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Dining in the Wilderness: The Restaurants in America’s National Parks

What does it take to feed 292 million visitors a year?

Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn, 1965.
Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn, 1965.
Emil Muench/Archive Photos/Getty Images

If the Jordan Pond House restaurant in Seal Harbor, Maine, stopped serving its signature afternoon tea and popovers, that wouldn't just irritate the diners who have obsessed over the custom since the 1890s. It would violate the restaurant's actual contract with the federal government.

The Jordan Pond House is located in Acadia National Park, one of 408 national parks, seashores, and monuments under the care of the National Park Service. Thanks to that breadth of coverage, the park service employs a cadre of concessioners to run food and beverage operations in about 75 of those parks, from Acadia to the Grand Canyon, serving about 23.5 million customers each year. (Overall, the National Park Service hosted more than 292 million visitors in 2014.)

Some of these dining operations are essentially mom-and-pop local businesses, like a beach shack at Cape Cod's national seashore or the campground at Buffalo Point in Arkansas. But many of these concessioners are subsidiaries of larger hospitality corporations, including Xanterra, Delaware North, and the relative newcomer Ortega National Parks. To land a contract within a national park, concessioners must submit proposals in response to an NPS prospectus, which outlines the basic services it would like to see in each park. An NPS panel assesses these bids and awards the winning concessioner a contract lasting anywhere from a few years to 20.

Even among the larger concessioners, dining in the national parks is hardly a uniform experience. Restaurant concepts vary based on the size and scope of the park, meaning that a park popular for overnight stays (like Yellowstone) might require multiple restaurants from snack bars to high-end reservations-recommending dining, while a park that's more of brief stop, like Mount Rushmore, might just need a food court. And menus change based on where the park is located, based on food traditions/expectations, or the particular approach of the concessioner.

So what does it take — and what does it mean — to run a restaurant in a national park? It's a puzzle of government regulations, sustainability concerns, planning menus for a potential clientele of literally anyone in the world, upholding food traditions, and sometimes even learning how to tell the story of a park through food.

Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On the menu

Years ago, Yellowstone National Park had the idea to turn one of its many restaurants into a Mexican buffet. After all, who doesn't love tacos and cheese and guacamole? "Oh, it failed miserably," says director of food and beverage Lu Harlow. People come to Yellowstone for wild game bolognese, elk sausage, and bison burgers, she explains, a menu that helped turn Old Faithful Inn into the park’s most classic dining experience.

Crafting food and beverage programs in a national park is a challenge, particularly when diners are looking for an "authentic" experience. South Dakota has the largest roaming buffalo herd in the nation, so Mount Rushmore's food court leans heavily on buffalo meat in chili, stews, burgers, and brats. The Arizona Room at the Grand Canyon showcases Arizona beer, wine, beef, Navajo tepary beans, and more. And, out in the wilderness, Yellowstone has game meat and trout on most of its menus. It's what people are looking for when they visit, Harlow says.

Each park has a different set of challenges — some are self-imposed, but National Park Service regulations play a role.

But diners are also looking for an approachable meal in national parks, which draw visitors from across the country and the world. (Tourism from countries in Asia is the fastest-growing market for many of them.) So, Harlow says, there have to be dishes with Asian flavors available: Everybody wants comfort food when they travel, she notes of Yellowstone's "sort of mainstream" menu. Even at Yosemite's Ahwahnee Dining Room, operated by Delaware North and arguably the most high-end of restaurants in a national park, executive chef Percy Whatley says the core entrees on the menu have to be pretty standard. The restaurant's slow-roasted prime rib is its quintessential dish, while any more outside-the-box dishes are presented as specials instead.

"Each one of these parks has a different set of challenges," says Keith Mahoney, corporate chef and F&B director of Ortega. At Cades Cove in Tennessee, staff worries about bears, so concessions need to have hoodless and greaseless equipment. In Muir Woods, California, chefs are not allowed to do any baking on-site because the scent will attract animals.

Some of these challenges are self-imposed among the concessioners, but NPS regulations play a role. The National Park Service contracts are meant to ensure that America's parks are friendly to all. These contracts vary from park to park, but one regulation that's standard across the board is price comparability. The general public feels that the parks have a monopoly over concessions, says Harlow, so the National Park Service is tasked with making sure they don't. Where a McDonald's in a remote location can jack up its prices, national parks must conduct comparability studies with restaurants in nearby cities and towns to ensure their prices are fair. "We're a very regulated monopoly," jokes Lloyd Shelton, the food and beverage manager at Mount Rushmore.

The famous popover at Acadia National Park's Jordan Pond Restaurant. Photo: Alan Hochberg/Flickr

Food Traditions

For diners who are regulars in America's national parks, tradition is crucial. "There is iconic food and iconic history on nearly every property," says Mahoney. People stand in line for ice cream at Cades Cove. Fried chicken is the specialty on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Stow Lake has pink popcorn. Hikers at Yosemite like to end long treks with pizza at Curry Village, which churns out 400 pizzas a night. El Tovar Dining Room at the Grand Canyon's South Rim has had dishes like its salmon tostada, French onion soup, and Sonoran eggs on the menu for as long as executive chef Matt McTigue can remember — visitors want to eat the same delicious dish they had on their honeymoon when they return for an anniversary 15 years later. And then, of course, there are the popovers at Acadia.

Regulars at the Jordan Pond House did fear the loss of its popover tradition a couple of years ago, when the National Park Service announced that it was awarding the Acadia contract — held more than 80 years by the Acadia Corp. — to Ortega National Parks. At the time, diners wrung their hands over what the change would mean for the quality of the food, especially the popovers. But the National Park Service rushed to reassure them the popovers at Jordan Pond House would continue. According to Kurt Rausch, chief of NPS contract management, the popovers are so crucial to the site that they were protected by contract.

But the national parks' iconic foods don't necessarily have anything to do with regional traditions or National Park Service involvement. In fact, one of the more iconic national park foods today has only been around a couple of years: the Thomas Jefferson vanilla ice cream at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

"When you’re in the national parks, part of your job is to assist the National Park Service in its interpretive mission."

"When you're in the national parks, part of your job is to assist the National Park Service in its interpretive mission," says Mount Rushmore's Lloyd Shelton. Four years ago, Shelton discovered an old sign explaining how Thomas Jefferson, one of the presidents depicted in the mountain sculpture, brought ice cream to America. That wasn't actually true, Shelton says, although Jefferson is credited by historians as the first person to write down a recipe for ice cream. Shelton thought Mount Rushmore visitors should know about Jefferson's ice cream connection, so he printed up recipe cards (Jefferson's recipe is housed in the Library of Congress). Soon, though, people wanted to try the ice cream. So Shelton and his team started looking into dairies that might be willing to reproduce the recipe, landing on Pride Dairy in Bottineau, North Dakota.

Pride Dairy strived for near-absolute authenticity, Shelton says, even determining through research that Jefferson would likely have gotten his vanilla beans from Madagascar at the time. (One main diversion from authenticity is that they did pasteurize the milk.) In 2013, the first year Mount Rushmore offered the ice cream, they were hoping to sell 20,000 cones. They sold 50,000 cones instead. In 2014, that number jumped to 70,000 cones. Now the ice cream has its own hashtag and landing page on Mount Rushmore's website.

Shelton is proud of the ice cream's success and points to it as a way that he and his fellow concessioners strive to meet the mission of the National Park Service. "We all feel a deep sense of dedication to our parks," he says. Employees like Shelton live in and near their parks and have developed communities. It's a unique working environment, he says. "You just have that great feeling when you work at a park."

Top: The dining room at the Grand Canyon's El Tovar. Photo: Official site. Bottom: Views of the El Tovar kitchen (circa 1905) and dining room (circa 1965). Photos: Courtesy Grand Canyon NPS/Flickr

Sustainable restaurants

While the National Park Service gives concessioners latitude in writing menus and chasing new traditions, in recent years, the agency has gotten tougher on healthy eating. In November 2011, the White House hosted a roundtable meeting with the Domestic Policy Council, the National Park Service, and some of its concessioners to discuss healthy and sustainable food standards in national parks.

Even though many of these concessioners had already undertaken sustainability efforts, they worried about these new standards. After all, these concessioners noted, people visit the national parks on vacation. Shouldn't they get to eat whatever they want? What would "healthy" mean for sites like Denali, where mountaineers need sodium and fat to survive? Concessioners also pointed out that buying sustainable food is often more expensive: Who would pay for that? Where would the remotely located parks even source those ingredients?

Those concerns were justifiable, says Rausch. That's why the National Park Service came up with a compromise, creating a set of standards and guidelines that draw what he calls a "subtle distinction between healthy food and sustainable food."

For most national parks restaurants, healthy food is a requirement. This means that concessioners must provide healthy options — low fat, low sodium, whole grain, at least one fruit or vegetable per entree, and some dishes must be steamed or grilled — as well as observe healthy practices like labeling lighter dishes on menus and never designating a fried item as a special of the day. Healthy food must be available, but it doesn't have to be the only option. As Yosemite's executive chef Whatley recalls, then-White House chef Sam Kass said at the end of the meeting, "If it's a burger that people want, then make it the best, most sustainable burger you can."

"If it’s a burger that people want, then make it the best, most sustainable burger you can."

The park service also outlines an ideal "core menu" that offers a vegetarian option as well as chicken, fish, and beef, as well as items that "reflect national trends" and "are regionally expected." With its new contract at Acadia, NPS specifically asked Ortega to provide options for nearly a dozen types of dietary concerns, according to corporate food and beverage director Mahoney. Ortega then developed its own menu that satisfies diabetics, vegans, vegetarians, the lactose-intolerant, gluten-intolerant, and people with high blood pressure, and submitted that to NPS for approval (which restaurants at all parks are required to do each year).

Meanwhile, the National Park Service merely encourages its parks to use sustainable and locally sourced foods when possible, issuing guidelines suggesting parks look for fair-trade and shade-grown coffee. Restaurants should also use local, seasonal, and organic produce whenever possible — and if concessioners do choose to go organic, NPS requires operators to certify that those farmers are in fact organic.

But in spite of those concerns at the White House meeting, concessioners uniformly say they didn't feel pressured to move toward sustainability. Rausch agrees that they were "moving aggressively" in that direction well before the White House meeting. In 2004, Xanterra pledged a goal of sustainably sourcing 50 percent of its food and beverage across its parks by 2014; the new goal for 2025 is to reach 70 percent sustainability. Delaware North registered its GreenPath environmental protection plan in 2001; Aramark has a Green Thread program. And they all claim progress when it comes to composting, recycling, and using energy-efficient equipment. "It's been exciting for our concessionaires to not be followers, but be leaders in the industry," Rausch says.

Yosemite's Old Faithful Inn. Photo: Flickr

Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn. Photo: Randy Watson/Flickr

But sustainability in food choices is easier for some of the parks than others. Muir Woods was able to source 87 percent of its produce within 30 miles of the park in 2009 when it launched its pioneering sustainability program. But Muir Woods is in the San Francisco Bay Area, where local produce abounds. Meanwhile, parks like the desert-surrounded Death Valley and the various parks located in the remote wilderness in Alaska or Wyoming or the Dakotas have much more trouble finding local farmers. "I don't know how some of the parks do it," says Whatley, noting the produce-rich Yosemite National Park.

Some of them do anyway. Ortega's Keith Mahoney traveled to Death Valley to research local food and found a date farm, hothouse tomatoes, and pistachios available in the desert. And one key to being able to source "locally" in the remote parks is being able to play loose with the term itself. For some of these hospitality companies, "local" is officially defined as up to a 500-mile radius. At Yellowstone, they consider Bozeman, Montana "local," as one of the nearest cities to the park. It's 80 miles away.

One key to being able to source "locally" in the remote parks is being able to play loose with the term itself.

The drive toward sustainability is a business decision. The National Park Service has made it clear that it values healthy eating and environmental protection and has given those values weight in the contract bidding process. And that process itself has become even more competitive in recent years, ever since NPS revoked a rule that gave companies with existing contracts preference when it came time for renewal. Now each concessioner must continually prove its dedication to pushing forward on healthy and sustainable eating if it wants another multi-million-dollar contract.

But there's also something very human about these decisions. Lu Harlow of Yellowstone says it's also become somewhat of a personal competition to find more sustainable produce than her neighbors at Grand Teton National Park. She'll read its menus and feel jealous that they're closer to Jackson, Wyoming, where they can find more produce. "You always feel upset getting comment cards about how Grand Teton was better," she says.

And then, of course, many of these chefs and F&B managers are National Park lifers, spending most of their careers and adult lives in these natural environments. "Since we are located in one of the seven natural wonders of the world, it just makes sense [to be sustainable]," says Grand Canyon chef McTigue. "It can be depressing when you see some of the garbage that gets disposed of and the way that people treat the national parks. We owe it to ourselves and to the park itself to help take care of it."