Food service operators dish on adapting to a menu of post-pandemic challenges. Ski areas are adapting their food and beverage operations in response to overarching factors—like staffing shortages and supply chain problems—that are largely out of their control. In many cases, it is resulting in an improved experience for the back-of-the-house and desirable products for guests. When life gives you lemons, as the old saying goes, you make lemonade. EFFICIENCY MEASURES “We’ve been redesigning our menu in response to the fact that we don’t have the staff in the kitchen and to make it easier for the chefs,” says Tim Smith, general manager at New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley, which recently shifted the offerings at its popular T-Bars restaurant to a Tex-Mex menu, replacing items like the labor-intensive Jack’s Outback sandwich with easy-to-prepare enchiladas. “We’ve gone heavy on prep for the lunch rush,” says Smith, noting that key Tex-Mex ingredients like ground beef, shredded cheese, and refried beans can all be prepared in advance. Waterville Valley has fielded a few complaints about the changes, but Smith says the shift was a necessary response to a shortage of back-of-house staff. “We had one-hour ticket times on food orders, we weren’t flipping tables, and it was hell on the chefs,” he says. “That two hours a day at lunch is when you make all of your money.” Efficiency measures. Among other efficiency measures, to cut down on staff time spent handling condiments at the Marketplace’s food stations, Waterville Valley moved toppings for soups, chili, burgers, and sandwiches to the salad bar. Another improvement came to be after Smith came home from a trip through Boston’s Logan International Airport, where he saw chefs at the Wolfgang Puck Pizza restaurant rapidly cranking out pies for time-strapped travelers. Smith made inquiries and ended up buying four of the TurboChef FRE-9600-1 convection ovens in use at the airport, which operate at temperatures of up to 842ºF and can cook a 14-inch pizza with a premade crust in 90 seconds. “I have very picky owners, but the pizzas are amazing and fast,” Smith says. FAST CASUAL “As we’ve moved out of Covid, we’ve shifted to more ‘fast casual’ concepts,” says Mike Giorgio, general manager at Michigan’s Mt. Brighton Ski Area, who is also a trained chef with a degree in culinary arts. “We do quick food and a quality product; guests order at the register and we run the food out to you”—similar to the experience of ordering food at a Panera Bread eatery. “The guests want us to get back to full service, but I don’t know that the staffing level is there,” says Giorgio. “It’s easier to train cooks on the fast casual model if they haven’t worked in a high-volume restaurant before. We have people who are willing to work in restaurants and be a cook because the wages are higher than they were a year or two ago, but the experience level isn’t there.” Mt. Brighton also has limited its menu choices and looked to find multiple purposes for the same ingredients. The burger options at the Ski Hill Grill, for example, have been trimmed from 15 to 4, and the same fish used in fried fish-and-chips shows up pan-seared for fish tacos and poached as a salad topper. “We do these few things really well and it makes it easier on the guest, so it’s really a win-win,” Giorgio says. John Ashworth, a principal at ski resort architectural design firm Bull Stockwell Allen, says the “high quality, fewer ingredients, multiple preparations” model fits especially well at resorts that have built centralized food prep kitchens. Efficiency vs. experience. The biggest challenge for Mt. Brighton has been finding the right balance between efficiency and preserving the guest experience during après ski, according to Giorgio. “The guests want music back, and a more expansive food menu,” he says. “The demand for après ski is greater than even pre-pandemic. People are craving experience. They’re aware that it will cost a little more and they are OK with that.” TURNING TO TECH For Alterra Mountain Company, the solution to staffing shortages and the need for greater efficiency in operations focuses not on food menus but on the point of sale. The company recently inked a deal with touchless self-checkout system maker Mashgin to deploy its terminals at Palisades Tahoe, Big Bear Mountain Resort, and Mammoth Mountain, Calif., as well as Winter Park Resort, Colo. Mashgin touchless self-checkout terminals are reportedly improving the speed of service at several Alterra Mountain Company resorts. The cutting-edge system can scan all of the items on a customer’s food tray and ring them up automatically, at speeds up to 10 times faster than a cashier. Rather than reading barcodes, multiple cameras identify items like sandwiches, snacks, drinks, and soups by their size and shape; customers pay for their meal at a touchscreen that tallies the entire order, even if it involves multiple trays of food carried by family or group members. The Alterra deal is the first rollout of the technology in the ski industry. “The initial results have been promising in improving speed of service and has already seen positive feedback from many of our guests,” says Alterra COO Mark Brownlie. Effective staff utilization. “Being more efficient is a good trend,” says Claire Humber, director of resort planning at SE Group. “You can’t just be focused on revenue but on managing experiences. The pandemic forced people to think about human interaction and how it helps or hurts the guest experience.” For example, staff can be important ambassadors for the resort in a table-service restaurant, but insignificant or even unnecessary in a fast-food environment where “people just want to get their food,” says Humber. THE SEARCH FOR STAFF Reducing food service operating hours is another way that ski areas like Jay Peak, Vt., and Mt. Brighton are trying to make the most efficient use possible of limited staff. And, of course, the most obvious solution to staffing shortages is finding new ways to attract and retain staff. Waterville Valley has had success using a Puerto Rico-based recruiting company to find workers who are already U.S. citizens, while Jay Peak used the federal J-1 cultural exchange and H-2B temporary worker visa programs to help fully staff up during the past holiday season, which turned out to be the resort’s busiest Christmas week ever. Jay also boosted its starting wage for kitchen staff to $17 an hour to attract more local workers. “I think staffing is kind of getting back on track,” says Chris Clements, food service director at Jay. SUPPLY ON THE FLY The supply shortages that have bedeviled many resort F&B operations have also required some flexible thinking. “At one point, we had trouble getting French fries,” says Waterville’s Smith. “We just changed them, nobody noticed.” A shortage of chicken breasts led to a quick substitution of chicken thighs for a recent banquet, which actually resulted in rave reviews from the customer and a morale boost for kitchen staff. “You have to be adaptable,” says Smith. “If you position the menu so that chefs can be creative, they feel really good.” Proactive procurement. When it comes to procurement, complacency is a luxury that F&B teams can no longer afford, says Clements. Lack of availability and price volatility may have improved somewhat in the last year, he says, but “we’re not 100 percent committed to any vendor, because we need to shop around to get the best price.” “We’ve had to find producers who can keep up with our volume,” says Giorgio. “We now have three levels of redundancy for chicken fingers, and that’s a frame of mind and planning we’ve never had to do before.” THE OPTION TO OUTSOURCE In an F&B environment where the challenges of running a stable and profitable operation are greater than ever, it’s perhaps no surprise that some ski areas have turned to third parties to run their dining operations. Sodexo Live, for example, recently added three new ski resorts—Windham Mountain and Bristol Mountain in New York and Mount St. Louis Moonstone in Ontario—to its roster, joining long-time clients like Jiminy Peak, Mass., Bromley, Vt., and Cranmore, N.H. Core competencies. Chris Johns, director of strategic growth in the ski industry for Sodexo Live, says outsourcing allows resorts to focus on their core competencies while leaving issues like F&B staffing and procurement to an experienced vendor. For example, whereas ski areas can face a steep learning curve when it comes to establishing a successful program for J-1 visa workers, “We do that for a living,” says Johns. Johns says outsourcing doesn’t mean having to accept cookie-cutter operations, either. “It’s not institutional food,” he says, pointing out that the company often sources locally and develops partnerships of its own—Sodexo recently announced plans to bring Carnegie Deli outlets to several New York ski areas. RISING PRICES The rising cost of eggs has become a popular internet trope, but in the food service industry it’s chicken wings that have become the bellwether for soaring costs as well as chronically short supply. Cooking oil, too, has been transformed from a cheap commodity to a supply that needs to be sourced carefully and used (or reused) mindfully. Resorts are mindful of not pushing the added supply costs onto consumers. “We make our money on tickets—food is an amenity,” Smith says. “If you push too hard on prices, you push people back to bringing crockpots to the lodge. So, you’re better off keeping prices a little lower.” With that philosophy in mind, Waterville Valley raised menu prices by about 6 percent last year and another 6 percent this year. Silver linings. “Some good things have come out of [rising supply costs],” says Clements. “Because some local products are now on par” with those sourced from national suppliers, “all of our restaurants are now using grass-fed beef from Vermont; five years ago, we would have balked at the price, but now it’s right in line [with other sources] and it’s nice to feature Vermont products on the menu.” More lemonade squeezed from the lemons left by the pandemic.