Why on-mountain dining is so expensive
Why does a Gatorade atop Vail Mountain cost $7? And why does a burger at Bistro Fourteen command $22?
It isn’t just the fact that the all-natural, 6-ounce burger comes topped with all the fixin’s: Tillamook cheddar cheese, a heirloom tomato, lettuce, onion, pickle and hand-cut fries. And it’s not just because the restaurant is upscale. It’s also the fact that obtaining and transporting food and beverages to relatively remote restaurants sitting at 10,000 feet costs much more than bringing the items to an urban eatery. In fact, all the logistics of serving food become far more complex when you’re on top of a frozen mountain, according to a podcast produced by Vail Resorts that outlined dining and the service industry at 10,000 feet.
Simply transporting food and beverages from delivery trucks to Vail’s restaurants takes at least eight teams of workers. Let’s trace the Bistro burger from truck to table:
Everything on the burger — the meat, buns, lettuce, cheese, tomatoes and potatoes — arrive on separate delivery trucks. The delivery trucks pull into a warehouse, located two stories underground, under The Arrabelle at Vail Square. One team unloads the trucks, organizes the food items by whichever restaurant they go to, wheels the products down an underground tunnel and up an elevator to the gondola (where a different team runs the lift).
At the top of the mountain, a different team unloads the products and places them on a snowcat (which, of course, requires a driver). Then, another team, at the restaurant, meets the snowcat and unloads it.
A team of chefs cooks the burgers and fries, another wait staff team takes the food out to the customer, and yet another team cleans the dining room when guests leave. Then, of course, there are the logistics of taking all of the recyclables and waste off of the mountain.
While most off-mountain restaurants employ at least two teams (chefs and wait staff), a Vail Resort establishment utilizes about four times the amount of teams.
“The logistics of getting product here, and the amount of people — the amount of staff that it takes to sell that cheeseburger — is a pretty staggering number at times,” said Doug Wooldridge, who runs five Vail restaurants.
Sometimes, delivery trucks can’t even reach mountain town restaurants, particularly more remote areas like Vail Resorts’ Crested Butte or Kirkwood. This season, a huge storm caused a two to three day delivery delay of products at Kirkwood — something managers and chefs must always factor into the equation.
“When you think about a restaurant in, say, Denver, they get regular deliveries,” said Tim Martin, director of food and beverage performance and innovation. “If there isn’t a delivery, if they get in a super-tight pinch, they can go run to the market — they can run to a King Soopers or a Whole Foods to get through that service. They have access to farmers markets on a regular basis that are out their door … (and) vendors typically come to your back door.”
Even once delivery trucks negotiate Vail Pass, they face tight entrances and turns on the relatively narrow roads and driveways in Vail Village.
Elevation doesn’t only affect how long water takes to boil. It also affects fresh produce; it just doesn’t last as long.
“I can’t imagine how the guys down in Breckenridge and Beaver Creek deal with this because of the altitude that they’re at,” said Wolfgang Sterr, executive chef at Whistler Blackcomb.
Indeed, the challenge adds to food costs.
And, cooking at high elevation comes with its own trial and errors; chefs on Sterr’s team modified their pizza dough 30 times before they came up with a recipe that succeeds at altitude.
Even gas-powered stoves require special calibration to work efficiently at the top of Vail Mountain.
Build it right
On-mountain establishments also cost more to build. To begin with, transporting building materials and equipment up a mountain (and bringing construction waste down) costs much more than building in town.
On-mountain restaurants must be engineered to withstand heavy snow loads and to shed snow efficiently. Architects must design them with the idea of snow base depth; that’s why most on-mountain restaurants sit on the floor elevation, above ground level. The buildings must also provide ski storage and racks and space for skiers and riders to circulate as they come and go, emerging from, and merging into, others on the hill.
“I often think that people don’t often appreciate how much goes into operating a ski resort and even more so about our mountain restaurants,” said Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts. “In some ways, they look like just any other restaurant but they’re not. There are many challenges to delivering high quality food at 10,000 feet.”
Perhaps the main challenge involves bringing all of the moving parts and pieces gracefully together so guests never suspect how much work it takes.
“That means a Gatorade at the top of a mountain is going to cost a little bit more than your neighborhood grocery store,” Katz said.
Even though the cost of on-mountain food and beverages is the number one concern Katz hears from guests, it’s clear, just by sheer number, that people are willing to pay for convenience, comfort and amazing views.