The sign in front of the Conoco gas station at South University Boulevard and East Exposition Avenue gives customers the daily gas prices. It also tells them the business has been owned by the Wilson family since 1942.
Across the street is The Saucy Noodle, an Italian restaurant run by the same family for 55 years.
And three storefronts north is The Campus Lounge, a neighborhood institution now owned by a family that has spent more than 50 years working on the street.
These family-owned businesses are among many on the one-block stretch of University Boulevard between Exposition and East Ohio Avenue that bring to life the sleepy residential neighborhood of Bonnie Brae. Some, such as the Pailet and Simon families, who co-own Bonnie Brae Ice Cream at the corner of University and Ohio, also work toward preserving the local business culture of the block. The two families own their building, as well as a few others on the east side of University.
Having older, family-run businesses also pays homage to old Denver’s legacy, said Erin Markham, co-owner of The Saucy Noodle: Knowing the same family has been running a business for decades is special.
“There’s comfort in knowing the same family is here,” she said.
Keeping the doors open isn’t always easy. Inflation in prices, decisions on whether children will carry on the legacy, and deaths in the family have all impacted these businesses. But the owners also think of their business as a home away from home, the place where they grew up.
And that, they say, is what makes Bonnie Brae such a special place to be.
‘A Denver jewel’
Bonnie Brae isn’t just special to business owners, but to customers as well. Bob Pailet, one of the co-owners of Bonnie Brae Ice Cream, said he often sees customers using the shop as a place to get together and spend time with friends. Gene Lang, a Hilltop resident stopping in for some ice cream, said he enjoyed coming to Bonnie Brae for its mix of family-owned businesses. He also liked the size of the nieghborhood.
“It’s not too dense,” Lang said.
The Nickless family is no stranger to the Bonnie Brae business scene, despite having just taken over ownership of The Campus Lounge about six months ago. Dan Nickless grew up running in the alleys while his dad ran the Esquire Market, which the family owned for 56 years.
Back then, Dan’s father, R. Walker, knew all his customers. Now that Dan and his son Jeff own The Campus Lounge, they hear stories from people coming in who remember R. Walker. Dan felt a connection with the neighborhood sports bar from the days of his childhood. His father sold steaks to The Campus Lounge from his grocery store, and his older brothers considered it their neighborhood hangout.
The Campus Lounge itself has its own storied history and was run for nearly 40 years by University of Denver alum Jim Wiste. Wiste sold the bar in 2016 after owning it for 40 years. Late last year, it was resold to the Nickless family, who wanted to preserve the legacy of the 70-year-old bar.
“This neighborhood is a Denver jewel. It’s just a very wonderful place to live and grow up,” Dan said. “It’s a neighborhood that deserves to have some tradition.”
Pailet, who has co-owned the Bonnie Brae Ice Cream shop with his wife Cindy, and business partners Ken and Judy Simon since 1986, agreed the block is a special place to run a business. Back then “we didn’t know how lucky we would be,” he said of buying a business in the neighborhood.
But the two couples quickly realized they had landed in a great place, Pailet said. In the 32 years since Bonnie Brae Ice Cream opened, Pailet said they have given jobs to 500 teenagers. All of the ice cream and waffle cones are made in-house. Although the owners have been tempted to open more locations, Pailet said that, in the end, they decided they weren’t going to find another Bonnie Brae.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we have,” he said.
Over the years, the Simon and Pailet families have begun to buy some of the properties on the east side of University on the Bonnie Brae block. In addition to renting to local businesses, Pailet said owning the buildings helps “preserve the character of the neighborhood.” Pailet said the families won’t sell to developers who plan on changing the layout of Bonnie Brae.
Carrying on the business
Across the street from The Campus Lounge is the Conoco gas station run by the Wilson family.
Kenny Wilson is named after his grandfather, who was the first in the family to run the station. In the 1940s, small gas stations were more popular, Wilson said, and Bonnie Brae boasted two other gas stations. Black and white photos of the family line the wall of the station behind the cash register.
Wilson has managed the station for the last several years, but he’s spent most of his life there. After trying out a different career for a short while, Wilson began working at Conoco again with dad, Gene, and his uncle. One morning in May 2012, Wilson was working at the station when his mother called to say his father had died. Gene had spent more than 40 years working at the station.
Many of Gene’s employees had kept in touch with him over the years. And they would tell the family they learned how to run an honest business from Gene, Wilson said. Like Wilson, many of them grew up inside the walls of the Conoco.
Working at the gas station helps him feel connected to his dad, Wilson said.
“It feels like he’s still here,” he said. “It sure helps if you’ve got family to carry (the business) on.”
The Bonnie Brae Tavern is another location that has benefitted from generations of one family running the business. The restaurant first opened in 1934 and since then, four generations of the Dire family have run the business, according to its website. The owners could not be reached for comment.
The restaurant was opened by Carl and Sue Dire when the Bonnie Brae neighborhood was in the early stages of development, according to an article written by Angela Dire on the tavern’s website. The Dires worked through the Great Depression and World War II, and saw the neighborhood build up around them. When Carl died in 1982, and again when Sue died in 2002, Angela wrote that the community came to support the Dires at the Bonnie Brae Tavern.
“You have been there for us as much as we’ve been there for you,” Angela wrote. “Your loyal patronage has allowed a third and fourth generation, grandchildren Michael and Ricky and now great- grandchildren Teresa, Pat and Chris, to maintain one of the longest continually owned and operated family businesses in Denver.”
‘An incredible gift’
The Saucy Noodle was a pizzeria when Sam Badis, Markham’s grandfather, bought it in 1964. Markham was raised in the restaurant by her grandfather, whom she adored.
“I loved his big heart,” she said.
But his kindness had a downfall. Badis gave everything to his employees, Markham said. He didn’t have enough leftover for insurance to cover the restaurant — or money for himself.
“When my grandfather died, he died with nothing,” she said.
Markham and her husband Nathan bought The Saucy Noodle after her grandfather died in 1998. At the time, the restaurant had just one room and a handful of tables. The couple tripled the size of the restaurant, adding two new rooms.
But shortly after the renovation a fire in the restaurant forced the Markhams to close and re-renovate. Markham was also pregnant with her daughter at the time. Many of the staff at the restaurant volunteered to help renovate. Although Markham said they had to get new jobs while The Saucy Noodle was closed, every single employee returned once the restaurant reopened.
“It was an incredible gift to me,” she said.
As a celebration, customers who ate there on the day The Saucy Noodle reopened signed their wine bottles. The bottles still line a shelf near the ceiling of the restaurant. In a business as busy as the restaurant industry, Markham said she is touched to know people willing to “fight that good fight with me.”
‘A sense of community’
Although working in restaurants is all Markham has known since she was a child, she is unsure if she wants her own children to work in the industry.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say, that whole legacy thing,” she said. “Unfortunately, legacies can’t live on in this way forever. I think 55 years, it’s certainly become a landmark. If it does go away, it won’t go away without memories.”
Bonnie Brae is special to those who work there, but it’s not without its struggles in a growing Denver. Markham said the area used to get more foot traffic than it does now. Marketing to millennials also is a difficult task, she said.
Christian Silver, who works in the Bonnie Brae area, said he thinks a few of the businesses on the block are trying to bring in younger clientele.
Bonnie Brae is the type of neighborhood that “makes old people feel comfortable,” because the businesses know their regulars, Silver said. But places such as the ice cream shop, which caters to families, and Campus Lounge, a bar with new ownership, are bringing in new and younger customers, he noted.
Markham is hopeful that people will see the value of keeping family-owned businesses like those on Bronnie Brae. She believes the neighbors value them as well.
“They understood the importance of keeping these businesses alive,” she said. “Denver’s been an amazing gift to us.”
“We can really feel a sense of community because we get to know our customers really well,” he said. “It’s a neat little block.”