Stronger-than-expected winter has restaurant industry feeling optimistic
‘We certainly hope the worst is behind us’
After a COVID-shortened 2019-20 ski season and health-mandated shutdowns that saw many local restaurants struggle to get by and a few close for good, this past winter was a welcome surprise.
A busier-than-expected season has many in the Park City restaurant industry optimistic that the worst of the pandemic’s economic hit is in the rearview mirror.
Ginger Wicks, executive director of the Park City Area Restaurant Association since 2011, said while she does not have actual revenue numbers, she knows from conversations with members that 2020 was incredibly trying.
“It was the most challenging time I have ever experienced as the executive director,” she said. “From keeping members informed, to the ever-changing climate, to keeping guests and community up to speed on dining options.”
This past winter, however, saw a strong rebound — March in particular.
“While it certainly came with its challenges due to the pandemic and operating with social distancing restrictions, for many the winter was busier than expected,” Wicks said. “March was the busiest month most have ever seen. Those that put money into expanding their outdoor dining options certainly benefited.”
Looking back, Wicks said there were a few hurdles every restaurant seemed to have to overcome, beyond just staying on top of evolving safety guidelines.
“Managing the public and face masks. Lack of staffing has been a huge issue across Park City,” she said. “Many employees were working at a variety of locations and so if they were exposed at one location, it at times turned into a domino effect throughout the workforce with the spread of the virus.”
Blind Dog owner and general manager Penn Kinsey said her restaurant was “on a roller coaster” just like most other businesses, which required ingenuity to navigate.
“Most of the problems we had never dealt with before. Supply shortages, new floor plans,” she said. “(But) we were very happy with our season. Yes, it was down from prior years, but not by much.”
Brooks Kirchheimer, proprietor of Hearth and Hill, had a relatively upbeat take on the difficulties of the past year, which he said “entailed tons of learning, pushing ourselves to try new things and (being) a strong member of the community through it all.”
Kirchheimer said he is proud to have stayed open throughout the pandemic and to have been ahead of the curve in mandating masks for indoor dining. He also pointed to some of the creative measures the restaurant took to offer something unique for customers, including a Mexican feast delivery meal option for Cinco de Mayo, delivered with a mariachi band in tow. Twelve families took advantage of that offer, he said.
“No doubt this past year was unique,” he said. “It forced everyone to get creative and not just rest on what they are used to. Second, staff were concerned, confused and emotional about the current events and what to do. We made it our mission to support them the best we possibly could. We called every associate every week the first month we were closed (for indoor dining) to check in on them and make sure they were OK.”
Kirchheimer said he was concerned with the poor weather to start this winter season, and with the lack of holiday parties in early December, “a big stream of revenue” for restaurants.
“I don’t think many in town could predict that it would be as busy as it was in February and March before the season started,” he said. “Certainly after the start to the winter we had, we were very happy with the finish.”
The biggest challenge for the restaurant industry going forward, as Kirchheimer sees it, is finding employees.
“Every restaurant I’ve talked to across the country is looking for staff,” he said.
Jodie Rogers, director of food and beverage at Deer Valley Resort, said the resort took great pains to keep dining options open for its guests, from capacity limits to offering tableside service at its cafeterias. The resort removed buffet options and added grab-and-go, and included food ordering and reservations through its Deer Valley app. Rogers said it was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.
“I have been very lucky in my years in the industry and have never had to go through this before,” she said. “It has been tough for us all. The hardest for me was being confident in making the right decisions that put all staff first in safe situations.”
Rogers said she is pleased with how the winter season went for Deer Valley’s food and beverage operations, but thinks there are still lessons to learn moving forward.
“I do not really see the post-pandemic much different than what we had to accommodate this season,” she said. “I know we have learned many lessons in what we should be offering versus what we think we should be offering. If my team feels safe and secure, then we will be in a great place. We will take the next few months to evaluate our wins and losses. This will give us a base to move forward for our next adventure.”
Wicks said the restaurant association is optimistic about the shoulder season and beyond.
“We are excited to be moving into the summer and (adding) more outdoor seating options,” she said. “We are hopeful that the coming summer and fall will help get all businesses in our community back on track and on the road to recovery from the effects of the pandemic.
“We are hopeful as our community, surrounding areas and the world work through the vaccination processes things will be getting back to the new normal, whatever that might be. We certainly hope the worst is behind us.”
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Another ski season is in the books, and much to the relief of the restaurant industry, the outlook, like the weather, is looking sunny.