2018 Rising Star: Nina Lee

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Nina Lee views her restaurant 503W as more than just an eatery and craft bar. She sees it as a catalyst for change on Colorado Springs’ near Westside.

Lee and her soon-to-be husband Rollie Ortiz opened 503W four years ago at 503 W. Colorado Ave. The building was owned by her parents, Don Barrows and Mi “Millie” Lee, who operated the Dutch Mill Tavern at the site.

“It was an old-style tavern,” Lee said. Helping out her parents from time to time, “I witnessed there wasn’t a lot of culture.”

In fact, the neighborhood had a dreary, industrial vibe — not what most people would think of as the ideal place for an upscale restaurant and trendy bar. But when Millie Lee hired the couple to help her sell the tavern, the two decided to buy it themselves.

“When we opened the doors, we took that blind chance that we could potentially fail,” Nina Lee said. “There wasn’t anything close to what we wanted to do in the neighborhood at that time.”

Lee and Ortiz wanted to bring a different type of clientele to the area. While students at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, they had enjoyed craft beer and decided to offer unusual selections along with interesting menu items made with fresh, local ingredients.

503W’s menu ranges from street food like the popular Korean tacos and burgers enhanced with ingredients like goat cheese, chorizo and sriracha aioli, to elegant dishes like Thai glazed salmon and hearty weekend brunches. Diners can accompany their meals with Colorado craft beers and unique selections such as Happy Leaf Kombucha Orange Basil, a kombucha/ale hybrid.

But great food and libations were only part of the mission Lee envisioned. After graduation from CSU, she and Rollie spent five years in Hawaii, where she worked for Kupu, a nonprofit that trains and mentors youth.

“It gave me an understanding of what it means to be in a community and make an impact,” Lee said. “It spurred me to open up my own business.”

In the four years since it’s been in operation, 503W has become a hot spot that employs more than 20 people, and it has begun to change the look and feel of the neighborhood as new businesses sprout around it.

Lee “has dedicated so much time and resources in making her community stronger and more vibrant,” said her nominator, Junior Ortiz. “Her vision for Colorado Springs is one that aligns with a hopeful future.”

— Jeanne Davant

What advice would you give your younger self?

Take a deep breath; don’t always say yes to everything, and figure out that life-work balance. Try to be present in the moment.

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