By Ben Olson
As a born-and-raised Sandpointian, I’m always on the lookout for the next big “locals’ hangout” to remind me what this place is all about. I think I may have found it in the most unlikely of places: a parking lot on top of a mountain.
It’s been a good season at Schweitzer Mountain Resort so far, with some decent dumps of snow and even a couple of bluebird powder days. What’s made this season even better is a new scene that has developed at the Gateway parking lot at Schweitzer, where I’ve run into so many locals enjoying après ski beverages and responsibly distanced socialization.
In the past, the Gateway lot at Schweitzer — the lower of the upper lots with access directly to the Musical Chairs run — has been used as a spillover lot where RVs have parked. It was one of the only “ski-up” RV parks in North Idaho, actually. But this year, due to COVID-19 restrictions causing more people to drive up to the mountain, Schweitzer decided to do a little switcheroo, moving the RV lot over to the fire station lot and utilizing Gateway for a new purpose: food and fun.
Now, a trio of food trucks dominate the north side of the lot, where skiers can literally ski up and order a meal. Whether it was the addition of food trucks, or the lack of socialization from COVID-19, somehow this humble little parking lot has become a locals’ hot spot. Hatchbacks are opened, lawn chairs set up six feet apart, some even huddling around portable fire pits. Groups of locals share tall boys with one another to discuss their day on the mountain, steam still rising from their bare heads after removing their helmets. Kids play in the snowbanks, sliding down on their bums and tossing snowballs at one another. It’s a great way to end the day on the mountain.
Of course, it’s not the first time that people have tailgated after an awesome ski day, but there’s something a little more local to this experience that makes my heart feel good when trudging to the car after the last run.
“People have always used Gateway as convenient parking in the past, but we really encouraged that even more this winter in response to COVID,” Schweitzer Marketing Manager Dig Chrismer told the Reader. “It’s been so fun seeing people get creative about their après ski experience. Being outside and enjoying the mountain is key for all of us right now, and après (or lunch) is a big part of that, too.”
With three different options to choose from, lunch is now a highlight of the ski day. Skiers can choose from Jupiter Jane’s Traveling Cafe, The Burger Dock or Felkers Northern Smoke BBQ.
Jupiter Jane’s features an eclectic menu with ingredients that bring little to no guilt. Think of it as health-conscious comfort food, with a speciality on Mexican items like tacos and wraps, but also including a diverse selection of sandwiches. There’s always a daily special, too.
Aside from hot food, Jupiter Jane’s also offers convenient grab-and-go items like hot and cold drinks, baked goods, yogurt and granola, cereal and more.
Jupiter Jane’s owner Laurali Calvert-Peitz said her time serving food at the mountain this year “has been a fun new experience. I’m super excited to be there. I see a lot more people at the lot tailgating.”
Calvert-Peitz said her hottest selling items are “definitely my famous tacos.”
Local’s tip: Ask for the JJ’s Rockin’ Tacos in burrito form. It’s not on the menu, but Calvert-Peitz is always happy to make it happen. It’s the best burrito in Sandpoint, especially when you’re still wearing your snowboarding boots. The breakfast tacos and fish tacos are also divine.
Burger Dock goes back to its roots as the Old Tin Can food truck for its Schweitzer service, offering mouth-watering burgers loaded with crispy lettuce, juicy tomatoes and coma-inducing cheese with a bag of chips on the side. The food truck menu is slightly reduced from the storefront’s options, offering favorites like The Old Tin Can burger, along with the popper burger, veggie burger, the sticky burger with peanut butter and grilled cheese for the kiddos. All burgers come with a bag of chips on the side.
Owner Savannah Clark said customers have loved the addition of food trucks at Schweitzer, but the cold alpine conditions have created their own difficulties.
“It’s a lot harder to operate out of a trailer with conditions on the mountain,” Clark told the Reader. “With propane freezing and snow removal, we’re definitely experiencing all the elements.”
Clark said the future of the lot will hopefully include beer and live music, but COVID-19 restrictions have put that on hold for Schweitzer.
“I do see this in the future becoming more trendy with music and drinks,” she said. “With COVID, that makes gathering a bit harder. But there’s a lot of potential for being a bigger tailgating crowd.”
Chrismer said currently there is no plan to add beer sales to the food trucks.
“You can purchase beers to go from any Schweitzer F&B [food and beverage] outlet and enjoy them down in the lot,” she said. “Gourmandie actually has a nice little selection to choose from.”
Local’s tip: Burger Dock is quite popular at the Gateway lot, so don’t be afraid to make your order and then stow your gear in the car. The timing usually works out that you can drop the gear at the car and return to the food trucks to pick up your burger right after it comes off the grill. We recommend their classic Old Tin Can burger, which is among the best in North Idaho.
Felkers Northern Smoke BBQ rounds out the choices with some of the greatest down-home barbecue fixings this side of the Mississippi. Expect all your favorites: pulled pork, homemade chicken and dumplings, ribs and side dishes to warm up that cold belly.
Morgan MacKaben — who co-owns and operates Felkers with her husband, Scott — said that while “it’s been a bit of a slow start to the Gateway Grub adventure,” she acknowledges that with any new venture there comes an opportunity to increase their following.
“We are grateful for the opportunity for new and creative avenues to introduce people to our family recipes, and are hopeful that the Gateway Grub slope-side food trucks will gain momentum as the season progresses,” MacKaben said. “We are excited to be along for the journey and hope that Felkers will be a part of the new traditions for skiers at Schweitzer, hometown folks and visitors to our area.
Local’s tip: Some fan favorites include the baked potato piled with pulled pork, homemade chicken and dumplings and brisket mac and cheese. MacKaben said the brisket has been so popular that Felkers is going to start offering brisket at its Ponderay location every day. Speaking from experience, this is a wise move.
Whether enjoying fare from one of the three aforementioned food trucks or munching on a PBJ on your tailgate, the Gateway lot is definitely the coolest place to end the ski day at Schweitzer — especially when the sun is out and the view overlooking Lake Pend Oreille seems taken out of a picture book. Just be sure to show up early, as this lot fills quickly on busy days.
“Our [skiers] are creating their own little slice of Heaven and enjoying the proximity to the lifts,” Chrismer said. “The whole vibe is a little retro in a sense — back to the basics of what skiing is, really. Play outside all day, then hang with your bubble over a drink and snacks talking about the day. Can’t beat it.”
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal