It’s no surprise that the folks who decided to open Colorado Springs’ only “vegan dive bar” — on the edge of a strip mall — have a sense of humor and a more-the-merrier attitude.
“What’s my position — bar clown?” Burrowing Owl co-owner Tyler Schiedel asked. “We like to say this is our playground. We’re mostly a bunch of children with a blank canvas, being able to paint their dreams.”
The Burrowing Owl is owned by Schiedel, his wife Cody Rilo, and Aspen and Mike Nipp — all self-described “longtime Colorado Springs hospitality workhorses” who love the social aspect of the business.
Schiedel and Rilo started working on the idea of a vegan diner in early 2014, but decided on a “simple little neighborhood dive bar,” Schiedel said, “because a vegan diner is a pretty big reach for a first project.”
The Nipps joined them in their startup plans in the summer of 2014. Propelled by an $18,111 Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and a sense of urgency — “I had already turned in my notice,” Schiedel said, “so I was going to have no job come Jan. 1, 2015” — they brought to life their vision of a community-focused, sustainable bar.
The Burrowing Owl is dark and inviting, with what Schiedel calls a “Dad’s basement” feel. There’s no neon, no television — it’s all about a timeless Colorado atmosphere, throwback beer signs, cozy corners and a bright patio surrounded by reclaimed windows and potted plants.
Most striking are the bar, tables and benches made from a 120-year-old Ponderosa pine, part of the Black Forest fire mitigation. Aspen’s uncle, Pat Mabrey, had been “saving this tree for something special,” and he milled the wood and built all the furniture himself.
Beyond being sustainable and vegan, the bar has a larger purpose, Rilo said.
“It’s a place to disconnect from technology and reconnect with the community,” she said.
“We kind of wanted it to be a community center,” Schiedel said. “Let’s talk about anything you want to talk about. You want to talk about what’s hard in your life? Come on down, and know that somebody will be here and open and ready to listen. If you want to talk politics, we’ll engage in politics — it’s not always the easiest or the most comfortable, but it’s meaningful.
“It has to be a cool bar — because if the seven vegans in Colorado Springs show up, they’ll be stoked no matter what we do,” Schiedel joked. “But that’s not sustainable, so how do you get the masses to really enjoy something?
“In [Colorado Springs] for the most part, people are open-minded, so we do have a lot of meat-eaters that come here. We don’t exclude anybody, and our intentions were definitely to make this a bar first.”
Beyond the open welcome and old-school feel, The Burrowing Owl has earned a reputation for appealing to the masses with a menu that upends the common expectations of vegan food.
On The Burrowing Owl’s Facebook page, the owners wrote: “When people come in and are skeptical of vegan food, we give them Naysayer Nachos (a free sampler plate of Serious Nachos) to show them that vegan food isn’t only twigs and dirt.”
“People tell their friends, ‘I can’t believe it — it’s really good food and I’m not even vegan!’” Rilo said.
Although initially reluctant to choose an unlikely spot in a strip mall, let alone one that had previously housed a failed coffee shop, Schiedel said the advantages of the location had turned out to be “immensely overwhelming.”
And despite joking about the city’s “seven vegans,” Schiedel said Colorado Springs “has blown us away with how many vegans there are.”
Marketing has only been via word-of-mouth and social media, but they’ve still been run off their feet and amazed by the response. Schiedel said their hope is to open a new project every three years or so — always vegan and neighborhood-focused, with various spins on the idea of a bar.
It’s been a wild ride since Rilo and Schiedel’s conversion to veganism, while driving along a highway three years ago.
“I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 14,” Rilo recalled, “But one day coming back from Arizona I said, ‘I can’t really call myself an animal activist if I’m still supporting factory farms,’ and Tyler said, ‘I’ll be vegan with you.’ And I said, ‘Whoa — I wasn’t talking about being vegan, man! I was just talking about getting butter out of my life!’ But together we started cooking, and now we’ll never go back.”
The Burrowing Owl has been so busy, there’s been no time to print a permanent menu, or even have an official opening. There’ll be time for that, though.
“We’re not just here to turn and burn,” Schiedel said, “We’re here to have lifelong customers. We want to be able to look back in 30 years and say, ‘That’s a staple of the Springs — it’s where you’ve got to go at least once in your life.’”