What lessons did you learn from the fire?
A. I was underinsured. Now I’m probably overinsured. But what was heartwarming was the reaction and support from the community. There was a community-wide effort to help us get the business back. We were able to rebuild and enlarge the restaurant.
Q. With business doing so well, why did you sell the restaurant in 1986?
A. I was the film critic for The Sun (a daily newspaper in Colorado Springs that competed with The Gazette until 1986), and wanted to try my hand at doing that in New York City. And, I had an opportunity to write a guidebook for selecting art film videos. But the work of watching films was so isolating that I wanted to get back to doing something more social. I had sold the restaurant to some employees. In 1992, I decided to buy it back. I missed cooking and the restaurant business.
Q. When you opened the restaurant in 1977, you didn’t have pizza on the menu. When did you add it?
A. When I came back from New York, I missed the pizza I had had there. I liked being able to buy the type of pizza by the slice that you can fold and hold in one hand and read The New York Times in the other hand — not too messy. No one here was selling pizza by the slice or that tasted like what I had loved in New York. So I went back to New York for two weeks to learn how to make New York-style pizza.
Q. What advice would you offer to someone who wants to open a restaurant?
A. The restaurant business is so complicated. You can be busy (have customers) but not be making any money. You have to pay attention to details. You have to have the type of personality that you don’t get upset when things go wrong — because they will go wrong. I’ve talked a lot of people out of going into the restaurant business. It has one of the highest failure rates of any business — even if you think you have a good idea. To stay in the restaurant business, you need to keep your overhead low and ride the trends. Then you can hang in.
Q. To what do you attribute your success?
A. We have a loyal audience. Our regular customers are the heart and soul of our business. And attracting and keeping a loyal staff. Some of my employees have been with me for 25 years. A good employee is worth investing in. You care for them, and they care for you. They have your back.
Q. If you had it to do over again, do you think you would you open a restaurant?
A. Yes. I love the restaurant business. We have created something unique here. A mix of businesses — a restaurant, a bookstore, a toy store and a coffee, chocolate and wine bar. We are probably the only toy store in the country with a liquor license. It’s a place to relax, take your time and connect with the community.
Contact Teresa J. Farney at 636-0271, Twitter @tffoodie, Facebook Teresa Farney