On a typical winter morning, a line of skiers and snowboarders file into Wake ‘N Bakery in Glacier for a caffeine fix or breakfast burrito before driving the hairpin turns on Highway 542 to the Mount Baker Ski Area.
But there’s no morning rush this winter at the coffee shop and bakery, owners Court and Rebecca Andersen said. Snow depth at the ski area was 27 percent of average on Feb. 1, according to Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center data, and the skiers and snowboarders who come to Mount Baker from Bellingham, Vancouver and beyond aren’t showing up to the slopes or to Wake ‘N Bakery.
Although the ski lifts are still turning, the lack of snow is straining businesses in Glacier and Maple Falls, the towns closest to Mount Baker. Local landmark Milano’s Restaurant, in Glacier, went out of business after President’s Day weekend.
Dave Reera took over Milano’s in August 2014 from Tom and Jeannie DeBari, who opened it in 1990. Summer and fall were great for business, Reera said in a phone interview the week before closing, but when snow didn’t pile up in the ski area, midweek traffic at the restaurant dropped off. Reera stopped opening during the week to cut costs, and tried to keep the restaurant in business until the snow came, he said.
The collection of restaurants, cafes, stores, vacation rentals and other businesses near Mount Baker are used to ebbs and flows. Tourist dollars from the summer season get businesses through the “mud-season” in October and November. But the lean times usually end in December, when snow flies and skiers return.
“We knew from the get-go that if winter was truly horrible the business wouldn’t survive. A gamble on the weather that didn’t turn out well,” Reera said in a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
The Andersens said tourists often found the Wake ‘N Bakery after stopping in Glacier to eat at Milano’s.
“It’s been such a part of local life. People come here and all they want to do is go to Milano’s,” Court said. “Even if they don’t come in here or anywhere else, they’re stopping in Glacier. They’re having an experience. They might have a really good meal and think, ‘Oh, this little podunk town has some things going for it.’”
Business owners in the area call the restaurant, which was known for pasta and seafood, a “Highway 542 institution.”
“What makes it an institution is the amazing food. The quality of the food has been fantastic over the years, including this year,” said Gwyn Howat, operations manager at Mount Baker Ski Area.
Howat has friends from all over the world who come to Mount Baker annually to race in the ski area’s Legendary Banked Slalom, and she said the food and social experience at Milano’s is part of the experience for them.
Those friends haven’t arrived in the foothills this year, as race organizers rescheduled the 30th annual Legendary Banked Slalom from Feb. 19-22 to March 19-22 due to lack of snow on the course. The snowboard race dates back to the beginning of snowboarding and draws competitors from around the world.
Race competitors and spectators fill the area’s restaurants, stores and lodges all weekend.
“It’s pretty monstrous,” Court said. “It would be a big loss if it doesn’t happen. That’s potentially the biggest weekend of the whole year.”
Since opening on Dec. 20, the Mount Baker Ski Area has remained open seven days a week, though often with a limited number of chairlifts running. Ski area staff have been moving snow to cover holes and keep the runs skiable, Howat said. The area is also offering discounted lift tickets, free hot waxes for the first 50 customers, and other deals.
“Obviously the season is affecting the bottom line,” Howat said. “You try to do a good job with what you’ve got. That’s the secret to life.”
Howat said if the ski area gets enough snow in March, they will look at extending the season as long as possible.
Lack of snow doesn’t just mean a lack of tourist dollars in the foothills, it also means residents of Glacier and Maple Falls have less money to spend at local businesses. Many in the area work at the ski area or in other seasonal jobs, Court said.
“When we’re all making money, we’ll all go around and spend it,” he said. “When we’re not making money, we’re more likely to just eat dinner at home again.”
Court and Rebecca said people have been going out of their way to spend money at Wake ‘N Bakery.
“People are coming here and they’re telling me, ‘I’m trying to do my part,’” Rebecca said. “A couple from Portland bought a coffee mug and two greeting cards. That makes a difference. I’m just so appreciative that people are conscientiously trying.”
Rebecca said they’re in no danger of going out of business, because regular customers have made getting coffee at Wake ‘N Bakery a part of their daily routine. Restaurants have it tougher, she said.
Like Reera at Milano’s, Kirby Cook also recently invested in a new business. Cook owns and operates Chair 9 restaurant and the Blue T Lodge in Glacier with his family, and he started leasing Graham’s Restaurant, across the highway from Milano’s, in November.
Chair 9 has held its own through the winter, Cook said, but Graham’s Restaurant has struggled and more people call to cancel reservations at Blue T Lodge than to book them.
Cook said even if he knew in advance how little snow would fall this winter, he still would have taken over Graham’s Restaurant.
“If I could see the future I would have been hesitant but I would still have gone ahead and done it,” he said. “We’re kind of like farmers in that the weather can sometimes wreak havoc and take a crop. The snow is our crop, we needed it.”
This is worst winter for skiing Cook has seen since opening Chair 9 in July 2010, he said.
Lois Buckner has seen several bad snow years in the 30 years that she has worked at Crossroads Grocery.
Now, Buckner is ready for spring. Mount Baker’s summer tourist season starts when the Washington State Department of Transportation plows the road through the ski area to Artist Point, she said.
“We beg them to open it as soon as possible,” Buckner said. “We feel it instantly.”