By Sarah Gianelli EBS ASSOCIATE EDITOR
BIG SKY – Buck’s T-4 Lodge has been a Big Sky tradition for 61 years. Co-owners David O’Connor and Chuck Schommer have a history with Buck’s that long pre-dates their official partnership in the business in 2009. Since then, they have stayed true to the establishment’s roadhouse roots while continuing to elevate the standards of the guest experience. A rustic elegance extends to the carefully conceived menu, the accommodations and the casual, yet professional service, attracting tourists and locals alike.
As part of this ongoing series, O’Connor shared his thoughts with EBS on the reasoning behind their success and longevity as a Big Sky small business.
Explore Big Sky: What has been the key to your success?
David O’Connor: Buck’s has always been known for consistency and authenticity. We have been a family-owned business—with one short gap—since our 1946 inception, and that brings a certain warmth and home-like feeling for both our guests and employees. Buck and Helen Knight had a very strong ethic of hospitality, and that love of caring for travelers still permeates the business today. Buck’s has always managed to attract employees who share these values, and those people, over the years, have allowed Buck’s to grow with Big Sky.
One of our team’s agreed-upon core values is “relationships matter”; with our guests, our employees and our vendors. That basic idea was at the heart of Buck and Helen’s success, and we try our best to let that drive our decision-making day to day.
EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?
D.O.: Right now, the highest hurdle facing most, if not all, businesses in Big Sky is staffing; a challenge which is mostly driven by the dire scarcity of attainable workforce housing. Chuck and I see many daily examples of how fortunate we are to have the people around us that we do, but it grows more and more challenging every season to find those people.
Seasonality also contributes to this challenge, as it often is a detractor for career-minded individuals who might consider joining our team. Not to mention the myriad financial obstacles that arise from being seasonal.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you started out?
D.O.: Buck’s has two complimentary businesses: the hotel and the restaurant, and each has evolved in different ways.
Big Sky, as a community, has been working hard to position itself in a closer relationship to Yellowstone National Park, and that effort is finally yielding a gradual reduction in the shoulder seasons for lodging. It was not very long ago that all of May, most of June and the majority of the fall were so slow that we closed outright. In the past few years we have seen an exponential increase in Yellowstone visitors making Big Sky part of their trip. The result is that the hotel is now (as of 2016) open 365 days a year, which was a huge step for us. Also, Big Sky’s growth overall has allowed us to diversify and even out our market segments, so we are less dependent on any one kind of traveler. In the long run, this is the best insurance against a bad snow year, fire year … becoming catastrophic.
Buck’s restaurant has always been very fortunate to have the support of the Big Sky community at large, and we are incredibly grateful for that every day. However, increasing competition is outpacing the growth of the community right now. We are very confident this will even out, and relatively shortly, but in the meantime the slices of the pie are smaller for all of us in the restaurant business here.
The American restaurant industry as a whole has also irrevocably changed in the past couple of decades. The interest in, and access to, a wide variety of cuisine means we can really explore, along with our guests, all sorts of cool things in food. We are foodie geeks at our core, and it’s been tons of fun to be a part of the wave in this country powered by Food TV, locavore-ism, health consciousness and the rise of artisanship. From Chuck’s representation of Montana at the Beard Foundation in New York City in 2000 to the wide variety of tools and ingredients we have access to today, there has been no better, no more fun time to be in the restaurant business.
EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stick it out through the hard times?
D.O.: The people, the people, the people. The nature of the Big Sky community, both for residents and businesses, is really one of inclusivity. For the most part, when things are challenging for us, they are challenging for all of us. We’ve seen countless examples of the community pulling together in tough times, in countless ways. That’s incredibly rare in any community, and that sense of shared challenge and success across Big Sky is a huge lift when the chips are down.
EBS: Why do you think so many new businesses fold relatively quickly?
D.O.: The cash management challenges posed by seasonality are a real killer. It’s tough for many new business owners to wrap their mind around how they can be both profitable and broke at the same time. It takes a few years under your belt to get a sense of the rhythm of your business’s financial resources.
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
D.O.: Be grateful for every customer that comes in the door and every employee that punches the clock; and take every opportunity to let them know that you are. Keep your commitments, be open when you say you will be and make a conscious effort to stop talking and listen. If you wake up every day thinking “woe is me,” find something else to do.
EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
D.O.: Mike Scholz, who acquired Buck’s from the Knights and built Buck’s into what it is today, taught us pretty much everything we know about owning and operating Buck’s T-4. His mentorship has been a foundation in both of our lives. There are so many valuable pieces of advice Mike has imparted over the years it’s difficult to identify one as “best,” but one that is constantly on our minds is that this business is won or lost on nickels and dimes. It is all too easy to lose sight of the small stuff while we try to think of the big picture, and losing track of those things, when taken in the aggregate, can be lethal.
Bucks T-4 Lodge – by the numbers
• Staff: 25 full-time, year-round; 75 at peak staffing
• Years in business: 61
• Longest serving employee: Joe Mama Rogers