Cold Smoke with John Grollmus

Field Report No. 20190306RC

TOPIC: Cold Smoke with John Grollmus

CONDITIONS: Sub-zero Windchill 

KEY FEATURES: Groomer Day / Beers / Beats Working

COMMENTS: Strapping on my boots in Schweitzer Mountain Resort’s lodge, I tap John’s phone number, and hit the speaker button on my phone. I can hear his phone ringing louder in person than I can through my speakers. He’s sitting at a nearby table; I didn’t see him.

“Man, we picked the wrong day. Conditions out there are pretty severe,” he laughs as I sit down.

We’re both firm believers in anti-snobbery. Not everything needs to be the most artisanal award-winning experience of all time. A solid beer is better than no beer. A good, full-flavored meal is more important than how the plate looks on Instagram. A day skiing beats a day working — it just does. So we hit the lifts to catch up, and do some high speed runs on groomers. 

Schweitzer has a grip on my heart, even on icy, windy days like this, with no fresh snow. In grad school, I could just barely afford the steeply discounted college season pass, and my classes were held at night. I didn’t have kids at the time, so I could shoot up to Sandpoint on a whim and have a solo skiing day, clearing my mind as I cruised down Stiles at scary speeds, levitated like Picabo Street off the rollers, bobbed through glades of fresh powder, or hucked off the terrain park’s newest jumps. Ah, to be young. Riding up the chairlift I only get to sit on about once a year nowadays, I can almost hear Glory Days by Springsteen in my head as I remember those times.

For John, this is his winter home. Skiing has become a part of his work life. Yesterday, he was on a Caterpillar crawling up the steep chutes, and lead-guiding a group down through piles of wind-protected powder. On days like that, skiers can’t help but hoot and holler as they float through the trees.

As part-owner of a legendary Inland Northwest restaurant group that includes Moon Time in Coeur d’Alene, the Elk in Spokane, and several other spots, he has put in the long years of hard work to not be onsite every single day, and to use his flexibility to pick up outdoor writing for The Inlander and some backcountry ski guiding for Selkirk Powder Company.

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People often joke about John “living the dream.” When I bring up the phrase, he doesn’t deny it. “Yeah, I have a pretty great setup right now,” he admits. He’s earned it.

At the top of the mountain, we shout into the wind that instantly chaps our faces. I snap a photo of John leaning over the edge of a run in full flying-squirrel position, his body held up for a second by the wind. On great ski days, you can pretty much point your tips downhill and let the depth of the snow check your speed. Today, it’s the wind scooping up the mountain that holds us up.

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I put the camera away and my gloves back on, but not before my hands feel like they could actually shatter. We speed down the mountain in two minutes flat, a twirl of cold smoke tailing behind John’s skis as he maintains his edges but doesn’t really scrape. We pop off our skids and walk into the Outback, a quaint bar near the six-person Stella lift. Time for a poor-man’s mocha: drip coffee (from Sandpoint’s Evans Bros) with a healthy splash of hot chocolate. At the bar, John’s friend (everyone in the packed place happens to be John’s friend) graces our cups with Peppermint Schnapps. The hot cup helps my hands, but the de-numbing period is the most painful. 

On the wall, John nostalgically points out one of his old skis. It’s a tradition in the bar for locals here to sign an old ski and put it up, with the year of your first Schweitzer ski day. John’s was in the 1970s, as a small kid. Both here in the Outback, and later at the brand new upscale Sky House restaurant, John eases into conversation with old friends. Through the culture of the mountain, he has created community in the same way his neighborhood restaurants have.

“Yeah, hospitality is really the overlap in the things I do,” he says. “When I’m guiding a group of skiers, or just doing lift runs with my wife and a group of friends, the whole goal is for everyone to relax and connect with each other around something they love. That has always been our goal with the restaurants, too. To make sure they are places with great local food and drinks, but beyond that, to create neighborhood pubs where we would want to hang out with our friends.”

Over the past twenty years, that’s exactly what each of the restaurants has become. Because the company is also committed to taking care of their employees, their staff turnover is much lower than average, and each spot develops a culture and a community around its staff and regulars.

On the chairlift for our last run, we joke that we’re sort of opposites. I went to school to be a writer, and in recent years I’m getting into food through my little venture The Compass Breakfast Wagon. For John, he studied hotel and restaurant management and has thrived in that industry, but has now begun to hone his outdoors storytelling craft in the pages of local publications. 

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I have a lot to learn about business from John, and I pick his brain over a Cold Smoke Scotch Ale at the end of the day. As I drive home from Sandpoint, I’m thankful for his detailed knowledge, but comforted by the simplicity of his mission. If creating spaces for positive community and relationships is what matters most, our businesses and hobbies and jobs and side-hustles should maintain a focus on that goal. 

That simple reminder, through a joyful day spent with a man in his element, definitely redeems the long drive and the bitter cold wind.

- Ross Carper