Jackson business owners, staff try to catch their breath after record-busy year

JACKSON — Pinky G’s Pizzeria has toppled its sales records every month to date in 2021, and General Manager Mark Sexton doesn’t see any reason to think November and December will turn out any differently.

There were some clear perks. The homegrown pizzeria tucked under The Rose and closed-for-now Pink Garter theater netted record gross revenue — $300,000-plus a month — through the heart of the busy season, a 15-to-20-percent jump in revenue from past years.

But the customer experience and ease of locals fetching a Pinky G’s pie took an absolute beating. Through the summer, Sexton made the call to disable online ordering. Demand for pizzas simply far outpaced the small business’s ability to make them. Phoned-in orders were another casualty. The 10-person crew that crammed into Pinky G’s bar and kitchen just didn’t have the capacity to pick up.

“We could not deal with it,” Sexton told the News&Guide. “It was impossible.”

“We just took a step back,” he said. “What we did is we said, ‘Hey, we’re going to manage as best as we can.’ We did to-gos — people walking in — and obviously dine in. But I kid you not, and I’m sure everybody can say the same, for those three months and even September, it was 3-hour waits for dine-in and 90 minutes for pizzas. And that tells me that every single restaurant in town was that way.”

Adjusting to nonstop busy times, which stretched into the fall, was out of necessity.

By the numbers, 2021 was one for the record books. 

The national parks, which are the largest human draw to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, either set new or flirted with visitation records every month of the year, save for October. Yellowstone National Park tallied 4.79 million visitors passing through its five entrance gates through 2021’s first 10 months, a full 20-percent increase over the same 10-month period in 2019, the year before the pandemic began influencing tourism trends.

Lee’s Tees owner Lee Gardner has noticed that receipts for headgear, garments and trinkets from his shop on the southwest corner of the Town Square about track with the number of people flowing through the parks. That means 2021 was more financially fruitful than ever, though there were also less-desirable effects, such as more people being drawn to relieve themselves in the Lee’s Tees toilets.

“We have restrooms that are overrun because there’s not near enough public restrooms in this town,” Gardner said. “It’s insanely busy.”

Gardner emphasized that he doesn’t want to complain about the swelling crowds that have kept his business thriving. But he added that more is not necessarily always better.

“Are we busy? We are overwhelmed,” Gardner said. “It wouldn’t bother me in the least if it slowed down. And it wouldn’t bother any of my employees.”

A Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce staffer didn’t respond to an interview inquiry on Tuesday. The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board chairman didn’t either, but the town and county-appointed board just recently awarded a contract for a “sustainability coordinator” whose role will be to help create a “destination management plan.” Essentially, that’s Jackson Hole’s latest and most concerted effort to manage tourism.

Some Jackson Hole business owners have already indicated that tourism has reached a point of diminishing returns, and that’s a statement supported by more than anecdotes. 

Even before 2021’s busy season smashed all the records accrued over the century-plus since Jackson Hole was homesteaded, the business community was already leery of more. Early this year the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board surveyed 200 people in the business community to take their temperature about tourism trends, and they found that 78 percent of respondents thought there was too much tourism in summer, which could be expected. 

More surprisingly, 31 percent of the business community perceived too much fall tourism, compared with 18 percent who desired more. In winter, 39 percent of survey respondents already thought there were too many tourists and just 16 percent wanted more. 

Spring was the only season that differed: Business owners queried who wanted more tourism outnumbered those who already perceived too much, by a 35-to-20-percent margin.

“This was our business community really saying, ‘This feels a little bit hot,’ ” Travel and Tourism Board Chair Brian Gallagher told an audience at this spring’s “22 in 21” symposium.

Gardner keeps in mind that Jackson Hole isn’t alone in its struggle over how to handle unprecedented crowding. And he doesn’t see any easy fixes.

“Is it too much?” the T-shirt shop owner asked. “Well, what are you going to do?”

“Denver, Salt Lake, Boise, Bozeman — everything’s booming,” he said. “It’s not necessarily just Jackson, when you really talk to people.”

To get a better handle on its clientele trends, in the first week of this September Lee’s Tees installed an automated people counter on its entrance door. The count came out to 579,016, at least as of mid-afternoon Tuesday. Slash that in half to account for each person coming in and then leaving, and it still pencils out to nearly 300,000 customers in a 2.5-month-span during a time of year that has historically been relatively quiet.

Standing in his shop as families perused the aisles, Gardner remarked on how even in late November, it still feels busy.

“With all the second homes and everything, there’s way more people here Thanksgiving week than there’s ever been,” Gardner said. “The last three weeks are some of the slowest of the whole year, but it’s got to the point where it’s really hardly an off-season.”

The business community has long sought to ratchet up the spring and fall tourism troughs and bolster the year-round economy, and the numbers suggest that battle’s being slowly won.

A Travel and Tourism Board-funded service that tracks tourist numbers in Jackson based on cell phone data estimates that there were 208,575 people in town limits through the first 20 days of November — a 15-percent jump in people over the same stretch of days in 2019.

At Pinky G’s, the late fall has given Sexton something of a reprieve.

After pizza sales sailed past records for months, November’s proceeds leveled off and will only marginally exceed those from previous years. But the lull likely won’t last for long, and it’s soon to be interrupted by a redesign that’s being planned out of necessity. On its way out: Some of the seating along the west side of Pinky G’s. On its way in: An enlarged kitchen and second pizza oven.

“What we learned is we need to expand,” Sexton said. “In April, we’re switching the whole place up.”