Thirteen years ago, when Christian and Amy Johnsen purchased Blue Moon Bakery in the remote ski village of Big Sky, MT (population: 2,308), they figured the sky was the limit on how successfully they might grow their new business. After all, Big Sky ranks as Montana’s favorite ski resort, based on online reviews, and millions of tourists flock to this area every year for its jaw-dropping scenery, winter skiing and summer fly fishing and rafting.
The Johnsens took over a traditional bakery and immediately added pizza to the menu. “It seemed like a natural fit,” says Christian, who had previous experience in foodservice and pizza operations. “As a bakery, you already have the ingredients for pizza on hand. We added a pizza conveyor oven, on which we made our pizzas, toasted our bagels and cooked eggs for our egg sandwiches. That really helped make our production run faster. We started serving pizza by the slice straight off the counter for quick service. That really fueled our success.”
Then about eight years later came the recession. A drop in tourism and real estate — the lifeblood of Montana — followed. Business at Blue Moon Bakery suffered.
“Here, we have a very seasonal business,” he says. “It’s all about tourism and real estate. We’re about six or seven miles from the base of the ski slopes, in a cluster of businesses called Meadow Village. In the winter time, the ski resort pulls in all kinds of tourists. In the summer time, there’s a lot of rafting and fishing. We’re about 10 to 15 miles for Yellowstone National Park. For us, we have to make the most of five months of the year. It definitely creates challenges for your labor staff.”
Fortunately, their bakery business survived the recession, and now business is back on track to pre-recession levels. “We do hundreds of pizzas a day — about 300 pizzas on our busiest day,” Johnsen says. “Big Sky is definitely on the rebound.”
More tourists flocked to Montana in 2012 than in any previous year in state history, according to recent research from the University of Montana. The tourism and travel industry helped buoy the state through the economic downturn and keep regional economies afloat. According to UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, 10.8 million people visited Big Sky Country, an increase of 2 percent from 2011. Spending by those visitors increased about 15 percent from the year before, totaling $3.27 billion.
To keep pace with growing pizza demand, Blue Moon Bakery recently invested in a new triple-stack conveyor pizza oven from XLT Inc., based in Wichita, KS. Johnsen liked what he saw while attending a food show last year and decided it was well worth the investment. “XLT offers very reliable ovens,” he says. “The pizzas we are doing now are better than we’ve ever made before. You definitely get good at it after 10 years.”
Their hand-made pizza dough requires anywhere from 8 hours to 24 hours to prepare from start to finish, depending on volume of demand. They start preparing the dough at 10:30 a.m. and let it rise in bulk for several hours before portioning it out. After spinning out each crust, they cover and proof the dough one more time. Then come the ingredients.
Years ago, they didn’t offer a supreme pizza, but tourists (which Montana residents call “gapers”) kept requesting one. So Blue Moon Bakery concocted a supreme version (pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, black olives, green peppers and onions) and called it “The Gaper Supreme.”
Another popular pizza is the Northern Lights, featuring feta, roasted red peppers, roasted garlic gloves, spinach, artichoke hearts, fresh basil and sun-dried tomatoes. Their “Build Your Own Pizza” menu includes 40 choices of ingredients, including everything from hummus to capers. You never know what a tourist might request.
Blue Moon Bakery specializes in all sorts of decadent gourmet pizzas that are piled high with toppings. The Orion, their most popular, features ham, salami, pepperoni and Italian sausage and sells for $22.50 for a large.
Johnsen says he doesn’t have any trouble getting fresh ingredients, despite the remoteness of the area, because there are two reliable food purveyors that provide two day-a-week deliveries. He buys fresh eggs from a local purveyor and fresh vegetables from a farm-to-table service. In case of emergency, there’s a Costco about an hour away in Bozeman, MT.
“I’m happy to say,” he adds, “things are going very well for us now,”
The bear necessities
It’s not every day you get an emergency call from your manager like the one bakery owner Christian Johnsen received last October. Blue Moon Bakery, which has a walk-in cooler on the back porch of its bakery building in Big Sky, MT, had just been invaded by a small family of black bears.
Johnsen was off-site and had to swing by his house to pick up a canister of bear spray before rushing to the bakery, where he promptly spotted a mama bear and one of her cubs. After chasing them away, to his great surprise, he discovered another cub inside the walk-in cooler, enjoying a butter streusel nut mixture for dinner. After all, “bears love butter and nuts,” Johnsen says. “I had to chase the cub away and then I put a padlock on the walk-in cooler. The next day, the bears had broken in again. This time, I had to put up a fence.”
Home to big skiing
Big Sky Resort’s claim to fame is that they offer “America’s Biggest Skiing. Period.” It’s a bold statement, but a massive project in 1995 earned them those bragging rights. Construction of the Lone Peak Tram required the aid of 3,000 helicopter flights and hundreds of specialized high-altitude workers. It was a daunting task, but in the end it paid off. The tram to the summit doubled the size of Big Sky Resort by 50 percent and increased the skiable terrain by more than 1,200 acres. In addition to skiing some of the most difficult non-backcountry terrain in the country, advanced skiers and riders can enjoy views of three states and two national parks from the top of Lone Peak.