Last June, around 5 p.m. on any given Thursday night I knew exactly what I would be doing. I would stand on the other side of a table, another cook beside me, waiting for our executive chef to pull lobsters out of the steam kettle so we could begin splitting the tails and cracking the shells with three, quick repetitive motions. The goal was do this as quickly as possible, fill a hotel pan with the lobsters, wrap it, put it in a hot box and keep going until they were all processed. I learned to ignore the hot juices spraying from the crustaceans as they hit my arms and face.
There were, after all, 100-200 to process and that was just the entrée that had to be prepared. That was a small part of working at Harriman’s Restaurant at Mount Snow helping to prepare dinner for Gordon Research Conferences, known simply to us in the kitchen as GRC, held at the Grand Summit Hotel. The conferences were one of the things that happened during the offseason that kept the kitchen staff at Harriman’s gainfully employed. Last year, the kitchen employed a staff of seven people to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for anywhere from 100-200 guests.
“Things like GRC … were kind of like the saving grace to honest,” said former Food and Beverage General Manager of the Main Base Lodge Collin Parliman. “It’s a lot of work setting those things up, but that was a critical thing for Mount Snow and it was perfect fit because GRC loved it and we loved it.”
Following the end of the season, Parliman said the focus shifted to not only tidying up from the winter season, which included deep cleans, and closing certain venues, but also preparing for the summer operations. At Mount Snow, that not only included setting up for GRC and opening the golf course, but it also included other offerings such as hiking and mountain biking and special events like weddings, block parties and festivities for Fourth of July and Columbus Day.
“For ski resorts … the special events in summer are where it’s at because any destination place, ski resorts, they make the bulk of their revenue in two months,” Parliman said. “You have to think outside the box and drive business in the off season because people have all sorts of options. In the ski season, people are coming regardless. In the summer, there’s lakes, there’s endless other things to do, so you have to be creative and innovative and give people reasons to come.”
Magic Mountain, which is independently owned by the group Ski Magic LLC, boasts some of the most difficult terrain in southern Vermont. Like many other mountains, Magic Mountain has an array of summer offerings, which provides work for the kitchen staff at Black Line Tavern. Chris Strecker worked at the mountain for three years, serving as Black Line Tavern’s executive chef for two years before leaving in the spring of 2020.
Chris Strecker prepares a burger at The Landgrove Inn where he is now the executive chef. Strecker served as Executive Chef of Black Line Tavern at Magic Mountain Ski Resort before leaving in spring of 2020.
In his role, Strecker said there was a greater focus on the administrative work during the summer. “Summertime the active work was more laid back, but there was a lot of planning. Summertime was a time where you took a look at all of your equipment … then (you began) figuring out what worked last year, pulling the numbers,” Strecker said. Throughout the summer, hikers use the trails on Magic and the mountain disc golf course draws some people. At the time Strecker worked there, there was also the BrewGrass Fall Music Fest that the was held at Sunshine Corner prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. There would also be the occasional wedding.
For Dave Fitelson, executive chef of the Wobbly Barn at Killington Resort and Food and Beverage Executive Chef Eric Rusch of Killington Resort, the two seasons are very different. In the summer, Fitelson oversees the food and beverage operations at the golf course and Rusch oversees the lodges and focuses on special events.
Fitelson said the summer brings both a change in location and staff. The Wobbly Barn is a 172-seat restaurant that does 25,000 covers in the 99 days that it is open during the winter. Fitelson oversees a team of 16 people in the kitchen, half of which are international workers. When April 1 arrives, Fitelson said the Wobbly Barn closes and a large portion of his staff takes part of April and May off before some of them return to help operate the clubhouse.
While the beginning of the season has the potential to start slow, Fitelson said from late July through October golf tournaments keep the kitchen busy. Pre-COVID, someone could walk onto the golf course on a Saturday and get on the green within an hour. Now, a tee time needs to be scheduled a week and a half in advance.
“I would say in the last five years, between mountain biking, the events that are going on with the weddings and just the amount of golf business, we’ve become significantly busier in the summers than we had been 10 years ago when summers used to be 35 hours a week (and you could) enjoy the beautiful sunshine, (and) relax,” Fitelson said. “Now … There are little, tiny breaks in between seasons for me and my units. Then the rest of the time its 10-fold from what it used to be.”
While business during the summer is not nearly the same as in the winter, it is still robust. Killington Resort offers several summer activities including a bike park, an Adventure Center, golf and scenic gondola rides. Over the past 10 years, Fitelson said that side of the business has been increasing.
“Mountain biking has gone from 2,000 to 50,000 visits a year over the last 10 years, which is phenomenal. It’s a huge number for us, but it completely falls in comparison to skier visits in the wintertime. So, wintertime is where the main focus is and slowly summer is building itself … and we’re operating these units with significantly smaller staffs as the business continues to grow around us.”
Weddings are also a part of the summer business, with 40 scheduled for this year. A commonality that exists for all of them is the challenge of staffing during the summer. All the mountains employed international workers in varying degrees but would scale back to smaller staffs in the summer with a core group of local staff.
During the winter, Rusch said of his 150 employees, 90 percent were international workers that would leave in April before the season had fully come to a close, leaving him with about 20 employees. “April and May we’re operating with a very, very lean team. Basically, all my supervisors and managers and people from the Wobbly … help me out and we kind of survive our spring skiing, which is still pretty decent on weekends and then June 1 we pretty much wrap up.”
Another challenge for Killington is the training and retraining of international staff at the beginning of each season. That has begun to be mitigated, somewhat, by the introduction of international staff for the summer, which began this year. Also, with the business continuing to increase in the summer, Fitelson and Rusch said greater emphasis has been placed on attracting local workers.
“As a resort we’ve put a lot of effort in over the past couple years to build that core team and expand that core team and really attract local workers that want to come and be with us year-round,” Fitelson said. “The company is doing a tremendous amount of investing in its year-round staff. … It’s huge to start to build these core teams that we can really lean on year-round.”
During the winter, Strecker said the kitchen staff at Black Line Tavern would not only make food for the restaurant, but for the cafeteria and for what was called “base camp,” which was for a takeout window. In 2020, there was also Sunshine Corner, a food shack he ordered food for and events, but that wasn’t all, he said.
“There were different ski groups that would come in and it could be 200, 300, 400 people on top of what we were already serving and that was rough, especially with a staff of four to five people,” Strecker said. “Doing it all together was a challenge.” Obtaining seasoned cooks at Magic was difficult for several reasons, Strecker said.
As a result, concerts, events and anything else that brought people to the mountain during the summer Strecker viewed as welcome because they allowed him to retain staff, providing him with seasoned cooks and staff members that were dedicated when the winter season arrived. Parliman shared similar sentiments, indicating that the end game when it came to staff in the summer was to put the resort in the best possible position when winter arrived again.
“The workers that stay for the summer are the ones you want to keep around. You want to carefully offer full-time work to the right people because it’s a nice thing to be able to offer the better cooks work all the time,” Parliman said. “In general, the summertime cooks are usually the cream of the crop because you’re using that summertime work as incentive to keep people for when you really need them come the bulk of the business time, which would be in the winter.”
Mountains throughout the country have summer offerings in varying degrees, and while the business may not be the same as in the winter, for many of them it is still busy. There are many mountains that are also continuing to grow the summer side of the business, Stratton Mountain Resort being just one example. With mountains such as Killington and many others continuing to see a rise in summer business the looming question is how long will it be before ski resorts begin operating during the summer in much the same capacity as they do in the winter?