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Inside America’s national parks: Unveiling the craft in craft service

food service national park
Food service at a national park involves a process more complex than just PB&J. Photo: girlymcnerdy/Twenty20

The National Park Service governs 408 national parks, seashores and monuments across the U.S. Of those, 75 parks employ a corps of concessionaires to run food and beverage operations, serving about 23.5 million customers each year.

It turns out that dining in National Parks is a big, complex affair. A recent article by Eater explored the complexities of what it takes to feed a crowd.

Just last year, the National Park Service hosted more than 292 million visitors — that makes for a lot of hungry tourists.

So it begs the question, what does an army of famished sightseers need when they far away from home? Turns out, a clever menu that combines the traditional with the unexpected is key.

Visitors want comfort food (think ice cream and fried chicken) but catering to tourists from other countries requires foods with familiar influence, i.e. food similar to that of their home country, yet not all flavors are created equal, as discovered by Yellowstone.

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.

And the challenges don’t end there. Catering to on-site clientele can become tricky. For example, In Muir Woods, California, chefs are not allowed to do any baking on-site because the scent will attract animals.

Additionally, concession contracts have to ensure that America’s parks are friendly to all. Meaning National Parks must conduct price comparability studies with nearby restaurants to ensure their prices are fair.

“We’re a very regulated monopoly,” Lloyd Shelton, the food and beverage manager at Mount Rushmore, playfully admitted to Eater.

So, the next time you stop in on one of America’s National Parks, know that a lot of thought went into what’s on the menu.

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