Durango may boast about having more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, but that doesn’t mean the job market for chefs in this town is easy to break into.
That was what Amie Johnson found when she moved to Durango seven years ago.
Johnson has been elbow deep in the culinary industry for 25 years.
She graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, owned her own restaurant in Maryland and was the executive sous chef at the DoubleTree hotel in Denver, but when she arrived in Durango she found more dead ends than opportunities when it came to climbing the career ladder.
“For seven years, my career has been on hold,” she said.
So, last year, instead of waiting around for one of the few executive chef positions to open, she began creating her own head chef job. She opened Red Lantern Catering & Deli in August and is the business’ top, and only, employee.
The months in between have been quite a journey.
Last November, Johnson inherited money from her grandmother that the two had agreed she would use to start her own business. She had been scouting for a location near Durango High School with the hope of gaining a steady base of student customers during lunchtime and finally found the old Venture Snowboard’s store at 2876 Main Ave.
By January, she was almost ready to open after putting $38,000 into the business.
Then came the car crash: A man tried to pass Johnson on her left as she was driving north on U.S. Highway 550.
He struck the front of her car when he merged back into the right lane. Her car spun off the road and rolled 2½ times. She was ejected, landing 20 feet away.
She was in a coma for two weeks, then spent eight weeks in a wheelchair and a total of 3½ months in rehabilitation, learning how to do everything again, from walking to touching her fingers together. She broke her ankle, hip, sternum, two clavicles, three ribs, five vertebrae and bones in her arms and legs. She punctured a lung and cracked five teeth.
Immediately, everything at the deli got put on hold.
As Johnson recovered, she was astounded by the “crazy beautiful people,” who drove her places, did her grocery shopping and helped take care of her teenage son, who was also in the accident but recovered more quickly, she said.
The accident gave her a perspective on life she lacked before.
“I’m a better person now,” she said.
She opened the doors to Red Lantern Aug. 27. She’s surprised that she has seen hardly any Durango High School students, despite putting coupons in the school newspaper and hanging a sign in front advertising a $6.99 lunch special. She does, however, get a group of Animas High School students that comes by around closing time for discounted slices of cake.
Employees from nearby businesses on North Main Avenue are her best walk-in customers, Johnson said. Her sausage biscuits are a favorite of the local construction workers.
Her regular lineup of sandwiches, including Italian meatloaf and pit-baked ham with Southern cole slaw, are priced at less than $7 so adding a drink and chips adds up to less than $10, she said. To do so, she uses whipped cranberry mustard yams or picked hardboiled eggs instead of cheese and substitutes homemade whiskey bacon jam for mayonnaise.
The items in the deli case are extras batches of whatever she cooked for her catering jobs.
After a slow start, Johnson said she has caterings scheduled almost every day this week. She would like to make $6,000 per month in sales, she said.
Johnson’s analysis of Durango’s restaurant scene is pretty much on track, other restaurant owners said. The opportunities available for high-level chef jobs in Durango is simply a factor of the small number of restaurants that need such a position, Cyprus Cafe owner Alison Dance said. There are only about a dozen executive chef-type positions here and among those, there isn’t a lot of turnover.
“If a chef gets a position (here), they don’t give it up,” said Dance, whose executive chef has been with the restaurant for 16 years.
Many top chefs also own their restaurants, as is the case with Barbara Helmer and Miguel Carrillo. Co-owners of the Kennebec Cafe, they also are the pastry chef and head chef, respectively.
Nobody can aim for those top positions because they always will be filled by the owners, Helmer said.
As her business progresses, Johnson is looking forward to hiring her first employee. It feels good to create a job, she said. After her landlord knocks down a house on the north side of her building, Johnson plans to add a patio and parking in the vacant lot.
And while she regularly finds herself working 70 hours per week, after six months doing nothing while she was injured, “it’s nice to be busy,” she said.