Editor’s note: In early June, Earl Sutton contracted COVID-19 and was immediately hospitalized for extreme health conditions. There, he suffered a stroke and is in stable condition but remains in a medically induced coma. This article was originally published on November 9, 2020, but we’re rerunning the piece in honor of Sutton, who has been a beloved fixture at Zeppelin Station since 2019. If you’re able, please contribute to Sutton’s recovery and medical bills here.
If you’ve stepped inside Zeppelin Station any time in the last year and a half, chances are that Earl Sutton has improved your day, even if you didn’t realize it.
Sutton is the friendly jack-of-all-trades who keeps the RiNo food hall running smoothly and puts a smile on everyone’s face, from customers to food stall chefs to the office employees who work upstairs. And as the coronavirus pandemic forces Colorado restaurants, bars, and food halls to grapple with ever-changing restrictions and general uncertainty, Sutton’s contributions at Zeppelin Station have never been more apparent. He’s a steadying, constant presence amid the chaos.
Sutton’s official job title? The backbone of Zeppelin Station. It’s a fitting description of what he does every day, which is basically a little of everything. Sutton greets hungry diners as they arrive at the food hall, jovially explaining the current rules and guidelines they must follow to keep everyone safe. He also supports the kitchen and bar service by ensuring that vendors have everything they need for the day—paper products, linens, utensils, etc. “We use that title because he’s literally what keeps us standing,” says Marika Evanger, Zeppelin Station’s general manager.
Sutton’s journey to the world of hospitality and food-and-beverage has followed many twists and turns. He was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a teenager. Throughout his life, he’s held various jobs, ranging from building and plant maintenance to fundraising, event management, and security. He also helped raise his son, Earl Hood, who is now a successful music producer. (Music runs in the family; Sutton is a longtime drummer and percussionist.)
After Sutton lost his Wisconsin home following the Great Recession, he decided it was time for a change of scenery; he moved to Colorado to start over and be with his twin brother Floyd. He got a gig at Zeppelin Station as a contract security officer, was hired to work there full time in April 2019, and has tackled an expanding list of job duties ever since. Sutton proved himself to be so valuable that he was one of just two employees who was kept on at Zeppelin Station during the early part of the pandemic this past spring, when restaurants closed for in-person dining.
Sutton kept an eye on the food hall, as well as several other Zeppelin Development properties, while also helping its vendors transition to takeout and delivery. “When Earl is there, I know the food hall is in good hands. I know the place is well taken care of,” says Justin Croft, vice president of development for Zeppelin Development.
Since the food hall reopened for dine-in service in June, Sutton has helped put patrons at ease. He cracks jokes, gives compliments, and always wears a huge smile behind his mask, one that reaches his eyes. Sutton says that coming to work feels like a song he’s sung a million times. “When I get them coming in the door laughing and smiling, I get that positive energy flowing inside the place,” Sutton says. “You have to give that energy out. This is a time when people are just looking for some love.”
Sutton says that Zeppelin Station—where he feels genuinely accepted and valued for being himself—is his true home; he jokes that his apartment is just where he sleeps at night. Visitors often address him by name, and many of the employees who work in the 75,000-square-foot office space above the food fall go out of their way to greet him. The team at Zeppelin Station even hosted a celebratory jam session for Sutton on his 60th birthday earlier this month and made a special Instagram post in his honor, which moved him to tears.
Croft and Evanger say Sutton deserves every bit of recognition they can give him—and then some. “Everybody loves Earl,” Evanger says. “I don’t think we would’ve been able to get through this challenging time if we didn’t have him.”