Help Wanted : A Conversation with a Restaurant Owner.
After a dozen years, the Mountain Rose is going to close its doors. Not move because business is booming, or, having outgrown the location. The Rose is closing because keeping good help has become too much work for local restaurateur, Gail Rorabaugh.
Rorabaugh: Living the Dream
When we were approached in 2005 to open a restaurant in the space that used to be The Kitchen, my husband, Mike Meindl, said “it isn’t opportunity knocking, it’s opportunity knocking down the door.” He wasn’t wrong. So we took out a second mortgage and started The Mountain Rose Café.
The name was easy. The café was named for my daughter, Neva Rose, but the fact that Rosie had operated The Kitchen in the space for 30 years, made it a perfect choice. And then, the learning curve began. I had experience managing, but, being financially responsible for the business was beyond my scope of knowledge, and, I had heard 80% of restaurants fail in the first three years.
What are the Challenges?
The biggest challenge is and has always been staffing. Food Service is not typically thought of as a career path and although I have met some amazing people through the Mountain Rose, the vast majority of employees lasted an average of six months. The employees that stayed all struggled with balancing a budget and housing.
The rental market has been bad for years. The cost of housing in the valley is not affordable to average workers. The normal living situation is 4-5 (20) somethings in a two bedroom condo in the Winter Park/Fraser area. The employment base for restaurants doesn’t come to Winter Park to work. They come to ski and play. Some of them can balance that with a good work ethic. A large percentage of them are unreliable, because they know they can flip jobs overnight, moving from one Help Wanted sign to the next.
Another challenge for the small business is that the food purveyors only make deals with the big accounts. My “wholesale” prices are barely below what Safeway charges. The big entities can negotiate better profit margins, but the little guy gets stuck paying a high price tag for food. Many restaurant owners go to Denver to shop wholesale grocery warehouses and make Costco runs. The ski area, Devil’s Thumb and “non profit” entities like the YMCA and Younglife can negotiate better rates overall due to volume. They have lower initial food prices and charge big price tags for their foodservice, and, can afford to pay their help more and also offer benefits.
Minimum Wage won’t cut it?
One of the reasons that I had to start paying 18 dollars an hour for kitchen staff is that I realized that most kitchen workers can’t cook. And if I wanted staff that wouldn’t walk out when I demanded quality product, I would have to pay more than most. But the reality is that in this market, it is challenging to find skilled workers. Working for a bigger restaurant or resort has more appeal, pay and benefits. It’s tough to compete for quality staff unless you pay more.
How about the Seasonal Swing of Grand County?
Another extremely difficult challenge is the seasonality. We lose money in the off season, nearly 3 months, October, November and May will not pay the bills. We break even in December, April, and June. The six months that you can actually make money help carry us through times when we were slow. But staffing for busy times and paying them when it’s slow crushes the business.
What about the consumer of today?
The foodie, Yelping, diner is multiplying at an alarming rate. Customers who expect you to accommodate dietary restrictions are the norm, not the exception. And while we have had many many lovely people, who have returned time and time again over the years, and made us proud of what we do, it seems that things are changing and a more demanding, sophisticated consumer is evolving, and for now, at least, I don’t have the resources to satisfy that consumer without paying too high a price personally.
Why close at the cusp of so much change?
The choice to close the restaurant was forced by the landlord’s decision to sell the building, but the actual reason that I am closing is; I cannot change the dynamics of operating a restaurant in this valley. I’m sad because I’m closing a successful business that I created from scratch, with huge sacrifice from my family. I am very proud of our restaurant and staff, I know we cared, we worked hard, and in the end, we made a lot of people happy. I want to thank everyone for their support over the years.
We plan on keeping the articles of corporation open and see if something presents itself. I want to take time off and hopefully be bored. I have not been bored for thirteen years. I am looking forward to cooking for fun again