FEATURE: The Apron Odyssey

By on June 3, 2015

Trials, triumphs and tales from the Jackson Hole service industry


Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Touted by some as a high-stress industry rife with alcohol, drugs and sex, the hospitality sphere in Jackson Hole is more than a means to an end, and much more than a business of delinquents. Service industry jobs here are attracting a mosaic of educated, worldly folks and not just transient ski bums or 90-day wonders, as some tourists might surmise. Instead, people are finding careers in the industry and supporting their families with the income.

The 2012 census showed 26 percent of Teton County’s population worked in the service industry and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance asserts that this number has swelled over the past three years as the economy strengthens and the luxury of dining out becomes popular again.

Jeremy Weiss is restaurant manager at The Kitchen. Since moving here in 2001, he’s noticed a distinct change in the valley’s culinary scene and the professionals it attracts.

“[It was] the Rendezvous Bistro, the Snake River Grill, and the Cadillac, as well as a few other mediocre restaurants that are no longer around,” he said about the early 2000s scene. “Options were limited. Restaurants seemed to turn over their entire staff every season. Now I have the luxury of having the same people work for me for years at a time.”

Yet for some reason, service industry jobs in the United States aren’t often considered “real jobs.” Sure, a bartender can walk away with a $400 bankroll in his pocket each night, but unless he’s sitting at a desk making a salary that isn’t recognized by many as a legitimate way to make a living.

In Europe, where servers are compensated a fixed hourly wage rather than by gratuities, there’s no incentive to go above and beyond, save for the highest end restaurants where it is mandated by the employer. Those service industry jobs are also low on the socio-economic totem pole in many European countries. In France, for example, servers are paid on average $1,630 per month according to a BBC report, which is the minimum wage. While server salaries vary drastically in the United States and are difficult to measure due to the variability of gratuities, the standard is well above the minimum wage. The median salary for servers in the United States based on a 2014 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is $18,730. That figure may sound low but a reasonable assumption can be made that this salary is perhaps higher when unclaimed tips are taken into account. The average minimum wage, at $7.25 per hour, adds up to about $15,000 per year.

Bosses with heart

Along with the promise of generous tips, working for employers who are committed to their eateries and their employees may be reasons folks stay in the service industry in Jackson.

The restaurant scene has improved immensely since I started in 1989,” said Joe Rice, owner of Blue Collar Restaurant Group (owner of Merry Piglets and Sidewinders, to name a few). “We have a lot of great operators, which pushes us all to get better. I feel we all want to offer a great product to locals and visitors. I am never overly impressed when I go out of town to eat because we have such high-quality restaurants in Jackson Hole.”

The folks managing Rice’s restaurants, which are open year-round, have been working in his eateries an average of 15 to 20 years. Rice sees his employees as part of the family.  In an effort to soften the housing woes of his staff, Rice said he provides employee housing and helps his employees buy their own places when he can. “I feel it’s the employer’s job to figure it out with employees,” he said. “If you can’t [help] then you need to rethink your business plan.”

Restaurateur Joe Rice. Photo by Jesse Brown.

Restaurateur Joe Rice. Photo by Jesse Brown.

In addition to the valley’s housing crisis, the off-season presents service industry professionals with more adversity.  In Jackson Hole, where we see millions of tourists each year, the market may appear prime for the hospitality industry to thrive. The reality is that the majority of these millions visit during just two months out of the year: July and August.

Grand Teton National Park reported 2.8 million tourists through the park gates in 2014, 50 percent came in those two summer months. Granted, the national park isn’t a huge attraction in the winter with much of it closing down; however, to put these numbers into perspective, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort reports around 500,000 skiers per winter while Grand Teton National Park boasts more than 600,000 visitors in July alone. When you factor in the whopping 800,000 visitors to Yellowstone National Park in July, the winter months simply can’t compete with the summer.

Many restaurants close their doors in April, May, October and November because they can’t bring in enough revenue to offset the high costs of running their businesses. The trend for many restaurants now, however, is to run off-season promotions to drive business to their establishments, in hopes of coercing locals to dine out. Two-for-one entrees, anyone? Though these promotions seemingly draw a large crowd, the numbers behind them don’t necessarily add up. These restaurants offer off-season deals more for the locals and for their staff than anything else. Some may make a small profit, while some lose money, but nobody is raking it in while they’re giving away the house.

“We stay open in the off-seasons to give back to the locals who support us through the busy seasons as well as to provide work for our staff,” explained Gavin Fine of Fine Dining Restaurant Group. (Full disclosure: this reporter happens to be employed by Fine.)

A portion of the price you pay for Fine’s off-season specials at Rendezvous Bistro or Bin 22, for example, are donated to local nonprofits. “It’s not all about making money when it’s busy and then closing up shop.”


Gavin Fine of Fine Dining Restaurant Group. Photo by Latham Jenkins.

Trying to keep workers employed year-round and keep turnover low is important to local restaurant owners. In fact, Fine built his business on the foundation of  “enlightened hospitality.”

Coined by Danny Meyer, owner of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City, enlightened hospitality means taking care of your employees first. Meyer’s philosophy is multifaceted and takes him an entire book to convey (“Setting the Table”), but the essence of his message is that the people who work for him are the most important. If the employees are taken care of, they will care more about their job and that will show in the quality of service and food delivered.

Fine offers his employees health care and retirement benefits, discounts at his restaurants, and extensive training programs to give them the tools to succeed in their trade. He believes strongly in promoting from within his company as well, so the options for growth are there for those who work hard and deserve it.

“For me, it’s always been about creating a family and treating those who work for me like I would my own family,” Fine said. “These guys come first before anything in my company, and I’ve maintained those values since I started the Rendezvous Bistro in 2001.”

The enlightened hospitality that Meyer preaches in his book has gone even further as he has recently started a consulting business called The Hospitality Quotient where he aims to spread his management style beyond the world of restaurants and apply it to general, everyday business. In this virtuous cycle of enlightened hospitality, employees are taken care of first, creating a warm energy in the restaurant that then extends to the patrons of the restaurant and the community at large, down to the suppliers and, ultimately, a company’s investors.

Temperatures rising

And though there are companies in Jackson that offer opportunities for benefits and growth, the industry is just too stressful for sane people to work in it for very long. The long hours and pressure are more than most can handle. It takes someone who thrives in a stressful environment.

Justin Henry, director of operations for the Fine Dining Restaurant Group, has been in the service industry since his first job in high school. He will tell you that he’s stayed in the industry for many reasons.

The industry is a combo of team building and execution in an ever shifting, dynamic environment where no two days are the same and the plan is never followed,” he said. “I like the challenge of living up to people’s past experiences and ever-elevating expectations. Sprinkle in the fact that eating is the most personal thing people do in public, and as such has the ability to become a polarizing event. It’s an insane business, and I love it.”

No night is ever the same no matter how hard the restaurant works to map everything out. There’s always a hood vent out or a staffing issue. It’s like doing a word problem in math class without a formula to solve it. This instability is what makes the industry so beautifully raw and untamed. The restaurant industry is the punk rock, non-conformist of the business world.

It’s no wonder that the service industry, one of the most volatile industries in America, fosters a rock and roll lifestyle for many within it. Anthony Bourdain describes restaurant kitchens as being staffed by misfits and “anyone entering this industry will run away screaming if they lack [an] almost masochistic, perhaps irrational dedication to cooking.” While the rock and roll lifestyle described in Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” isn’t an industry standard, the high stress and inconsistency of restaurants certainly has the ability to lead one to drink. The following are true accounts of what locals have experienced in the restaurant industry. Names have been omitted to protect the parties involved.

The ultimate pie

Nobody seems to be able to pinpoint the origin of the pie-to-the-face for departing employees within restaurants, but it seems to be something that has become mainstream within the Jackson industry. This age old slapstick prank gained popularity in Charlie Chaplain films in the early 20th century and has remained relevantly comedic for the last hundred years. For those not in the know, after an employee’s last shift (if they are leaving on good terms, of course) they are often bid adieu with a pie tin full of whipped cream to the face. This is the kindest of treatments, as other nasty ingredients have made their way into the pies of long-standing employees as a tribute to their tenure with the restaurant. This speaks to the camaraderie amongst employees in the restaurant industry. The nature of the stressful industry creates a tight bond, as everyone has to come together to persevere and overcome challenging nights together.

Several years ago a particularly well-liked server completed his last shift and was quickly cornered in the employee room as he changed out of his uniform. His coworkers all boasted pie tins full of various nasty condiments and ingredients the chef was willing to part with because they were near or beyond expiration. The departing employee — let’s call him Brian — was given the opportunity to cooperate with the demands of the rest of his coworkers or get showered in unimaginable filth. Being the adventurous type and incredibly curious  about what his friends had up their sleeves, Brian opted for mystery.

He quickly found himself blindfolded, his hands each taped around a can of beer (millenials, think Edward 40-hands) and thrown into the back of a pickup truck. The truck then peeled out of the parking lot.

The plan was to drive down to Alpine and have Brian’s pie delivered to him on the breasts of a stripper at the Bull Moose Saloon. In order to keep him in the dark for as long as possible, the truck drove in circles around parking lots through town and continued to make false turns all the way to Alpine.

Once in Alpine, Brian was fully convinced he was somewhere in Grand Teton National Park, perhaps Signal Mountain Lodge? One of the passengers in the pickup truck ran into the Bull Moose to persuade one of the dancers to deliver this whipped cream to Brian’s face via her breasts. Expecting this to come with a hefty price tag, Brian’s dear co-worker was prepared with a wad of cash from his lucrative shift at work; however, after asking this dancer her price for their prank, she laughed and said $20 would suit her just fine. He handed her $40 without batting an eye and went out to the car to help the others lead the blindfolded Brian inside.

Brian was seated on a stage behind a blue tarp because there may or may not have been something moderately illegal about strippers at the Bull Moose, so they kept the nudity quarantined to a stage away from the view of regular customers (though there were a few dancers in lingerie on some of the bar tables, they didn’t strip down beyond their skivvies). Brian recognized the familiar scents of a seedy bar and assumed he wasn’t at Signal like he had originally thought. His friends removed his blindfold, and before he could blink his eyes into focus, whipped cream covered breasts engulfed his face.

The rest of the night was debauchery, the entire staff of the restaurant joining them at the Bull Moose and crashing at several inexpensive hotel rooms owned by the bar. This pieing (this will be a verb soon—stay tuned) goes down in the books as one of the best of all time, though I’m not sure this type of thing is documented. It was a true display of respect and friendship that would likely result in all sorts of lawsuits if it were to happen at Initech.

Alien invasion

Other times scenes at restaurants are more like something from “Portlandia.”  One time, a server approached a couple at their table and immediately detected smugness from their soft-spoken, NPR-esque voices. Their first questions were about which wines were organic or sustainably produced, so the server went to fetch a manager who could more accurately field their inquiries. When the manager approached the table, both customers were visibly perturbed, the woman with her hands on her temples.

“We’ve both come down with terrible headaches suddenly,”  the woman said. “Do you perchance have wifi here in the restaurant? Or are there any radio towers nearby?”

The manager, taken aback by these questions in an age where he couldn’t imagine where they could possibly go that didn’t have either of these things, replied yes to both.

“We’re very sensitive to radio signals of any kind,” the couple said, getting up. “We can’t stay here. I’m sorry.”

Baffled, the manager and server watched as they left the restaurant, not knowing what they could possibly say to coerce them into staying.

Salmon skin phallus

The reality of restaurant work is that there are slow times, especially in Jackson Hole. So managers and chefs try to keep their employees busy rolling silverware, washing windows, etc. Five p.m. on a day in November is a grim time for restaurants in Teton County.

A chef at an undisclosed restaurant found a piece of salmon skin that, when cut off the filet sported a rather phallic appearance. Naturally, the chef told one of the servers at the restaurant he would buy him a drink at the end of the night if he walked through the dining room with the salmon skin hanging out of his pants.

The server considered that after this painfully slow shift, he likely wouldn’t have enough money to purchase his own beverage and dutifully obliged. With the salmon skin dangling from his fly, the server walked through the restaurant, customers uncomfortably gazing at the skin out of their periphery.

The server collected his drink, but the next day he had an unexpected gift: a rash on his crotch. He racked his brain, immediately thinking it was an STD. He cringed thinking about the last girl he’d slept with: a promiscuous hostess at the restaurant.

He told a few friends with whom he knew the hostess had been intimate and scheduled an appointment to get tested. He was going to tell the hostess when and if he found out he had an STD definitively.

The doctor told him he was STD free, and that the rash likely came from coming into contact with something oily that his skin wasn’t used to. 


Questions/comments made by real diners:

  1. What kind of salad dressing comes on the Caesar salad?
  2. What is the white stuff in the mountains?
  3. What kind of non-alcoholic beer do you have? [Buckler] Hm, nah, I’ll have a Budweiser and a shot of Jim Beam, please.
  4. Y’all got Mountain Dew Code Red?
  5. When do elk turn into moose? Why don’t you have any moose on your menu?
  6. Are these oysters local?
  7. I like my steak well done, but I want it to be really juicy. Nobody seems to be able to do that.
  8. We’re going rafting tomorrow. How does that work? Do we just get on at a certain point in the river and it loops around to the same point?
  9. I’m gluten free, but I can have bread if it’s cooked.
  10. Is your shrimp dish vegan?
  11. Can I get the steak tartare medium well?
  12. I’m allergic to meat on the bone.


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