Locals pivot talents, adapt livelihoods during pandemic

Artist and master printmaker Sue Oehme modified her business model for Oehme Graphics in Steamboat Springs from in-person visiting artists and traveling to print fairs, to working virtually with artist clients and print buyers. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After the COVID-19 pandemic closures hit mountain communities hard one year ago, many Routt County individuals learned to adapt their artistic and culinary skills to create new business opportunities. While the personal pivots were often related to financial need, many creative individuals also tapped into their passions.

Experienced Steamboat Springs executive chef Russell Goodman was laid off from a fine dining restaurant when Steamboat Resort closed early, so he turned to his background as a pastry chef and interest in local foods to start his own business Wildcrafted Chocolate.

His packages of specialty chocolate bonbons sold out each week from last summer through Valentine’s Day at the local Community Agricultural Alliance Marketplace. The flavors of fillings in the soft chocolate shells range from mint — raised in his backyard garden — to Palisade peach and plum, to chokecherry, thimbleberry and sarvisberry foraged locally and canned as preserves.

Goodman said he was grateful to share his interests with members of the community, noting, “This project was birthed at the intersection of free time, foraged ingredients and chocolate making.”

Steamboat Springs chef Russell Goodman makes chokecherry-filled bonbon chocolates for his company Wildcrafted Chocolate that he started last summer after being laid off as an executive chef when the pandemic hit. (Courtesy photo)

The CAA Marketplace provides an outlet for a variety of cottage food producers. Hayden resident Chris Poole was laid off in March after five years working in restaurant supply sales, so he turned to his passion for cooking homemade soup. Through his existing family business Steamboat Salt Co., Poole developed a selection of soups from Colorado lamb stew to Irish farmhouse veggie sold in frozen quarts through the marketplace.

“I could cater to the community with simple and comforting soups and at the same time make a little bit of money,” Poole said.

Laid off from her location-neutral job in corporate travel management, Steamboat Springs resident Mollie Rusher turned to her 20-year Christmas gift tradition of making pickles. She sells four varieties of spicy pickles through her company Mollie’s of Steamboat.

“I wanted to figure out a way to be self-sufficient,” said Rusher, who utilized skills from her business management degree. “It’s been really rewarding having people enjoy the products I make and being really crafty.”

Steamboat Springs resident Mollie Rusher pivoted after being laid off from corporate travel work to developing her favorite annual holiday gifts of spicy pickles into a local business Mollie’s of Steamboat. (Courtesy photo)

Before the pandemic, Steamboat personal chef Sharon Ashburn of Stay at Home Chef cooked four times a week in homes for parties of eight. During the pandemic she turned to preparing affordable homemade meals for two that she froze and delivered to customers’ coolers on their porches. The contactless business featured hearty dishes such as lasagna bolognaise and chicken tikka masala.

“I learned more about marketing myself and about customer service and follow up,” Ashburn said. “I’m so grateful that I had something to do to stay ahead of the game.”

In the local artistic community, dance instructor and musical performer Scott Goodhart pivoted from performing and teaching 80% group classes and parties and 20% private lessons to instead teaching 100% private lessons including for out-of-state students.

Private music teacher and flutist Mary Beth Norris canceled all recitals and moved lessons to her front porch in warm weather and built a plexiglass musician enclosure for inside lessons.

Visual artists had to adapt too, including master printmaker Sue Oehme, owner of Oehme Graphics in Steamboat Springs. Pre-pandemic Oehme hosted many visiting artists from across the country, traveled to six print fairs a year and taught classes in her studio. That work morphed to scheduling detailed video calls with artist clients and print buyers, upgrading her online artists’ catalogue and mailing printing plates back and forth with artists.

Oehme and other artists learned how to tap into the pandemic’s real estate boom to reach clients looking to add artwork to make their pandemic living environment more beautiful.

Steamboat Springs professional painter and teacher Chula Beauregard adapted from teaching in-person painting and drawing classes to offering online classes, which doubled the number of attendees and reached students in other states. (Courtesy photo)

Professional artist and teacher Chula Beauregard in Steamboat said sales of her paintings picked up last fall as buyers sought out artwork. Early in the pandemic, she canceled in-person drawing and painting workshops to create online courses. The virtual classes attracted twice the number of students, multigenerational families and pupils from across the country. She also started a new class last fall teaching online for Yampa Valley High School students.

Locals with artistic and culinary skills say resiliency and creativity have been key to adapting during the past year.

“It’s definitely been amazing to see how many creative people are in this valley, people who are really finding ways to express themselves and showcase their products and creativity,” Poole noted.

“For the people who have stood tall in this community,” Norris said, “they have continued through this pandemic to once again find a way to help others and support themselves.”

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