Clutching a hot toddy, decked out in snow gear, and insisting that you’re not that cold: Wintry outdoor dining isn’t terribly different from skiing—especially if your favorite part of a ski trip is hunkering down in the lodge.
Now, restaurants across the United States are bringing the ski experience to decidedly flat city streets with winter 2021’s newest evolution of outdoor dining structures. First, there was the pod, yurt, and igloo. Now, there’s the the ski gondola.
When Dominique Bastien, owner of the Gondola Shop in Fruita, Colorado, bought close to 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 gig between projects. (Her other company, Sunshine Polishing Technology, mainly repaints and maintains working gondolas at ski resorts.) Then COVID-19 hit, and she lost 95% of her yearly polishing contracts. In August, Bastien started getting calls from restaurants that wanted to install the gondolas for outdoor dining. And, as she put it, “it just got crazy.”
Ski gondolas typically transport skiers up hill via a connected cable. They look like rounded, enclosed pods, with plexiglass that allows passengers to see the view. In this way, they’re ready-made for outdoor dining: they have just enough room for a cozy seating set up, it’s an enclosed space that protects you from the elements, and has built-in windows for people watching or catching some winter sunlight.
Bastien estimates she has been contacted by about 50 restaurants across the United States, including from San Francisco, Cleveland, Colorado, Texas, Idaho, Wyoming, and New York, where she says a restaurant owner just bought nine gondolas. The town of Mountain Village commissioned her biggest project, she says. It bought 25 gondolas and placed them around the town in support of restaurants.
But converting gondolas for restaurants takes work. Each one represents more than 100 hours of restoration. Together with the restaurant, she decides on the gondola’s color and upholstery, and then completely disassembles it, sandblasting, cleaning, painting, and assembling the redesigned structure so it’s ready for its second life. Bastien sources parts that can’t be fixed from European manufacturers, and adds a wood table, lights, and heaters. The gondolas can run between $14,000 and $20,000 each depending on paint, upholstery, and accessories.
Wendy Tucciarone, a cofounder of Mountain Tap Brewery in Colorado, acquired ski gondolas from the Gondola Shop back in September, and made her own renovations. She and her team deep cleaned the pods, added tables, electric heaters, and bluetooth speakers, then installed three gondolas in their brewpub in November.
The Mountain Tap Brewery currently serves at 25% capacity indoors due to state guidelines. (At the beginning of winter, no indoor dining was permitted.) The limited capacity and wintry conditions made dining “a challenge this winter,” Tucciarone explained via email. The gondolas are booked for a lot of the prime weekend spots, though they still have some available reservations. “They create an intimate, enclosed dining room for each party,” says Tucciarone, and the unique design has been a hit with guests. She adds that the interiors of the gondolas have hard surfaces making them easy to clean, and they open up the windows and doors between seatings to air them out.
Though COVID-19 will hopefully be under control by then, the ski gondolas will return to Mountain Tap Brewery’s patio next winter. “During a typical winter our business has always been limited by the amount of indoor seating we can offer,” Tucciarone says. “If anything good came out of the pandemic, it’s that we learned how to better utilize our outdoor space during the winter.” It’s just another example of how semi-permanent, winter-proof structures are changing the landscape of dining. No ski lessons required.