Aaron Ewton moved to Colorado Springs from Claremore, Oklahoma — the birthplace and hometown of Will Rogers, “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son.” In Claremore, there’s a memorial museum dedicated to the entertainer, actor, cowboy, columnist and humorist.
His tomb rests on the grounds, overlooking Rogers State University — where Ewton completed his undergraduate education. Ewton’s home here in Colorado Springs is overlooked by another memorial dedicated to The Cowboy Philosopher: The Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun. It’s an 80-foot observation tower and monument built by Springs entrepreneur and philanthropist, Spencer Penrose — whose remains are interred within the chapel.
As owner of Atlas Restaurant Group, Ewton is a Springs entrepreneur himself. He partnered with Chef Andres Velez to open Piglatin Cocina’s brick-and-mortar space, building on the success of Velez’s Piglatin Food Truck. In 2020, Ewton partnered with Pikes Peak Brewing Founder Chris Wright and Joe Niebur and Troy Coats of Niebur Development to create COATI Uprise — the “culinary incubator” food hall that opened in September. The former trolley car maintenance hall on South Tejon Street houses Slow Downz Texas Creole, Anju Korean Eats, Luchal’s, Ephemera, Rival Bar and more.
Ewton talked with the Business Journal about his path from accounting to tour promotion to a spot as a mover and shaker in the restaurant scene.
Tell us your story.
I’m not from here but feel very much part of this community. Honestly, it feels weird to say I’m not. I’ve possessed a Springs address for 11 years, but was frequently visiting [the decade] prior because of family. I’ve witnessed a lot of our community’s growth — and most recently have become a part of that growth.
I’m first generation Guatemalan-American. My mom came over in her late teens and met my dad … an ‘Okie from Muskogee.’ I was born in South Texas, in what they call The Valley, nine miles from the Mexico border. My teens and early 20s were spent near Tulsa, Oklahoma. My dad’s hometown was in that area, and he had a ranch [with a] vision that my brother and I would grow up, homestead there, and raise our own families. It was a lot of hard work; I’ve never experienced work quite like that — and so, of course, as soon as we aged and had schooling, we both were out. We had 300 acres … and a lease to 3,000 more that we’d farm or raise animals on.
My father was a full-time firefighter by trade — but had my brother and I as farm hands. … We dug trenches, installed waterlines, put up fences, welded. It was a wild childhood, but the best thing my dad did for me was bring me along. His bread and butter was the fire department, but he had laundromats, gas stations, rental properties … he did it all. I see now where I get my aspirations from.
What about your educational background?
Accounting and statistics is my background, earning [credentials] at Rogers State University. I got kicked out of both University of Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa … because I wasn’t showing up. But the University of Oklahoma was important because it’s where I started to cut my teeth … as a concert promoter. My first year, a student sadly died from alcohol poisoning; he was hazed by his fraternity. As a result, the campus enforced a strict dry policy but created a budget for non-alcoholic entertainment which ultimately translated into concerts. A friend and I went into business, providing a safe entertainment for universities in Oklahoma. These concerts gave me hard lessons of how to balance a budget, properly labor-load, staff events, and forecast … instead of shooting from the hip.
I graduated high school at 17 and got a temp job in a mail room at a data processing company. They were three or four months behind when I started — and in about two weeks, I got them caught up. I was like, ‘Now what?’ I went around the offices knocking on doors, asking people if they needed help. Several said no, but then I stopped by an accountant’s office with mountains of files and boxes, and again asked, ‘Do you need help with anything?’ This little grey-haired head with glasses peeks up and asked, ‘Well, what can you do?’ I said, ‘I can clean this up, to start.’ I started filing her paperwork and she gave me an offer, full time. It paid my way through school. At that job, I realized that I’m not great at accounting, actually — but I’m really good at business processes … and there is a distinct difference. I spent eight years there and kept ascending the corporate ladder.
What was next for you?
I started promoting a small band in Oklahoma. In a short period of time, they locally blew up … in high demand, profitable, and traveling regionally. We started doing small, out-of-state shows. One night, one of the guitarists calls me to come downtown to a little coffee shop in Claremore. I arrive and the coffee shop is bursting at the seams with 300 kids spilling onto the sidewalk at 10 o’clock at night to see this band. I’m standing in the middle the street because it’s Claremore and there’s no traffic at night. The guitarist says, ‘See Aaron, there’s no place in our own hometown — that’s why we’ve been traveling. We need something here.’
It was like a scene from a movie: I turn around and there’s a building with a giant ‘For Sale’ sign. I called the number the next day … only $40,000 for this small warehouse space — an empty shell that simply needed someone to look at it through a different lens. At the time, I accumulated a quite a bit of capital by working three jobs, eating PB&J sandwiches, and not having a social life. I bought the building at 23. I got an SBA loan to finish the venue.
What I didn’t know at that time was that all the venues in Tulsa had closed. I found myself in this place of dumb luck with a void in the local music scene. It was very popular despite having no idea what I was doing … it was just me and some musicians figuring it out. Eventually, I ended up taking over 11 venues in seven states. My last year was my slowest with 311 events. Honestly, those experiences working with live music and entertainment were a precursor to COATI.
What brought you to Colorado Springs?
The real story is family. I was married previously, and her parents were here. I have two kids, and being close to their mom’s family is important. I had an address here but was traveling so much that I slept here only sometime. I had sold my house in Oklahoma but rented apartments in Kansas, Little Rock, and Tulsa. I was a resident here in the Springs but not a contributor — I was a consumer but not a contributor. Now, I’m involved and invested.
What was your first job here?
TRG Arts — Target Resource Group. They’re in the Wells Fargo building downtown. Working for Rick Lester and Jill Robinson was my first real business education — they taught me so much. Rick Lester was the interim director of big performing arts centers — if a director left, that fine arts center would call Rick. He passed away a few years ago … an incredibly generous human.
So how did you end up getting involved with Piglatin Cocina?
Axe and the Oak [distillery] was just getting started with their whiskey house. … I would hang out frequently for the social element — and be a part of their fresh energy. You could see magic happening. At that time, Axe and the Oak was laying down some really heavy craft cocktail, service industry, hospitality framework — some of the people who are at the top of their game now can be traced back to Axe and the Oak. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
I called Axe and asked if they needed any help, offering to work for free. I had my own consulting business and would sometimes have a couple months off at a time. I was told they were busy and needed help but couldn’t afford it. I worked shifts for free, and learned. I wanted to be a contributor. With that — inspired by Casey Ross of Axe and Ian and Nick Lee of Lee Spirits — I wanted to introduce rum to Colorado Springs. I purchased a defunct distillery in Denver. I got deep, buying all sorts of equipment … looking at a space in Lincoln Center. I had big plans. During the process of possibly purchasing a space, a friend brought Andres Velez of Piglatin Food Truck to my attention. I used to chase that truck down; I was a fanboy. I loved Piglatin.
My friend actually didn’t say Andres’ name, [only] referred to him as a great chef in town. I was down for a conversation. A meeting at Axe and the Oak was set up. I showed up early, and I see Andres Velez walk in — he notices me as a familiar face and comes over. I asked him what he was up to, and he said, ‘I don’t know. I’m supposed to meet some [expletive] about investing with Piglatin.’ I looked at him, and said, ‘Oh? … I think I’m that [expletive]!’ Andres was like, in true ‘Dre fashion, ‘Nah, son! If it’s you, I’m in!’ A week later, we signed papers. It just felt right.
Originally, he was going to create a food menu specific to my distillery’s tasting room — we had profit shares planned. Long story short, it didn’t work out at Lincoln Center — but we found success in the food desert of Union and Dublin. We had received reports that Union and Academy was the population density center of the Springs. Changing directions — wanting to move the Piglatin truck into a brick-and-mortar space — we purchased an old bakery. When we opened, we didn’t have a sign — it still said ‘bakery’ on our front … but we were slammed. We joked that we started as a ‘taco speakeasy.’ Let me say, it’s been four years since partnering with Andres. He’s very intuitive … has a pulse on things. I defer to him frequently.
How did COATI Uprise begin?
A lot of weird elements came into play. There was another concept that has since faded … but Lauren Wade — who has a strong marketing background — put a lot of work into it with me. Later, I ended up having a conversation with realtor Joe Niebur of Niebur Development, and he showed me this space — where COATI is now — and I told him about this fully conceptualized plan that I already developed with Wade. The idea wasn’t just F&B, food and beverage, but rather FB&E: food, beverage and experience. I think that third aspect — experience — has been sorely missing in Colorado Springs. We, at COATI, frequently provide events for the community, such as live music performances, our popular silent discos, and more.
Progress: being better than before — that’s all there is.