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Making it in Big Sky: Gallatin Riverhouse Grill

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Gallatin Riverhouse Grill owners Greg Lisk (right) and Kyle Wisniewski (left) pose on the patio of their barbecue restaurant. PHOTO COURTESY OF GREG LISK AND KYLE WISNIEWSKI

By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – Founded in 2013, the Gallatin Riverhouse Grill has just as long been ranked amongst the town’s top go-to spot for locals and travelers alike. 

Pandemic be damned: The Riverhouse was forced to close shop in March, like all restaurants and bars in Gallatin County, when such orders were released from the Gallatin City-County Health Department. But while the well-worn bar stools remained stacked and the doors locked, the Riverhouse adapted to offer takeout orders to continue serving the Big Sky community. 

After weeks of that challenging pivot, on May 4, the restaurant was once again able to welcome dine-in patrons after completing extensive health training.

The Riverhouse continues to take precautions in preventing the spread of COVID-19—continuing to require all employees to wear a mask and gloves on site and not allowing patrons to be seated at the bar. Even with occupancy restrictions in place, Riverhouse owners Greg Lisk and Kyle Wisniewski said they have spaced their seating in a manner in which they can’t exceed their current maximum occupancy of roughly 160 people. 

With the barbecue pit firing on all cylinders again in Big Sky, Lisk and Wisniewski recently spoke with EBS to discuss what it’s like to operate a restaurant during a pandemic.

Explore Big Sky: How has business been since reopening the dining room?

Greg Lisk: Very nice. We’re seeing more travelers than locals. To-go orders … have been nice. But on a beautiful day like today, we’re seeing it being pretty damn busy.

EBS: How beneficial is it to operate with occupancy restrictions versus remaining closed all together?

Kyle Wisniewski: It’s definitely more beneficial to be open. And it’s kind of worked out in our favor just that with the restrictions we can’t go to full capacity just yet, just because we are working with a limited work force, a limited you know labor force. So … not having our J-1 students back, not having people willing to get off of that unemployment and back into working is definitely hindering being able to operate at full capacity, but as far as open versus not open, even under restricted limitations, it’s definitely worth it, keeping in mind that all the precautions are taken.

EBS: Are patrons asking to sit outside rather than inside more frequently this summer?

K.W.: I think it’s as normal as any other year and … I think people that travel out here are more inclined to dine outside and do all their activities outside … Yeah, I don’t think it’s different than any other year as far as people asking for that. The only thing that, I just actually took a call this morning about, was people with you know pre-existing health conditions have called in advance just asking for outdoor seating with social distancing, that kind of thing. So, you know it’s a very small group to you know kind of categorize but I think it’s pretty standard. Any year I think our patio seating is one of our strengths down here.

EBS: Do you still plan to host Bingo in the fall, even if it’s in an adapted format?

G.L.: Depending on what phase we’re at and as of right now we’re kind of on a standby with music and all sorts of stuff because of that reason … The number one thing for us is safety and not getting ourselves, employees, family, friends and definitely the community, you know, we don’t want to spread anything. So, we can all just work together as a team and beat this **** like [it’s] how this little town works. It’s pretty cool.

EBS: Shoulder season fluctuations aside, how do you believe the virus will continue to affect your businesses?

K.W.: As travel restrictions kind of loosen up, I feel that you know there’s still kind of that underlying fear of going out and traveling and that’s why we’re seeing such an increase in our to-go or pick-up food. I really don’t think our numbers are showing anything different. We’ll see what the fall brings. I think our biggest effect to the business, at this point, is our large gatherings so any kind of events, whether that’s bingo or weddings or whatever … We are just able to operate as a restaurant, you know, and nothing outside of that.

EBS: What has it been like trying to balance remaining up to date with all of the latest health information as well as running your business?

G.L.: When all of this first happened this was new to everybody, so by the time we kind of got Phase 1 figured out, I’m saying we as the restaurant owners and businesses, it feels like as soon as we got Phase 1 figured out they switched to Phase 2 and then we kind of hit the ground running and now it seems like Phase 2 kind of opened a can of worms, where people aren’t really following [it] and kind of letting their guard down. So that’s why down here we’re still mandatory [in] making our employees wear masks and gloves and we’re pretending we’re still in Phase 1. We’re not allowing people to sit at the bar even though it’s legal for them to sit. We’re just not doing that just to keep our crew safe.

EBS: As an owner, what will you remember most from when you were able to welcome dine-in patrons and reopen the dining room?

K.W.: Reopening a business under these kinds of circumstances, it’s just kind of a strange time and I think the most important thing is just delivering this great barbecue product that is kind of unique to us, to our customers. And I just hope they know that even though we’re wearing masks and covered up and everything else, that we are happy to see them and smiling underneath those masks.

EBS: If you could choose one aspect of life before the pandemic to restore, what would it be and why? 

G.L.: Just greeting people, saying hi and, you know, hugging people. I mean this is like a family establishment where people come in and they can’t wait to see us and they have our personal cell phone numbers and [say] like ‘Hey, we’re coming up with family and we know you don’t take reservations, but remember us from last year. We’re from Wisconsin’ or this or the other. And just kind of … honestly like hugging the extended family and definitely shaking hands.

EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

K.W.: I would say everything that we’ve done since day one is based on consistency, so, if you’re consistent 100 percent of the time, don’t ever fail and just make sure that you’re consistent in hours and quality and safety and everything. That consistency would be our No. 1, greatest piece of business advice.

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