Making it in Big Sky: Montana Backcountry Adventures
By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer
Montana Backcountry Adventures began in 1997 as a snowcat skiing operation on the slopes of Moonlight Basin. In 2000, the previous owner purchased a 30-foot yurt and began the “Moonlight Dinners” enterprise, offering snowcat-accessed dining. In 2004, the Lone Tree lift was installed on MBA’s ski terrain, ending the snowcat ski business. The yurt moved to its current location on Big Sky Resort property in 2005.
Kevin Daily, along with two partners, purchased Moonlight Dinners in 2007, and in 2008 they opened the Bell Lake Yurt backcountry ski hut in the Tobacco Root Range, offering guided skiing, avalanche courses, and overnight yurt rentals. In 2011, Kevin’s wife Jodi bought out his partners. They sold the Bell Lake Yurt in 2013, allowing Kevin and Jodi to concentrate on the Big Sky operations.
Montana Backcountry Adventures now runs two yurt restaurants, the Montana Dinner Yurt and the Shedhorn Grill. After dark, guests are whisked away by snowcat to the Montana Dinner Yurt hidden on the slopes of Big Sky Resort. The Shedhorn Grill—which opened in 2009—offers on-slope lunches beneath the Shedhorn Chairlift on the south face of Lone Mountain.
As part of this ongoing series, Jodi and Kevin shared their thoughts with EBS about what it takes to make it as small business owners in Big Sky.
Explore Big Sky: What has been the key to your success?
Montana Backcountry Adventures: The Montana Dinner Yurt is one-of-a-kind. Guests have a blast riding the snowcats, sledding the hill, dining by candle and oil lantern, and enjoying the acoustic guitar music. Our food is great, and our employees work hard and are devoted to offering a quality experience.
The expansive sun deck and fun atmosphere make the Shedhorn Grill a favorite place for locals to show off to their visiting friends, and second homeowners to swing in for a burger and a brew after a long tram lap.
EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?
MBA: Like everyone else says: finding and retaining employees in this tough housing environment.
EBS: What challenges are unique to your business?
MBA: Running two off-the-grid restaurants with no running water, high up on the ski hill is no picnic; maintaining and servicing two German-built snowcats is hard work.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you took ownership of Montana Backcountry Adventures?
MBA: Big Sky is certainly bigger and busier than it was in 2007. We haven’t had to spend a penny on advertising in many years now!
EBS: Have you noticed a shift in your clientele since you’ve been in operation?
MBA: The number of returning guests continues to grow as more locals and second homeowners dine with us.
EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stick it out through the hard times?
MBA: Living in Big Sky is amazing. We love the people that live here—our community is second to none! Big Sky offers all the benefits of small-town living together with lots of big city amenities, great schools, and of course, a massive ski resort for our kids to grow up on.
EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you have had as a resident/business owner in Big Sky?
MBA: Last spring, our 4-year-old son Frank skied with us to the Shedhorn Grill for the first time, which was a special moment for us as a family.
EBS: What was a business idea that didn’t work?
MBA: The Bell Lake Yurt was a very rewarding experience because the location and the skiing there is incredible. As a business venture however, it was certainly mostly a “labor of love.”
EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
MBA: Stuart Leidner, previously of Prospera Business Network, a small business development non-profit, once told us: “If you aren’t growing, you are dying.”
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
MBA: If you put locals first, the tourists will follow.
EBS: Where do you see your business in 10 years?
MBA: We plan to improve and expand our current business models and offer summer yurt dining.
EBS: Where do you see Big Sky in 20 years?
MBA: We hope that well-managed development together with care for our local natural resources will make Big Sky an even more incredible place to live and work for our children and their children after them.
EBS: What has been the most satisfying aspect of your work?
MBA: Our customers, be them tourists, locals, or second homeowners, seem to love what we do, and we’ve made many friends through the business.
Montana Backcountry Adventures: By the numbers
• Staff: 14
• Years in business: 21
• Longest serving employee: Brian Rumbaugh, 15 years
• Best of Big Sky awards: Best Burger Shedhorn Grill
• Number of snow cats: 2
• Number of guests the Montana Dinner Yurt can serve at once: 44