When the staff at StillWest Brewery and Grill opened the doors last Thursday they found a line of 50 people.
“We flipped the tables four times at lunch,” said Dan Hankins, who owns the Snow King Avenue establishment with his wife, Chaney. “We were on an hour wait all day.”
And a busy weekday in late September was not the exception for Hankins and other restaurant owners. They report that a good, even great summer has extended into early autumn.
“We were up about 45% over last summer,” Hankins said. “We are just amazed at the amount of people that came to Jackson this summer and are still here.”
Things were hopping all summer at Suda Izakaya, on North Cache in Jackson, and Sudachi, in Wilson’s Westbank Center, said Dustin Rasnick, who owns them with his wife and other business partners. Suda, which opened last year, came into its own as a “stable restaurant,” and Sudachi, now 11, approached record levels.
For Rasnick, Hankins and other owners the smashing summer was a total surprise.
“It hit us out of right field,” Hankins said. “We thought we’d be dead all summer.”
And it was a welcome surprise to servers, too, Rasnick noted: “A lot of them made numbers they didn’t expect.”
That’s not to say tourist season was smooth sailing. Restaurants had virus-related rules for table spacing, sanitation and social distancing to contend with as well as customers grumpy about mask rules. And more than a dozen eateries had to close temporarily either because of or as a precaution against coronavirus cases.
“It was exhausting keeping up with the cleaning and the rules and the regulations and the temperature checks,” said Molly Frobouck, one of the owners of E.leaven Food Co. “But we feel grateful that we never shut down. We only had one employee who was in quarantine over the summer, and it was through another job, and it was a secondary precaution.”
Decks, lawns and patios areas, plus the new outdoor seating “parklets” in town, enabled businesses to safely accommodate crowds.
“We were really lucky because of the yard that we have and the space that we have,” said Amelia Hatchard, who with her husband, Marcos Hernandez, owns Streetfood @ The Stagecoach in Wilson. “We were able to keep the tables pretty separate and still have a lot of people there. We also lucked out with the weather.”
And takeout was bonanza for many.
Though E.leaven Food Co. took a big hit on the catering side and lost all its tour bus business, it benefited from having a lot of square footage, an already strong to-go business and an online ordering system that was in place long before the word “COVID” was on anyone’s lips.
“As far as foot traffic in-house, that was great,” Frobouck said. “Even taking out 40% of our table settings … we could still sit more people than most restaurants. Online was great and still is great. We ended up having one of the best summers on record.”
E.leaven is also starting to seeing “tons” of weddings, albeit smaller ones than in the pre-pandemic era.
“People are saying, ‘I don’t want to wait another year,’” she said.
Now restaurants are bracing for, as Hatchard put it, “the day it turns cold and gross out.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that “adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results.”
Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell mentioned that at a recent town-county COVID-19 briefing and said, “I for one am sticking to takeout.”
Restaurants are prepared to push more to-go orders — “I think we’ll have to,” Hatchard said — but they also continue tweaking their operations to safely accommodate sit-down diners.
“We are working with the bar trying to figure out smaller tables scattered more throughout,” Hatchard said.
“We are limited, and we are going to have to not allow people in if there’s not a place to sit.” Fortunately, she said, “we were already known for to-go food.”
Stillwest has benefited all summer from its open-air options: It has a courtyard and a patio, and it has kept the door open between the patio and the dining room.
With temperatures dropping, Hankins is making sure open-air seating stays tempting.
“We are making purchases for outdoor infrared heaters for the courtyard and patio,” he said. “We’ve ordered 12 for upstairs and downstairs.”
But big questions hang over everything.
“This summer people were driving,” Frobouck said. “Are people OK to get on planes?”
Another question: What will the effects of capacity controls at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort be?
“A lot is riding on what is happening at the Village,” Rasnick said.
“There are people from all over the world who come to Teton Village to ski,” Hankins said. “It’s not an inexpensive vacation. If you’re not guaranteed a spot on the mountain, if they’re going to limit it, I think business would reflect that here in town.”
He wonders if Snow King Mountain Resort, which is just across the street from StillWest, will see more skiers — whether because of its open chairlifts, its relative lack of crowds or because of limits at Teton Village.
“It was our first pandemic summer, and it turned out great,” Hankins said. “This is our first pandemic winter. I just don’t know how it’s going to go. We’re just going to have to get through it week by week.”
With Streetfood located at the base of Teton Pass, Hatchard sees the potential for more skier traffic there if limits at the resort send the “overflow” to the pass.
Whatever happens, restaurant owners see a lot to be proud of and grateful for.
“I think the whole restaurant industry did an amazing job for the circumstances that everyone was under,” Frobouck said.
Hatchard is thankful for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and for all the customers who purchased “dining bonds,” aka discounted gift certificates. She also credited the Mitigation Fund grant Streetfood received from Wyoming Business Council through a program created by the state Legislature using federal pandemic relief funds.
She and her husband also own a Victor cafe called Butter, and, compared with Wyoming’s business relief program, the state of Idaho has offered “virtually nothing.”
“It’s so nice to see Wyoming use those funds to really help businesses in the most direct way possible,” she said.
Hankins said Jackson Hole restaurants are lucky to be in an area of the country that people have been flocking to because they feel safe.
“Those people still have to eat. It’s just kind of a numbers game,” he said. “It’s the complete opposite of a lot of restaurants elsewhere in the country.”