Story and photos by Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor
WEST YELLOWSTONE – Beneath the maze of ziplines and towers of Yellowstone Aerial Adventures, and three blocks from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, two Big Sky Resort ski patrollers are experimenting with a new summer vocation.
Ben Anderson and Noah Ronczkowski have nearly 20 years of patrolling the slopes of Lone Mountain between them, and on July 6 they opened Caldera Pizza & Grill, offering locals and visitors to West Yellowstone made-from-scratch culinary fare. Selling wood-fired pizza, salads, sandwiches and burgers, the two are diversifying their extensive mountain resumes.
When they hang up their red coats for the winter season, Anderson and Ronczkowski both leave Montana to guide clients in the mountains of Alaska.
Ronczkowski works for Alaska Mountain School on the slopes of Denali, North America’s highest peak; Anderson is co-owner of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) helicopter skiing operation, based in Haines.
In past years, Ronczkowski returned from Alaska to spend his summers leading clients into the high peaks of the Tetons for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, but he’s hoping Caldera will be a good business opportunity that allows his body a break from the rigors of guiding.
“Ben and I are getting old and our bodies hurt,” Ronczkowski says with a smile.
Anderson attended England’s Orchard School of Cookery in fall 2013, with the intention of rounding out SEABA’s culinary operation and offering his clients a better product, he said. Opportunities followed in Big Sky for personal chef gigs, and Anderson parlayed that into an all-inclusive tour company called Caldera Adventures, which offers trips in Haines, the big island of Hawaii and Big Sky, as well as Jackson, Wyoming.
Caldera Pizza & Grill became an extension of that business when Anderson approached Geyser Whitewater’s owner Eric Becker about parking his wood-fired pizza oven at Becker’s rafting headquarters on Highway 191, south of Big Sky. Becker had a better idea, suggesting they open in West on the Geyser-operated Yellowstone Aerial Adventures property.
Anderson and Ronczkowski built the small restaurant space this spring and park the oven outside a side door. “Park” is the operative word—the oven was constructed in the bed of an old Toyota pickup truck Anderson found on Craigslist.
It took Anderson four years to build the oven—he calls the experience “mortar therapy”—drawing inspiration from a pizza oven he saw in Hawaii. “I bought a trailer and started putting bricks together. If I had to do it again, I’d probably just buy one,” he said.
Caldera is the first wood-fired pizza in West, and the patroller/pizza chefs are finding a niche by offering food made from scratch featuring regional and Montana products. They use Montana Wheat flour in their pizza crust, and regionally raised bison or beef in their burgers. The buns and bread products are delivered from Bozeman’s On The Rise bakery.
Ronczkowski said it takes nearly two hours from when they light the fire to get the oven hot enough for a perfect crust, and they’re often chopping wood while cooking pies.
However, the biggest challenge for Caldera is getting customers to find the restaurant off West Yellowstone’s beaten path. Set back from South Faithful Street, away from the throngs of foot traffic that swarm town in the summer, the duo has reached out to local hotel managers with free pies, gaining valuable word-of-mouth advertising.
Caldera plans to expand by offering catering and towing the pizza-oven trailer to events in West Yellowstone and Big Sky, Anderson said. Both he and Ronczkowski know there are no guarantees in the restaurant business, but failure at Caldera means a burnt pizza and not extracting an injured client from an alpine environment.
“It’s a nice systematic way of operating, just like in the mountains,” Anderson said. “But it’s safer.”