During the last week of 2021, visitors flocked to the Secret Stash—a popular pizza restaurant in Crested Butte—after skiing and boarding on the mountain all day. The 20-year-old spot is busy any time of year. But in late 2021, when numerous neighboring restaurants were closed because their employees contracted coronavirus, the Secret Stash was one of the town’s few open dining options and became overwhelmed with guests, says owner Kyleena Falzone. 

For the past two years, restaurants across the country have been battered by closures, supply chain issues, staffing shortages, reduced demand, and other issues. In fact, a recent survey released by the Colorado Restaurant Association reported that more Colorado restaurants are likely to close in 2022 than in 2021 due to rising operational costs, labor challenges, and the lack of federal relief. Despite the fact that restaurants in resort towns such as Crested Butte, Breckenridge, and Avon are reporting pre-pandemic numbers of visitors during the 2021–2022 ski season, they are still coping with the same challenges amid high demand. Even worse, the housing shortages that have become synonymous with resort towns have made serving guests even more difficult.

Through the fall of 2021 and this winter, the Secret Stash has opened for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Falzone was even able to retain 100 percent of her summer stuff in the seasonal transition. But with housing becoming scarcer by the day in the iconic mountain town, keeping employees is now more challenging. “It’s just awful,” Falzone says. “I mean, there’s people leaving by the minute that can’t make ends meet here. It’s happening in every ski resort [town].” 

With an increase in remote work during the pandemic, more and more people have left bustling cities to nest in idyllic mountain towns. This year, the Colorado Association of Ski Towns studied and found that rent prices have increased between 20 and 40 percent from 2019 to 2020; the availability of rental properties has shrunk (the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Mountain Migration Report noted an extremely low vacancy rate of 1.5 percent in February and March 2020); and home prices are rapidly increasing. 

Housing was an issue before the pandemic—but now, Falzone says, it’s an emergency. “[The Town of Crested Butte] has big ideas and plans in Crested Butte and they’re working on building employee housing,” she says. “But it’s going to take a while and the problem is that people need it now.”

Many of Falzone’s employees are living in vans through the winter, couch surfing, or sharing hotel rooms with multiple others. Most restaurants normally wouldn’t help their servers and managers secure housing. But with help from the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority’s Good Deed Housing Program—which offers incentives to owners who place a deed restriction on their property to limit occupancy to local workers—the Secret Stash bought a triplex that employees can rent rooms from for $750 per month, a below-market rate, Falzone says. She’s also looking at building up to 15 more units.

In addition, the Stash added a section to its menu that encourages guests to leave tips for the kitchen staff; the funds are distributed to employees to help with housing. Customers can tip however much they like, but when they leave $1,000 or more, the Stash matches it. Last summer, the owners matched $16,000 via the program. Guests are often generous and the menu offers them a window of opportunity to give, Falzone says.

Further east in Summit County, Tim Applegate owns eight restaurants in Silverthorne, Avon, and Breckenridge—including Sauce on the Blue, Sauce on the Creek, Sauce on the Maggie, and Quandary Grill—under his Rocky Mountain Hospitality umbrella. While the group isn’t currently experiencing staff shortages, it’s been a busy season for the eateries. “There’s lines out the door,” he says. “We’re back to pre-pandemic numbers with tourists and visitors. We’ve been doing well.”

As a result—like Falzone—Applegate’s company bought rental properties in 2021 for staff to live in. “We did it because we had people that wanted to work here, but they have no place to live, and we had people who were living here getting kicked out,” he says. “So, we tried to find a solution to the problem and that was our solution.”

Currently, the organization owns a fourplex that can hold two to four employees per unit. There isn’t enough space for everyone, considering Rocky Mountain Hospitality employs over 180 people, but it’s a start and he’s looking for more properties. While Applegate wasn’t prepared to share information about how the group financed the properties, he noted: “How could we not afford to buy it? That’s kind of the stock answer for us. We couldn’t afford not to buy it.”

With COVID-19 becoming an endemic (Summit County’s mask mandate also expired at the end of January) and tourists eager to leave home to visit the high country, Applegate is optimistic that the spring and summer of 2022 will be the area’s busiest seasons ever. 

Mike Steger, co-owner of the Canteen, Robbie’s Tavern, the Boot Saloon, and the Bird and Cow in Breckenridge, says his restaurants are also seeing pre-pandemic levels of guests on some days—and he could be running all four at full speed, if he had enough staff to cover shifts at every venue. Housing has been at the forefront of the issue. 

“Ironically, the first question we ask people when they come in and apply for a job is not ‘do you have serving experience or any type of restaurant experience,’ but ‘do you have housing?’” he says. If an applicant hasn’t secured housing, Steger’s restaurants can’t move forward with them.

Servers tend to make enough money to live in Breckenridge, Steger says, even if they’re paying $1,000 for a room in a house, but even single rooms are harder and harder to find. More of his employees are moving over Boreas Pass and commuting into Breckenridge from Alma or Fairplay. Those who have paid the high cost of living for the ski bum dream may also tire of the financial reality and move on to live elsewhere.

Steger’s newest restaurant, the Bird and Cow, opened this past December—13 months after he purchased the building. When the restaurant was finally ready to open, Steger pulled staff from Robbie’s to help cover shifts. While it’s supposed to be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the Bird and Cow only has enough staff to operate from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. 

Still, despite staffing, housing, and supply chain challenges, Steger sees his situation as mostly positive. Restaurants all over the U.S. have folded after facing reduced demand, rising supply costs, and shifting pandemic restrictions. In resort towns with winter in full swing, there are plenty of tourists who are spending money dining. 

“What dumb luck that we decided to open restaurants in Breckenridge,” he says.

How Resort Town Restaurants are Battling Other Ongoing Pandemic Challenges

Recruiting Early and Efficiently 

Anticipating employee shortages and a busy season, Winter Park Resort started recruiting workers two months ahead of when they normally do and “aggressively pursued staffing.” To keep its restaurant Doc’s running smoothly, the ski resort has pulled employees from weekday shifts to add them to weekend schedules. The restaurant has also increased grab-and-go options like burritos, sandwiches, and hamburgers to make it easier for customers to get food without requiring wait service. 

The Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa also anticipated a busy winter season and recruited employees from other Hyatts to keep its operation running smoothly. In October 2021, the hotel had a 73 percent increase in guests over the previous year and was running at or near full capacity around the holidays. “There are some days where occupancy has dropped a little bit, but overall, it’s been really more than normal,” says Amrut Misra, the director of hotel operations. 

Simplifying Menus

The Park Hyatt’s 8,100’ Mountainside Bar & Grill is known for high-end fare, but since it’s still experiencing supply chain issues and staffing shortages to a degree, its new chef, Santosh Karadi, designed a new, simpler menu that can be implemented by a smaller number of team members and ingredients for a high volume of guests. “The chef has created a menu where the prep time isn’t too extensive,” Misra says. “And, even if it’s extensive, the finished product doesn’t take too much time.”

Reusing Appliance Parts

The Bird and Cow’s Steger says kitchen appliances and appliance parts have been the hardest to source with lead times stretching longer because of shipping delays. Instead of disposing of equipment like he did before the pandemic, Steger built a boneyard of kitchen appliances and cannibalizes old ones for parts when something breaks.

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