Hold on to a hot vortex decked out in snow gear and insist you don’t feel so cold: Winter outdoor dining is not much different from skiing – especially if your favorite part of a ski trip is at the lodge.
Now restaurants in the United States are bringing the skiing experience to decidedly flat city streets in winter 2021 with the latest in outdoor dining structures. First there was the pod, the yurt, and the igloo. Now there is the ski gondola.
[Photo: Michael Mowery/courtesy The Gondola Shop]When Dominique Bastien, owner of the gondola business in Fruita, Colorado, bought nearly 200 old ski gondolas from ski resorts a few years ago, she had planned to convert them for use in private outdoor spaces like backyards as a side concert in between projects. (Her other company, Sunshine Polishing Technology, mostly paints and maintains functioning gondolas in ski resorts.) Then COVID-19 struck and she lost her polishing contracts. Bastien suddenly got calls from restaurants who wanted to install the gondolas for outdoor dining. And as she put it, “It just got crazy.”
[Photo: Michael Mowery/courtesy The Gondola Shop]Ski gondolas usually transport skiers uphill via a connected cable. They look like rounded, closed pods with plexiglass that passengers can use to see the view. That way, they’re prepared for al fresco dining: there’s just enough space for cozy seating, there’s an enclosed space to protect you from the elements, and built-in windows for people watching the winter or catching sunlight.
Bastien estimates she has been contacted by around 50 restaurants in the United States, including San Francisco, Cleveland, Colorado, and New York, where a restaurant owner has just bought nine gondolas. The town of Mountain Village has commissioned its largest project, she says. It bought 25 gondolas and placed them in town to support restaurants.
However, converting gondolas for restaurants requires work. Each of them represents more than 100 hours of restoration. Together with the restaurant, she decides on the color and upholstery of the gondola and then completely disassembles it by sandblasting, cleaning, painting and assembling the newly designed structure so that it is ready for its second life. Bastien sources parts that cannot be repaired from European manufacturers and adds a wooden table, lights and heaters. The gondolas can cost anywhere from $ 14,000 to $ 20,000, depending on the color, upholstery, and accessories.
[Photo: courtesy The Gondola Shop]Wendy Tucciarone, co-founder of Mountain Tap Brewery in Colorado, bought ski gondolas in the gondola business back in September and did her own renovations. She and her team thoroughly cleaned the capsules, added tables, electric heaters and bluetooth speakers, and installed three gondolas in their brewery in November.
Mountain Tap Brewery is currently 25% busy indoors due to government guidelines. (No indoor dining was allowed at the beginning of winter.) Limited capacity and wintry conditions made eating “a challenge this winter,” Tucciarone explained via email. The gondolas are booked for many of the best weekend spots, although some reservations are still available. “They create an intimate, enclosed dining room for any party,” says Tucciarone, and the unique design was a hit with guests. She adds that the interiors of the gondolas have hard surfaces that are easy to clean, and they open the windows and doors between the seats to ventilate them.
Although COVID-19 will hopefully be under control by then, the ski gondolas will return to the terrace of the Mountain Tap Brewery next winter. “During a typical winter, our business has always been limited by the number of indoor seating we can offer,” says Tucciarone. “If something good has come out of the pandemic, we’ve learned how to make better use of our outdoor space in winter.” This is just one more example of how semi-permanent, winter-proof structures are changing the food landscape. No ski course required.