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Big Sky businesses lack workforce

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Pizza cooks Tom Grande (left), Niamh Gale (center) and Jack Laxson (right) put together pies on a recent busy night at Pinky G’s Pizzeria in Big Sky. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

Local housing shortage makes hiring workers difficult

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – Walking down Big Sky’s main drag, Town Center Avenue, “Now Hiring” signs are visible in most storefronts, and as many business owners are testifying, staff shortages are forcing businesses to shorten hours or even close on various days of the week.

In the lead up to a busy tourism season in July, reservations are hard to come by and it is commonplace to try going somewhere for lunch only to find that it is closed. Finding workers in Big Sky is currently a huge challenge with very few applicants even vying for open spots. Those who do apply are then faced with a skyrocketing price of living and the nearly impossible task of finding available housing.

A number of factors are contributing to this national struggle playing out on the local stage.

Ryan Kunz, general manager of Lone Mountain Ranch, speculated about the different causes including prolonged unemployment benefits, a high cost of living and a significant decrease in people willing to work, specifically in the restaurant industry. The restaurant at LMR, Horn and Cantle, has had to close two nights a week and trim down menu options due to a shortage of culinary staff.

“The goal at this point is to try to find more culinary staff,” Kuntz said, “but at the same time making sure we’re taking care of the staff we have, that they feel the love.” 

Striking the delicate balance between staying open and taking care of employees is a challenge many Big Sky businesses are facing this summer. With a busy tourism season getting ready to peak, the pressure is on as reservations are in increasingly short supply. 

“People love Big Sky and they keep coming, and that’s an interesting place to be that we can’t exactly turn off the faucet of our visitor economy,” said Brad Niva, CEO of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. “What makes this world go round is these visitors that are coming into the area.”

After only a short time in his new role with the Chamber and Visit Big Sky, Niva has immersed himself in the issues facing the Big Sky business community.

“I think Big Sky has a disadvantage in this workforce issue because we have a lack of workforce on one hand and then we have a lack of housing on the other,” he said. “So, it’s a double whammy that we have two things working against us.” 

The lack of housing has certainly impacted Lone Peak Brewery and Taphouse, leaving co-owner Vicky Nordahl with fewer than 10 employees out of the usual 29 that she would hire. 

Walking into Lone Peak Brewery, patrons are greeted with a chalkboard featuring a corny, “daily dad joke” along with a sign requesting patience from customers. The joke is meant to spark a little joy in someone’s day and the request for patience is due to lack of staffing.

“It’s always been challenging to find staff,” Nordahl said. “This year there are not enough employees to go around. Even with the wage hikes, the cost of living is still too high.”

That high cost of living has been the main reason Nordahl has struggled to staff her business and she’s had to get creative to solve that problem. The events space above the dining room and kitchen at Lone Peak Brewery is now a living space with bunks for up to 10 people. Currently, two of Nordahl’s employees live there, each with their own small cubicle with a bunk and a dresser, as well as a bathroom, laundry facility and kitchenette. Employees living in that space do not pay rent, according to Nordahl.

In the past, the Nordahls rented a house for employees but the lease was not renewed this year. Nordahl speculated the non-renewal was motivated by the owner’s desire to put their own employees in that housing.

In addition to creatively solving the housing issue, Nordahl has raised staff wages, shortened business hours to serve only lunch five days a week, and limited capacity to 50 percent. 

Charles Joerger, prep cook, dishwasher and the Nordahls’ right-hand man, is one of the employees currently living in the converted events space. He’s been working in Big Sky for 15 years and has worked for Nordahl for six.

Joerger said he was once able to afford renting his own place but this year, without Nordahl’s generous solution, he would have had to move home to Utah. As a hardworking employee on a small team, Joerger also asked for patience from visitors, just like the sign on their front door.

“Expect times to be longer,” he said. “Don’t get upset about your food taking too long. We’re going to
do it as fast as we can. It’s still going to come out fresh, it’s just going to take a little
bit longer.”

Many businesses in Big Sky are unable to hire enough staff for the summer season and “We’re Hiring” signs abound. COLLAGE BY JULIA BARTON

In a similar boat to Lone Peak Brewery is Pinky G’s Pizzeria on Town Center Avenue.

Pinky G’s has also had to shorten operating hours for the summer due to a staff shirtage. Co-owners Megan and Cameron Hartman opened Pinky G’s second location in Big Sky in January of 2020 after Cameron served as the general manger for the first restaurant in Jackson, Wyoming. 

Megan explained that their goals initially after opening were to serve as a late-night location like the restaurant in Jackson while offering delivery services. 

“We don’t have enough staff to open for our full and ideal hours,” she said.

Megan said challenges in Big Sky and Jackson are similar in that housing is the main factor, but added that things weren’t quite as bad for the Jackson location because there were more housing options in Jackson and the surrounding area. 

“The town is growing so fast I feel like the town isn’t really equipped to handle the amount of tourists we see,” she said, referring to the recent explosive growth in Big Sky.

The problem is clear: Big Sky lacks workforce, which is due in large part to a lack of housing. The solution, however, is less straightforward than many would like.

On June 29, Niva hosted a listening session, inviting several local business owners to sit down with the Chamber and larger community partners to discuss current challenges and potential solutions.

“The community is coming together trying to solve the problem,” Niva said. “This is not an easy fix and it’s not something that can be done overnight. I don’t think it can happen even in one or two years. It’s really a long-term play here.” 

Niva’s main goal right now, he says, is to listen to concerns from businesses and bring the right people together. Some solutions he shared from the listening session include a larger commitment to creating more affordable housing in Big Sky, more local transportation for workers, and potentially bringing in food trucks this summer to alleviate some of the pressure on restaurants. 

As he pointed out, when one restaurant is closed on a day they would usually be open, that pushes all the traffic to the ones that are operating.

Big Sky has a long road ahead and, in the meantime, its business owners are hoping for na bit of grace.

“We need [tourists] to pack their patience and bring it here,” Nordahl said. “They can replace it with a bottle of huckleberry vodka on their way home.”

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