MISSOULA — Following labor shortages, pandemic-related closures, and enforcing mask mandates, now many Missoula restaurants are tasked with another challenge -- tourism season.
MTN News caught up with a few local favorites, who all say this is the busiest summer season they've seen -- at least in recent memory.
On a recent Thursday afternoon in Missoula, crowds roamed the downtown sidewalks and the streets were filled with traffic.
"Ya know when the weather is nice, and people are traveling, it's easy to come buy a cookie,” noted Mary's Mountain Cookies owner Kara McCracken.
She added that after being open for almost four years, they're seeing more customers through the door than ever.
"We've had a large increase I would say in tourism."
McCracken told us she expects people are just ready to get out, as pandemic-related restrictions have lifted.
"I would bet that 85-to-90% of the customers that are coming in right now are tourists.”
"In Missoula, we've just been eating a lot, walking a lot. Seeing all the sights, hiking, just spending a lot of time with family,” said Amy Juola who was visiting from Minnesota
McCracken says they're lucky to have all the staff to keep up with demand.
"We were able to maintain a lot of our college students through the summer, which was really helpful, and we had some other people come in that wanted a job. I feel really, really blessed."
They're also still taking orders online, through delivery apps like Door Dash, Uber Eats, and Grub Hub.
"I feel like in the last year, the amount of community support that we have received has been so overwhelming, and we weren't expecting that, but it has been such a positive thing for us, i think that probably helps with our environment here too."
Visitors say they're stopping at all kinds of eateries.
Notorious PIG was able to survive pandemic restrictions and meat and supply shortages with takeout orders.
"We are kind of a to-go restaurant anyway,” but owner Burke Holmes says they too have never been busier. This summer has proven to be far more difficult than the pandemic was,” Holmes observed.
They even over-staffed more than they normally would and are working to keep up. “We’re selling out, often,” Holmes said.
They aren't even selling a staple --ribs --because Holmes says they'd be too expensive.
"It's definitely a catch 22. I've never been so happy to have the revenue, but on top of all that, the cost of everything is through the roof."
Holmes says they have had some difficult customer interactions, as well.
"We've had a handful of real grumpy folks, who I reckon recently moved here. I feel like it's a little bit of our social responsibility to kind of set them straight and say ‘hey, we've got a good thing going on in this community, and that kind of behavior isn't really going to fly’."
Holmes says they have enough staff now it was slim pickings at first.
"When we went to hire up and get ready for a really, really busy summer, generally we've got tons of applications in front of us, and we saw maybe a tenth of those."
Notorious PIG is not alone.
"We need quite a few cooks, we're looking for a couple servers, maybe a couple bartenders, hosts, bussers,” noted Tamarack Brewing Company manager Kara Funk.
She says they're still operating at partial capacity and are focusing on in-house service. "The wait times have been like, oh man, we've gotten up to like 45 minutes to an hour."
They've canceled all in-app deliveries through the summer. “Door Dash would just be ringing off the hook,” Funk said.
Tamarack is also closing early at 9 p.m. as well as at lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
"The staff has just been working so hard, we decided to just give them an appreciation day, everybody gets together and hangs out, kind of like a mental break,” Funk said.
The people who run the eateries are trying to predict the unpredictable, and prep for next season -- whether that's planning for more craziness or hoping for a break.
"We definitely learned how to gear up for Griz season,” Funk said.
"We're really grateful for the business and also ready for the fall," McCracken concluded.